Tag Archives: higher education customer service

Higher ed getting iTuned, and customer service’s role.

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In 2000, Apple’s release of iTunes revolutionized the user experience in music and marked the beginning of the end of record companies’ outmoded model of complete control of recordings. Could a similar shift — decoupling content from a long-established distribution method — do the same thing to higher education? Poor customer service by not treating or students and stakeholders  like important parts of the equation could speed us down this path.

If you bought music before the turn of the century, you did so totally on the terms of record companies. You’d hear a good song and either could buy the single (with a B-side that was usually a throwaway track) or, if you were like most consumers, pay $16.99 or some inflated price for a CD or album. Maybe the album was great, perhaps another decent track or two helped you rationalize the purchase, or the rest of the album could be junk. Chances are you couldn’t listen to the album to know for sure, so you shot blindly and hoped for the best. Musicians were almost completely at the mercy of record companies, signing exploitative contracts that Steve Albini ably covered in the eye-opening essay The Problem With Music.

iTunes changed all that. You could listen to samples of all the songs on the album and, if they were all killer/no filler, buy the whole album. If everything outside of the single sounded awful, you could just download the track you wanted for 99 cents — saving time, expense and mental anguish. Some record companies battled this development, but the power and partnerships of Apple meant they brought enough players to make the model viable … and those on the outside could only hold out for so long. In the succeeding years, the tide has turned as bands have created their own distribution models, the most radical in 2007 involving Radiohead releasing “In Rainbows” online and allowing consumers to pay what they wanted. Today, many bands use models such as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic where fans fund their recordings and help mold the musical experience.

In all the discussion of massive online open course (MOOC) education, the hope, hype and hyperbole converge to paint a potential picture not unlike iTunes for the future of higher education. In the best-case scenario, MOOC promoters see a world where consumers are in charge of where, what and how they learn, with some body, alliance or institution aggregating the courses taken into some kind of credential or degree. Courses, professors and colleges become commodities where the best offerings attract students while market forces marginalize inferior professors or obsolete coursework.

And while some critics seem exceptionally gleeful about the end of the higher ed world as we know it, I don’t buy into all the doom and gloom. College is about growth, self-discovery and independence perhaps morseo than the credential. The world will always have parents who will want their kids to get an education and take on greater self-sufficiency (read: move out of their house and learn how to do laundry). Every semester, I write an article about what our students are doing after graduation and things like internships, learning to work in teams and getting involved in campus leadership roles come up over and over as helping them get jobs. The current college climate can still provide a superior environment for success. But …

… and it’s a big but: Colleges that do not provide good customer service for students and potential students will dig themselves the biggest holes. Perhaps even graves. If you work at a college and don’t realize that poor customer service has caused you to lose students, and is making some other students consider transferring, you’re living in a fantasy. If you don’t care about it, you’re part of the problem. Sure, admissions offices may be great at getting students in the front door, but subsequently treating students as numbers instead of humans will end up a negative on your enrollment balance sheet. Just as the record companies didn’t foresee or address the conditions of a market where consumers are in charge, colleges that value a position of power over students instead of a partnership approach will face an uphill climb as student mobility becomes ever greater.

Brace yourself: The future is coming. Fortune favors those who adapt, and who realize emerging models will place a greater priority on serving and satisfying students. When consumers can shop around more, the market favors those with the best goods and services. How would your college fare?

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Living in silos: Blindness, elephants and higher ed customer service.

Few poems or fables seem to describe higher ed dysfunction better than “Blind Men and the Elephant,” best known via John Godfrey Saxe’s 19th-century translation of a story from the Indian subcontinent about intolerance. Yet the tale in which six sightless men encounter different parts of the pachyderm and make assumptions about what it is (a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, a rope) also aptly describes one of the biggest elephants in the room hurting higher ed customer service.

Around the time Saxe was penning poems (and even stopping in Oswego long enough to marvel over the public library being built), educators like Edward Austin Sheldon were looking to fix education via radical methods that fused ideas based in science, experimentation and hands-on learning. In founding the Oswego Primary Teachers’ Training School in 1861 (the forerunner of SUNY Oswego), Sheldon saw transmitting the best techniques and content as the key to success — training teachers even as they took active roles leading classrooms of young students in the then-booming city of Oswego. The passing of knowledge was active on-the-job work that aimed for a seamless experience. Of course, he didn’t have big admissions, student affairs, alumni relations or other staffs … in part because the first training school class only had nine students, who took their pedagogy lessons in a cloakroom.

