Focusing on Quality Service in Higher Education for a Competitive Advantage
Senior Vice President for Retention Solutions
December 17, 2019
For many years, I and my colleagues at RNL have worked with colleges to improve quality service in higher education. Much of this work has focused around improving the student experience, but a recent conversation with my sister illustrated how important the issue is for student recruitment and parent engagement as well.
During a visit with her (we live nearly 700 miles apart and see each other just a handful of times each year), she shared three different negative quality service experiences with colleges she had in the last month. Usually one to respond with kindness and move on when faced with a negative experience, this time my sister was visibly upset and still bristling about it several weeks later. I tell you this because the next big purchase my sister, and her daughter, are shopping for is a best fit college. I can assure you that 1) my sister will not leave her expectations for service at home when she and her daughter visit campus and interact with faculty and staff, and 2) like any child, my niece shares her parent’s expectations, and has a few of her own. In other words, my sister and niece’s perceptions of any intuition are going to be shaped by the quality of service they receive. Is your campus focusing on quality service as a competitive advantage?
We all intuitively understand the importance of public image in recruiting and retaining students. Campuses strive to create a positive image in many ways, through the physical appearance of the buildings, by the condition of the grounds, with adequate signs for visitors, through their web and social media presence, and through their graduates. The biggest part of the image, however, comes from the people who make up the educational community. Although prospective and current students may be attracted by new buildings or a first-rate academic program, they won’t return unless the people—the faculty, administrators, staff, and coaches involved in those programs—contribute to their education, academically and socially. The way that faculty, administrators, and staff act is critical to conveying an overall image of value and quality.
In addition, research with our Student Satisfaction Inventory tells us that items related to campus climate influence student satisfaction and ultimately student retention. Campus climate items include
- Most students feel a sense of belonging here.
- I feel a sense of pride about my campus.
- It is an enjoyable experience to be a student on this campus.
- Students are made to feel welcome on this campus.
- I generally know what’s happening on campus.
Focusing on quality service will enhance the campus public image and student satisfaction with campus climate, and thus overall enrollment. When I reflect on what my sister was really upset about, it boils down to communication, follow through, and service recovery. I’ve detailed a few strategies for these areas below. Are the frontline staff, supervisors, faculty, and administrators on your campus using these and other strategies, insights, and skills for ensuring excellent quality service?
Mastering the art of positive communication
Talking isn’t the same as getting your message across. The words we say are only a small part of how we communicate. Applying these simple techniques can minimize communication breakdowns with students and families.
- Communication means keeping students and families informed, using language they can understand, and then listening to them.
- Consistent positive communication is the key to quality service and includes being genuine, specific, timely, and sincere.
- Actions also leave lasting impressions. Body language — a smile or making eye contact—is an important art of face-to-face communication.
- Remembering and using a person’s name sends a strong positive message of acknowledgement.
- Listening which includes anticipating, reading between the lies, asking questions, getting involved, caring about students and their needs is a key component of communication.
Electronic communication is a powerful force in our lives too. Check out our 2019 E-Expectations Trend Report to learn how digital engagement and communication shapes the way students choose a college.
Giving your professional best in the campus workplace
Every staff member is working to serve students in one way or another. Campuses need caring, dedicated people to succeed in today’s competitive environment. Students and families can be served better by improving performance by staff, administrators, and faculty. Giving other people value will result in providing quality service. Some areas for focus can include:
- Providing quality service to internal and external constituents in every contact.
- Empowering staff to act and including them in decision-making.
- Teaching students and families to be intelligent consumers of campus programs and services.
- Building teamwork within and among departments.
- Partnering with your team and other administrators in improving systems as well as identifying and solving problems.
- Creating a learning environment in the classroom that focuses on individual student needs.
- Being timely and accurate with grades and academic feedback.
- Being an advocate for student-centered course scheduling-offering courses that students need at the frequency and times they can take them.
- Delivering on promises. When you agree to provide something to another person, provide it. People resent having promises broken; it is worse than not addressing a problem in the first place.
Making service recovery a priority
When it comes to quality service in higher education, every moment of the student’s and family’s experience is a big event. Service recovery helps us restore the student’s and family’s positive feelings toward us and our institution. Handling most issues involves six simple steps.
- Listening carefully and with interest
- Putting yourself in the student’s / family’s place and responding in a caring way with phrases such as, “I see,” “I can understand,” or “I don’t blame you for being upset.
- Asking questions in a caring, concerned manner and listening attentively to the student’s / family’s answers.
- Suggesting one or more alternatives.
- Solving the problem or finding someone who can solve it.
By no means do these three topics cover all aspects of quality service in higher education. Rather, they give you a taste of what might be included in an institution wide quality service initiative: a key enrollment fundamental. A quality service initiative should include a college-wide service strategy, a review of all major service systems, and staff development and training for managers, supervisors, and frontline staff.
My sister is hardly unique in her expectations for service and the fact that those expectations will influence her daughter’s college choice, satisfaction as a student, and eventually alumni loyalty. When my sister and I get together again, I know we’ll discuss their college explorations. I hope I only hear stories of exceptional quality service, feelings of being welcome on campus, support by faculty and academic advisors, and a sense of belonging on every campus!
Create a great quality service experience with your campus visit program
The campus visit is one of the critical points of quality service for higher education. Creating a great experience for parents in particular can help turn them into enrollment influencers for your institution.
Our colleagues at RNL + Render held a webinar specifically on how you can create a great campus visit experience. Listen to their on-demand presentation, The Do’s and Don’ts of Successful Campus Visits for Gen X Parents.