Diagnosing the Barriers to Improving Customer Service

In November 2012, Academic Impressions surveyed professionals from 79 institutions of higher education, asking them to grade their institution’s level of customer service and to comment on the challenges faced in improving it. The responses were revealing.

A “C” in Customer Service

29 of our respondents rated their institution with a “B” letter grade for level of service offered, and 31 would assign a “C” grade (together accounting for three-quarters of the total responses). Only six would assign an “A.” Among those who assigned a failing grade and those who assigned a “C,” a litany of common complaints emerges:

  • “Too many offices on our campus treat students as an imposition on their work activities. Telephones are unanswered, hours are not conducive to student needs, many staff have the attitude that students should be grateful for anything that they are given.”
  • “Cranky clerical folks, arrogant faculty, harried receptionists, clueless student workers — you name it, we’ve got ’em! it’s embarrassing to anyone who cares about the institution and the students.”
  • “While some departments excel, others are infused with a ’don’t bother me’ attitude.”

Many of the respondents emphasized that front-line staff are focused on completion of tasks rather than achievement of (student-centered) outcomes, and lack the time and the perspective to provide better service to students. When asked to describe how they see exemplary customer service, overwhelmingly, the respondents focused on responsiveness.

And while some respondents cited the need for a “friendly” attitude, among many there is a growing awareness that providing effective service to students has less to do with targeting “customer satisfaction” through an improved demeanor and more to do with eliminating wait times, shortening lines, and ensuring that students receive the help they want and need in removing obstacles to their progress toward a degree — whether they are facing obstacles to registering for classes, receiving their financial aid, or seeking academic support services that will help them succeed in a difficult term.

Identifying the Challenges

When asked about the challenges faced in improving customer service, respondents listed these three as the most daunting:

  • “We need a cultural shift; our faculty/staff don’t see customer service as necessary.”
  • “We don’t provide effective customer service training.”
  • “We aren’t sure how to audit our current service and identify bottlenecks/gaps.”

Let’s look at each of these a little closer.

A Cultural Shift

“The longer we leave a student waiting in line,” Rick Weems, past assistant vice president for enrollment at Southern Oregon University, remarks, “and the more runaround the student has to do, the less time that student can spend working toward their academic goals. If we leave hurdles in place that prevent a student from enrolling in a critical course so that they have to wait another year for that course, then they take longer to graduate. This is why the administrative functions of the academic enterprise have to be service-oriented. We have to define what we mean by service to students, and make it a priority to ensure that service is exemplary.”

For Weems, service is about responsiveness. He wants students to spend as little time in a support service office as necessary, and get back to studying, with whatever administrative or process-related tasks or obstacles they were facing resolved.

“We need to stop thinking about service to the student as an interruption to our work. Service to the student is why we’re there. Your #1 priority is taking care of the student. Drill that in.”
Rick Weems

Weems adds, “How often have you heard front-line staff tell a student, ‘If you had just turned this in on time, you wouldn’t have this problem’? It doesn’t matter whether the issue is the student’s fault; if the student does not receive their financial aid on time, what matters isn’t the question of fault but the fact that the student does not have the aid needed, and that’s a problem. The correct response to the student’s issue is: ‘Let me take care of that for you… OK, now it’s taken care of. Now, if you do this next time, it won’t be a problem; let me walk you through it.’ Resolve the problem, then educate the student.”

Similarly, for Susan Leigh, President of Susan Leigh Consulting and past associate vice president of enrollment management and marketing for DePaul University, the critical question driving effective service is “How do we improve retention, one student at a time?” and a critical step toward answering it is setting the expectation of first-contact resolution, the commitment that in as many cases as possible, the student’s inquiry or obstacle will be addressed during their first contact. If the staff member who answers the phone, receives the student’s email, or speaks to the student at the head of the line is unable to resolve the issue, they should be able to refer the student immediately to the correct person who can.

Addressing Structural Barriers

Often, the barriers are structural, not just philosophical.

Structural barriers occur whenever the process for a student to get from Point A to Point D sends them to offices that report to different division heads. When the offices along the way don’t communicate or know each other’s processes well — or when the individual department heads are themselves confused or in disagreement over the process the student needs to follow — this creates “runaround” for the student. Runaround is not only students’ biggest service-related complaint; it is a serious service issue that detracts from students’ time and attention to their studies.

“Students couldn’t care less about reporting structures,” notes Cindy Barnes, West Texas A&M University’s director of advising and retention. “Students don’t care where the dollar comes from. They just want help succeeding in their classes.”

In this edition, we will look at several one-stop solutions to removing structural barriers, and the final article in this edition will address ways to audit your academic policies and procedures to identify those bottlenecks that create significant problems but may not be immediately apparent.

Training and Time

While all of these initiatives — from addressing structural barriers to auditing inefficient policies and procedures — can have a positive impact on service offered to students, it is clear that the primary challenge is one of training. “Service” usually is not core to the conversation during hiring, orientation, and training of front-line staff.

Leigh suggests a multi-pronged approach to training customer service:

  • During onboarding, it is critical that new staff meet the right people and get walked through the processes from the student’s perspective. They need to know who to refer students to and what steps students will need to complete, and they need to understand this beyond the narrow scope of their daily tasks.
  • Provide cross-training, whether you are moving to a one-stop shop or not.
  • Provide “just in time” training on a regular basis.

For example, Leigh sets aside an hour every other Thursday morning for this purpose. It has to be an hour in which the office is closed and staff can devote their full attention to the training, and you can use it to address training issues or to provide updates on the processes or regulations that affect their work. “Invest in this because it is important,” Leigh emphasizes, “even for your part-timers and hourlies. You can’t just send out a memo and expect everyone to know how that change impacts their work or how it affects the way they will need to respond to student inquiries.”

Similarly, Rick Weems advocates dedicating consistent, weekly time to ensure that service-oriented training is an ongoing rather than a “one-off” effort. One way to do this: Open at 10 am instead of 8 am one day of each week. This ensures that on that day you have two hours without student traffic. This can be a hard sell, but you have to make the case that the better trained your staff are, the better able your office will be to handle volume and the fewer complaints there will be.

In This Issue

For the other articles in this edition, we have asked enrollment managers, leaders in student services, and heads of academic support initiatives for their advice on addressing these barriers successfully — from training needs to structural barriers to revisiting outdated and inefficient policies and procedures in each of those areas of the institution.

Here are the articles:


See Upcoming Events for Enrollment Managers