Teri Yanovitch Speaker, Trainer, Consultant, Author 407.788.7765

How to Keep Your Students from Leaving. Teri Yanovitch, keynote speaker, author, and former Disney Institute trainer, teaches the keys to upgrading customer service in higher education. If your institution wants to stay on the leading edge of student choice, her firm will help you identify opportunities to enhance the student experience and create a sustainable culture of service excellence.

In today’s highly competitive world, higher education needs to look more thoroughly at improving customer service on the university and college campus. College enrollment in the U.S. has decreased for the eighth consecutive year, according to recent data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Given the decreasing enrollment, traditional higher education institutions are dealing with declining revenues and searching for ways to do more with less. One way for colleges and universities to achieve this objective is to place a renewed focus on meeting or exceeding the expectations and needs of their customers, namely their students.

The traditional uncomfortable feeling by academics about viewing students as customers is the concern that from a conventional marketing view that the “customer is always right” will win out. Providing good service in higher education though, does not mean pandering or coddling and giving the student everything the student wants, it is more about bringing the expectations of the institution and the student closer into alignment.

As business consumers, students are demanding the same service of educational institutions as they do commercial businesses. The responsiveness of an Amazon, the availability of an ATM, the helpfulness of a Zappos has all created certain expectations. In order to attract and retain students, institutions must understand, identify, and meet these expectations.

Just as taking good care of customers typically results in increased profitability for businesses, higher education institutions that seek to attract and retain their students would be well served to also treat their students well.

Customer service is performed sporadically in most of our educational institutions today and there are even departments dedicated to providing student services. However, true customer service must involve more than a department or a handful of individuals. Providing a genuine student service-centered environment is everyone’s job. The emphasis must start at the top of the institution and the inspiration for delivering has to be more than lip service.

Higher education is now being scrutinized as lower graduation rates, lower retention rates and budget constraints are effecting its reputation and success.
With graduation rates around 50% for four year institutions, families, state legislators and governors are looking for greater efficiency and return on investment from higher education.

Research shows that while GPA and SAT scores are good predictors of academic success, they are poor predictors of graduation rates. According to the Delta Cost Project at American Institute for Research (AIR) most attrition is not caused by academic failure. Their research shows that over 40 percent of attrition costs nationwide are attributable to students who leave with grade point averages in the A and B range. These are not students who are academic failures. Additional studies show that less than 25% of dropouts leave an institution for grades, personal emergencies, or finances. This leaves over 75% of dropouts leaving for controllable factors such as level of service, feeling appreciated, and cultural issues.

The Delta Cost Project showed students who leave after three or more years of attendance before graduating can cost an institution up to $40,000 per student. On average the cost for students who leave their institutions after one year is about $8,800 per student.

Not only is it costly, but attrition affects the public’s image of the institution. All institutions public, private, profit or non-profit can prosper or suffer from the public’s perceived image or brand of them. Customer service or Service Excellence as I like to call it, is at the heart of this.

Having a culture of Service Excellence is not fluff. Culture is tied closely to your brand mission and is one of the key identifiers of your institution.

It is an essential management practice that is the new battlefield in the competitive higher education environment.

Three reasons why customer service is important to higher education:
1. prestige and image
2. social, moral and ethical responsibility
3. financial viability

First: Service excellence is directly applicable to the prestige of the college or university. The graduation and retention rates are intertwined with the image and reputation of the institution. The higher the prestige of the college, typically the higher the graduation and retention rates and the perceived level of service provided to the student and family.

Prestige is not only relevant to students and their family, but alumni, community support and donor giving. For many institutions, endowments, contributions, and grants are the major sources of revenue. Everyone wants to be affiliated with the college/university that provides a sense of pride for being associated with them. There is an affection level that extends far beyond the time spent as a student as evidenced with lifetime donations, attendance at football games or other school events, day-to-day wearing of the college sweatshirt/hat.

Community support is a big factor based on the brand of the college. If the perception of the university is poor, who wants to be associated with or support it through advertising, funding, and marketing?

The university image is also directly related to the level of service the institution provides. Does the staff engage with the students or do they begrudgingly provide assistance? Does the staff look happy and appear to enjoy their jobs or do they seem to want to be somewhere else? Does the institution have processes and systems in place that allow staff to consistently deliver on giving excellent service?

The culture of tomorrow begins with the people you hire today. Institutions that want to attract talented individuals with a like-minded mission find that culture can be a serious draw. According to a 2017 LinkedIn survey, 25% of respondents that “better company culture” was a top reason for a job change.

Secondly: There is a social, moral and ethical responsibility that higher education has to their students, parents of students and society at large for the investment everyone is making. Students are now graduating with debt levels of up to $200,000. What return on this investment are students, families, and the public receiving? A key purpose of higher education is to produce future leaders for society and productive citizens for the workplace – how can this be accomplished when students dropout as such an alarming rate?

Service excellence is the right thing to do, the right way to treat people. Long lines, lengthy telephone hold times, and red-tape bureaucracy have been characteristic of the experience many have had with universities. Indifferent instructors, dated teaching materials, and old technology in the classroom have been indicative of many higher ed institutions. Showing concern by being responsive and attentive to all students, especially first-generation and nontraditional students is necessary if universities are to engage, retain, and graduate their enrolled students.

Third: The financial viability of educational institutions is directly related to the perceived value in the tuition and the ability to graduate with a degree and get a job. Low retention and graduation rates cost institutions millions of dollars in lost revenue and unnecessary high costs.

There is also a high cost to society of low graduation rates. AIR conducted a study that examined the more than 1.1 million full-time students who entered college seeking bachelor degrees. Of that total, almost 500,000 did not graduate within six years – costing a combined $4.5 billion in lost income and lost federal and state income taxes.

So, what can be done? Higher education must create a culture of customer service/ service excellence that will define their brand and image. This culture can be ingrained into the fabric of the institution by:

• Communicating continuously and maintaining traditions
• Recruiting right fit employees
• Reinforcing the culture in the on-boarding process and refresher training
• Measuring and setting service goals
• Celebrating and recognizing staff who do their job well
• Holding everyone top to bottom accountable

In summary, service excellence is not just smiling nice, giving good eye contact and a quaint thing to do. The educational environment has become much more competitive. Students have multiple options and many institutions are competing for the same student enrollment. In order to compete in this environment, colleges and universities must look to creating a culture of service excellence.

The advantages of this approach include increased student satisfaction and loyalty. By taking care of the students, many should want to stay which leads to increased retention. This is an increasingly important revenue source for higher education institutions. The bottom line is institutions of higher education need students to be successful and graduate.

T.A.Yanovitch, Inc. will work with your institution to instill this culture into your organization so it can compete in today’s world.  Contact Teri at ty@retainloyalcustomers.com or 407.788.7765

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