Tag Archives: customer service in higher education

The trouble with personal branding.

In the film “Miracle,” the story of the underdog USA hockey team that struck gold at the 1980 Olympics, there’s a running theme where coach Herb Brooks asks his players their name, their hometown and who they play for. For the latter answer, they say “University of Minnesota,” “Boston University” and so on, to Brooks’ stoic consternation.

After a lackluster performance in an exhibition, Brooks has had enough and has the team skating suicides for hours, to the point where they’re exhausted and heaving. Finally, eventual captain Mike Eruzione yells out his name and where he’s from.

“Who do you play for?” Brooks asks.

“I play for the United States of America!” Eruzione replies.

Brooks has finally heard the answer he wants, and tells his players they can finally call it a night.

Now this scene comes to mind every time I hear a college (mis)use the term “personal branding.”

If you mean “personal branding” as making sure a Google search first finds the good things you’ve done, your LinkedIn profile and positive impressions — instead of just photos of you at a frat party — then I agree. If you mean “personal branding” in terms of finding things you enjoy and can do better than just about anybody, and trying to figure out how to do that for a living, then I applaud.

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 9.14.25 AMIf you mean “personal branding” as the equivalent of “make sure everything you do puts your own marketability and brand first,” then you’re doing students a disservice. And in the process, you’re contributing to the customer service shortcomings facing the higher education industry.

The fact of the matter is unless you go straight from college graduate to running your own startup (a very tiny percentage), ultimately you’re servicing someone else’s brand. Whether you’re a pro basketball player, reporter or cashier, putting your own need for branding ahead of your team or employer is not a successful formula. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t infuse personality, but ultimately you’re a part of a bigger brand.

In a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “Your Brand is the Exhaust Fume of the Engine of Your Life,” Nilofer Merchant perfectly explains that “the brand follows your work,” not vice versa. Any brand is what you do, who you work with to make it happen and what you care about. Creating a “personal brand” is a byproduct — not a determinant — of doing things the right way.

The “personal branding” interpretation is especially a challenge at many institutions where every school, department and office wants to “express themselves” and in turn hire graphic design students they encourage to “express themselves.” They run off and design logos that don’t use the right colors or fonts … or even the name (or right name) of the institution. (And they often are quick to design logos and slow to design useful content.) The main identity of the college is lost in countless subbrands that distract and confuse, diluting and contradicting the idea of working across the institution to better serve students.

Often departments will contact us to say they’ve hired an art student to “redesign their page” (we have a CMS and an aim for a common look and experience across oswego.edu), and ask how they get started. Besides training, we tell them to start with content. An awkward silence tends to follow. Signing up an art student to “make a website pop” without a content strategy is like repainting a restaurant without giving any thought to what’s on the menu. I don’t go to a restaurant because of its design, I go because I want a good meal. (I also feel like the “any art student can build a professional website” is demeaning to the industry. I wouldn’t tell the art department to just hire an English major to teach their courses because he must be good with words. This isn’t a dig against art students but a statement: Web communication is about subject matter and knowing how to tell your story, not merely making pretty pictures.)

If you’re looking for the ultimate example of the personal brand damaging the institutional brand, look no further than Syracuse University’s Twitter account earlier this year. At the end of the final regular season home game, a mysterious tweet under the university account appeared to be coming up with one of the biggest sports scoops of the year:

Screen shot 2013-07-11 at 8.15.21 AM

The link was to a blog by a local community college student full of speculation but empty of reliable sourcing. At that and just about every subsequent news conference, Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim repeatedly and with increasing exasperation denied he planned to retire, and he hasn’t. Why would the SU account — an official and popular representation of the institution — start a rumor so wrong and detrimental? Is it possible that someone trying to make a name for themselves in the business saw this as a great chance to put over their personal brand? Even if it was at the expense of the university trusting them enough to gain this valuable experience?

When I hire student bloggers, vloggers and videographers, I encourage them to show personality and honesty, because our students are our top brand ambassadors. But they ultimately understand this opportunity is also about supporting and enhancing the college brand. I would hope all of our employees at every level are about helping our students more than their own “personal brand” or creating a “personal brand” for a department or office that runs counter to what we’re trying to accomplish across campus. Helping students should be a core part of any college’s brand in the first place.

So ultimately: Who do you play for?

Next time: Blind Men and the Elephant, or how silos destroy customer service



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A customer relationship management (CRM) tool is NOT customer service.

Technology is good. It enables connections, conversations and communities. It can fulfill business and personal goals. It can solve problems. But not by itself. Never by itself. Any technology or software “solution” is nothing without competent and caring people.

So I bristle when I hear about a college or company purchasing a customer relationship management (CRM) tool and declaring it a customer service solution. Because it’s not. A CRM tool, however sophisticated, is a cookbook. Without someone to do something with all the ingredients, there’s no meal.

It’s interesting to see what colleges do with their CRMs, which usually key on databases with tracking and reminder ability. Almost no institution I know of has ever set up all the expensive features in their “solution.” Some do a pretty decent job of tracking and interacting. Some limp along and do a passable job with their sunk-cost albatross, not notably improving the student experience. Others give up entirely when — surprise — the CRM actually requires them to do a whole bunch of work they thought it would obviate.

Put simply: If you’re not committed to customer service, don’t buy a CRM.

The best customer relationship management you can have is the willingness to interact with your stakeholders and help them along the way. It’s not about software, it’s about soft skills. If you’re helpful, responsive and flexible, you will provide better customer experiences, period. Sure, a CRM can tell you who’s inquired about your college, how far they’ve made it in the inquiry process, their student status and maybe their degree progress. But almost every student encounters questions and challenges along the way, and if you’re not there to help them (and no, an FAQ page full of questions no one has actually asked doesn’t count), then your “solution” doesn’t really solve anything.

(On a related note, those who use HootSuite or other social media tools only to blast their audiences with messages but don’t listen and respond to posts on their colleges or brands aren’t really taking part in “social” media. Anti-social or perhaps sociopathic media is more like it. But I digress.)

And while CRMs can allow you to collect data about students and their progress, are you using that data in some way to make the experience better? If not, then you’re not thinking about customers, relationships or management. In my blog series quest for how colleges can better deliver customer service, I know CRMs can play a role. But only if used in tandem with humans dedicated and driven to provide real solutions.

Next time: The trouble with ‘personal branding’ at colleges


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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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