Top SUNYCUAD takeaway: When nobody’s job is everybody’s job.

If you work in social media for any organization and you’re passionate about it, you die a little inside when you read a tweet or a post by somebody who had a poor experience with your business.

Much like having a delicious meal at a restaurant ruined by poor service, colleges invest millions of dollars in staff and software “solutions,” yet too often don’t seem to care when their own employees leave a bad taste in students’ mouths.

Simply put, this is unacceptable.

And it was the top takeaway I had from the fabulous speakers at the recent SUNYCUAD conference last week on Long Island. Especially from powerful presentations by Sree Sreenivasan of Columbia University and Fran Zablocki from mStoner.

Columbia’s chief digital officer, also known through contributions to CNET and numerous appearances as a media expert, Sree provided a headline talk and a breakout presentation with plenty about tools and technology but rightly cut to the most important factor behind how successful any institution is: its people. Good work in social media reflects a culture of caring and prioritizing the right things, he noted. If you (as an individual or an institution) are awesome in real life, you’ll likely be awesome in social media. But if you’re awful in real life, you’ll ultimately be awful in social media … because the best social media manager or PR firm can’t make a business that offers a bad product or treats people poorly into something everybody will love.

Sree’s presentations had a surprising amount of overlap with Fran’s session, “Break Down the Silos for Lifecycle Engagement.” I’ve become a fan of lifecycle management, which is something too many colleges don’t do well enough. Much like the famed poem about the blind men and the elephant (who each encounter a part of the beast and think it is a rope, a fan, a spear, etc.), too many offices at too many colleges only seem to see the part of the lifecycle that matters to their job duties — prospective student, freshman, senior, alumni, donor — and fail to provide a seamless transition where everybody takes a stake in a what is a lifetime experience. By making students sign up for so many different social media communities according to their status and by forcing them through so many software “solutions,” we essentially make them change planes four times to get from Rochester to Syracuse. We make what should be a beautiful journey into a long, strange trip.


A college move-in crew is a great example of customer service. Why can’t we be that helpful every day?

It’s not our job, but it is

But the phrase about lifecycle management Fran used that stood out more than anything else was brilliant in its simplicity. Ensuring students have a successful college experience is nobody’s job … which means it should be everybody’s job. In other words, colleges don’t have chief experience officers (CXOs) who oversee customer experience, so no one is in charge of this. But because this is no one’s responsibility, it should be everyone’s responsibility to make sure that students have positive experiences — or at the very least, productive “teachable moments” — whenever they come into contact. As colleges, we’re only as strong as our weakest link.

I know colleges as customer service models aren’t a perfect fit. Just because a student walks into your classroom and demands an A doesn’t mean he should get an A. But if he works for that A and a professor decides for some personal, petty reason not to give them an A, that’s wrong. Or if a student comes into our office and asks for something illegal or unethical, that doesn’t mean we should say yes. Yet how many students at various colleges get bad or indifferent service from some offices or employees and yet nobody does anything about it … even though everybody should be concerned.

One thing repeated at the conference is that when students have a bad experience, they (and their parents) don’t necessarily compartmentalize it to one office or individual. They see their school, in large part, as one entity. If they have a problem with their college experience, they have a problem with your college. Period. And even if they tweet or post about having a problem with one part of their college experience, it reflects poorly — particularly to their friends and followers — on their whole college experience, and on your college. Period.

I don’t have hard and fast answers to this conundrum, but I do have some thoughts about how colleges can be their own worst enemies, how we mistake small software “solutions” for bigger human solutions and how we can do things better. I’ll share these in future blog entries. And, along the way, I hope maybe others will join the fight for better customer service on college campuses … and anywhere and everywhere else in the world. It might be nobody’s job, but the more bodies who get involved, the better everybody’s lives will be.

Next time: A customer relations management tool is NOT customer service



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8 responses to “Top SUNYCUAD takeaway: When nobody’s job is everybody’s job.

  1. Excellent points, Tim. Sree delivered a keynote at a CASE District VI conference in St. Louis a few years ago, and his message then was similar — it isn’t the technology, it’s the people.

    And Fran’s point that people who have a bad experience with one office or one person at a university don’t compartmentalize, but see it as a shortcoming of the university writ large, is spot on. We talk about this incessantly. A crappy newsletter or email appeal from a single academic department can tarnish the entire university, no matter how stellar our alumni magazines or websites are. Because at that moment, the individual who receives that newsletter or email sees the university through that lense.

  2. courtneymallam

    Yes, yes, yes! Loved this post. I read somewhere a while ago that Apple has a dude who’s entire job is to oversee the experience that a customer has upon opening their product. Apparently, they even engineer the smell of the new hardware upon opening the box. It’s consistent every time. As a company, they’ve done a stellar job at their attention to detail.

    While Apple’s approach isn’t directly transferable to higher ed (scented admission letters whaaat!), I think that the basic philosophy behind it is. It brings a whole new bilateral approach to institutional development.

  3. Pingback: A customer relationship management (CRM) tool is NOT customer service. | InsideTimsHead

  4. Tim

    Andrew: And now Sree has jumped to chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art! The man has put in the work to have any cool job he wants … his observations are so simple yet profound. And I see (almost daily, unfortunately) how outside audiences don’t understand our structure, so ultimately “the college” is to blame for everything, even if 99% of people on campus (theoretically) do things the right way.

    Courtney: Love that idea! I first read about the chief experience officer (CXO) concept a few years ago, with predictions that maybe more companies would follow that lead to help overall customer service. Haven’t seen it gain much traction yet, but here’s hoping.

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  7. I am way late on replying to this – but let me just say that I love the idea of a Chief Experience Officer in higher ed! I think that’s exactly what’s needed – consistency of customer service, affinity, and message – and that can only happen when someone is paying attention to all the moving parts. Thanks Andy, Tim, Courtney, for some good food for thought!

  8. Tim

    Also belated thanks, Fran. Honestly, I keep coming back to many things you said at SUNYCUAD and how they really set out where we should be heading in higher education.

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