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego's Penfield Library Special Collections

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego’s Penfield Library Special Collections

But the development of specialty roles and the profusion of offices didn’t occur until much later in the 20th century. I’ve mentioned before the remembrances of Oswego legend Jimmy Moreland, who passed away in 1950. Jimmy — and that’s what he asked students to call him even in the more formal time — was a man of many talents for the school:

He was a revered English professor, a chief recruiter, advisor for 300 to 400 freshmen, and even director of public relations. In his spare time, he advised the fledgling Hillel club and volunteered in the Oswego community. … Jimmy wore a lot of hats well, and he never looked at his watch and declared his day done, knowing any time he saw a student provided an opportunity to connect. He recruited students, advised them, taught them, excelling in all areas. There were no silos, cubicles or boundaries to what we would, and could, do to serve students.

Flash forward 60+ years, and I cringe at the runaround students receive today — passed from one office to another when no one has an answer or because another office needs to approve something that should be common sense. Of course, colleges and their populations are much bigger, regulations more complex, services required and requested more extensive, technology constantly evolving and structures so different than the 1950s or the 1860s.

But if different offices can’t find a way to work together to help students, we’re not doing our jobs. Period. An army of specialists who can do one or two tasks but cannot help a student with the big picture — of college, and of life — does students a disservice. Higher ed is not an assembly line; it should be more like a community barn-raising where everybody does whatever necessary for success. The Admissions Office isn’t the English department which isn’t Career Services … I get that. But when a student has to run several obstacle courses just to register, pay their bill and deal with the hurdles we throw up as organizations — and anyone can only help with one piece of the puzzle — then a bigger army really isn’t better.

Moreover, do employees think of themselves as supplying customer service or just another cog in the machine? This is a management issue and an attitude more than a staffing issue. If a freshman at your college has a bad experience, rest assured hundreds of other colleges would happily take her on as a customer. Portability is an increasingly popular feature of the college experience — especially with educational disruptions where students can learn anytime, anywhere from any institution — so for any college to think they are the entity in the control, as opposed to students controlling their own destinies in increasing ways, is an arrogant and archaic attitude.

Another problem is see is in the array of software “solutions” students have to conquer like levels on a video game. Colleges use an array of “solutions” to create separate communities or systems for potential students, freshmen, registration and academic progress, student organizations, internships, career plans, alumni activities and myriad other pieces. With the number of software programs they’re asked to learn, accounts they’re asked to create and communities they’re impelled to join, it’s like we make them change planes seven times to get from Syracuse to Schenectady. All these “solutions” tackle various specialties and tasks, some better than others, but it’s miles away from even approaching a seamless, customer-friendly system.

The answers don’t need to be rocket science: Cross-training more employees. Collaborating. Communicating. Solutions (true solutions, not software “solutions”) could offer many benefits. If offices get together to create that online community or install that software package that solves problems across many areas, functions and student tasks — instead of everybody running out to buy their own niche “solution” — not only will they save money and increase efficiency, but they can provide a better student experience.

But more than anything, it’s a mindset. An attitude. A willingness to work with others to truly put students first. Jimmy Moreland figured out how to do that more than 60 years ago without consultants, vendor pitches or sophisticated software. What I wrote after reading about his amazing life speaks toward how his positive, people-based attitude transcended the system we’ve set up in the decades since, yet could guide us in our future plans:

I can’t see Jimmy poring through the pages upon pages of policies, procedures and precedents we’ve foisted upon higher education governance. If he had a mission statement, it would likely simply read: Do the right thing. Maybe we’ve made this business a lot more difficult than it should be. You see how one man, one incredible man like Jimmy Moreland could follow his head and his heart and serve as educator, inspiration and friend to thousands of students, and you wonder.

You wonder indeed how we’ve made something simple as good customer service so complex. We can’t see the elephant in the room unless we think as a team.

Next time: Higher ed getting iTuned, and the role of customer service

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