The 84 Percent Solution

Tim Goral's picture
Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Studies have shown that 84 percent of all attrition finally comes back to some aspect of academic customer service. Students leave a school because they do not receive the service they expect or need to succeed and feel a true member of the college community. But academic customer service is not the same as retail. In academic customer service for example the customer is not always right, such as on tests and quizzes. But they are right in demanding the services to which they feel entitled from being treated as a valuable and worthwhile member of the community from parking and food service through to scheduling, classroom decorum, teachers who know their name and all the other aspects that feed into their demand of a good return of three major investment – financial, emotional and affective.

What are the four basic indicators of a successful school in its operations and well-being?

  1. Population
  2. Population
  3. (No surprise here) Population
  4. Customer service levels

If a school is able to maintain and grow its population, then all is in order. Note I said population. Not admissions. Hitting admission numbers does not indicate the health of the institution, particularly if a school is losing 30 percent or more of its students. Simply put, if a sales team sells 100 pet rocks on Monday, but by next week 30 are returned, then how many were really sold? The sales team may be celebrating hitting its goal but the CFO is dying because the lost revenue and costs associated with selling and processing returns have basically wiped out any profit. All the company has learned is that the pet rock can be sold but has very little customer retention power and may just have been sold in a way that can lead to bigger issues down the line.

The direct correlation of revenue to tuition and fees in a college or university is undeniable. Tuition is provided only by students who attend and then stay in the college. If they leave, they stop paying tuition and fees. Therefore, retention is the key to providing an institution the revenue it needs to run its operations.

There is another correlation of academic customer service to retention. Academic (not retail) customer service accounts for up to 84 percent of all reasons that students leave a college according to research conducted by AcademicMAPS over the past seven years. AcademicMAPS surveyed 640 students one year after they left a school to learn why they left. The passage of a year gave the students the distance and anonymity for more open discussion on actual attrition causes. The students were randomly selected, and many had gone on to new schools.

What we discovered is that students will often “play to the interviewer” during their meeting with an exit counselor (if the school has one.) They name generic “personal reasons” as their excuse for leaving the school. Most counselors accept this excuse, because, ultimately, it means the school cannot be held accountable for a student’s personal problems.

But when we dug into those excuses a bit, we found that the personal problems actually fell into a few major customer service categories. Most often, students said they didn't like the way they were treated and that they took personally. They tell us that they felt the school was indifferent toward them as a person, as a learner, or as anything but tuition revenue. A common statement was, “All they seemed to care about was me paying on time.”

This perceived apathy on the part of the school was the primary reason 30 percent of students said they left. This feeling violates our Good Academic Customer Service Principle 1:

“Everyone wants to attend Cheers University, where everyone knows your name and they're awfully glad you came. If they feel you do not care, they are on the way out the door over to Gary’s Old Towne Tavern.”

The second major reason students gave is dissatisfaction with how they were treated by staff, meaning anyone who works at the college from maintenance people on up. Faculty are staff. Clerical workers are staff. Administrators are staff. They are all in a staff-student relationship. Everyone should be working to meet the needs of the student, the primary customer.

Generally students will point out some clerical, management or administrative staff as the primary poor customer service villain. This is because students are more lenient with faculty in general. Students want to believe their teachers care about them even if they don't seem to really show it much. But that can change if a professor awards a grade that is inconsistent with what the student believes is hard work and effort. Grades have become the coin of the realm for students and they believe they are paying for them in one or another way – study and tuition. Students who believe their grades don't reflect their effort feel they have been mistreated, and will not continue to put up with that. So they leave.

Let’s be clear customer service is not about giving easy grades. Customer service is about helping students in their efforts by providing tools that help them succeed. Services such as tutoring by qualified tutors, additional study material and supplementary opportunities to understand the information or achieve a skill are customer service.

The 2010 National Survey of Student Engagement  indicated that over 60 percent of students attend more than one college prior to graduation. That should not comfort administrators if their school is among those that lose more students than they take in. Misery likes company but there are no revenue dollars in the misery of losing a large portion of enrollment, especially to those who get laid off to meet budget as a result of too many drops.

Another major reason students leave is that they are simply unhappy with the school. The institution forgets that it is much easier and much less costly to keep a student than to recruit and enroll them to begin with. Before classes, there are numerous communications, well planned activities at orientations, events, even celebrations to make sure the students will show up. Once classes start, most schools seem to forget to keep up the effort that says we are glad you came.

Even if a school tries to maintain a focus on making students feel welcome during freshman year, it almost always ends at most every school as soon as sophomore year rolls around. Now, it is assumed, the students are mature, focused and will remain satisfied with the college. That false assumption leads to more dropouts. Taking away the focus after freshman year is a sure way to add to potential dissatisfaction. Once any institution provides good initial customer service, it should never be taken away.

Customer Service and its Discontents

Customer service is an overlooked aspect in a school's success. Unfortunately, too many schools have a problem accepting that. They give into notions that customer service is some business concept that has no or little relevance to a college. People in schools have a sense that customer service is somehow a call to pander to students, to just lower standards and make them happy. That is not customer service. That is cheating the client.

Though they may be reluctant to admit it, colleges and universities are businesses at their core. Granted, unique and idiosyncratic businesses, but service providers all the same. Each has its own culture, mores, folkways, traditions, and codes. Yet, common to each is a business model that includes budgets, personnel, administrations, strategic plans, marketing, customer (student) acquisition, and more.

But higher education and its individual schools are unique from other business models and so customer service needs to recognize that. The approaches of the world of commerce and corporations do not always work. At best, they need to be adapted to recognize that the services in a school are not exactly equal to selling widgets. Platitudes will not work. What will work is providing the tools and services to help assure that students get the returns on investment they seek.

And schools must keep in mind what those in the restaurant industry already know. The core service is the final product itself. A nice waiter can never make up for bad food. But a nice waiter can make good food that much better and keep customers loyal. In a school, the product is the education itself. A good education with good customer service will make for greater retention, happier students, and graduates who will support the school.

—Neal A. Raisman, is the founder of N. Raisman & Associate, a customer service consulting and research group. Dr. Raisman is a sought after speaker on customer service in colleges and universities. The author of The Power of Retention (2009), Raisman can be reached at nealr@GreatServiceMatters.com.