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5 Things Administrators Must Know About E-Commerce Now

Campus e-commerce sites actually have a marketing edge over retailers’ online stores, but only if departments and IT pay attention to the back end.
University Business, Feb 2012
a mouse with the wire attached to a credit card

When it comes to e-commerce, anything retail can do, college campuses can do, too—and probably better, experts say. That explains in large part why the lone bookstore URLs many colleges and universities began with have blossomed into hundreds of online money opportunities ranging from student fees to concert and athletic tickets, from parking permits to alumni donations. The University of Notre Dame (Ind.), for example, boasts no less than 36 storefronts offering magazine subscriptions, laundry services, white papers, conference registrations, campus photos, apparel, vending machine snacks for staff, and the golf course pro shop.

“It’s only limited by software,” says Robyn Pola, program manager of ND Marketplace, which is powered by TouchNet. “We’ve offered e-commerce since 2003, so we’ve figured out technically when the system won’t work in a certain way, maybe we can use a feature built in to accomplish the goal.”

Lori Shovlin, the administrative applications technical advisor at Wayne State University in Detroit, typically starts up a new storefront whenever a department requests a PayPal account to accept payments for a symposium or conference. “We tell them, ‘no, you need to come here. We already have a tool for this,’” she says. “It’s taken off like a little rabbit.” Wayne State’s most recent sales point: a software clearinghouse for faculty, staff, and students that went live in July 2011.

The good news is that universities don’t necessarily need to get as elaborate with their platforms as big box stores like Amazon and eBay to support e-commerce, assures Trey Chiles, Georgia State University’s director of IS and Panther Card for information support services. “The main point is to offer the customer a convenient alternative to making a trip and standing in line,” he points out. After all, if you are selling parking, you can sell only as many permits as there are spaces in the lot. In that case, the game is to change the ratio between online payments and in-person deposits.

Consider the buyer loyalty you'll gain when you can use the software on your computre to see a user's transaction, and help finish the purchase if that customer hits a rough patch—as opposed to verbally guessing what's happening on the other end of a call.

Communication is yet another weapon in a campus’ arsenal. Consumer retailers like must data mine to send suggestions to their subscription base or reach out to new users in the general public, notes Zevi Friedman, who, as president and co-founder of Ajax Union in Brooklyn, New York, has consulted with small-business retailers to improve their internet marketing and sales. For instance, Georgia State University already has its students’ emails, and every one of them has a common goal: books that relate to their courses. It’s just short of a captive audience, and that makes the technology side a bit simpler in Chiles’ estimation.

And it goes without saying that a campus’ audience embraces all things digital. As merchants, the departments don’t have to spend resources teaching their buyers that it’s OK to use a credit card online.

The price point issue will still rear its head with merchandise, of course, so income streams from those stores isn’t the same slam-dunk as sites that allow parents to load money onto their student’s campus card. But either way, campus e-commerce storefronts often win or lose on one common activity: customer service. Following are five things to know and do to ensure your campus storefronts are providing top-notch service.

1. Develop a near obsession with PCI compliance.

Nothing erodes parent and alumni trust in your e-commerce sites like creating a situation that compromises their credit cards. It should be a no-brainer to include payment card industry (PCI) standards into every process to maintain a secure environment, but that’s not the reality Suzanne Kallighan has experienced. During an e-commerce conference in September, the associate bursar at the University of Richmond (Va.) was part of a conversation with another university’s administrator about payment plan approaches. “I said, ‘You need to make sure to comply with PCI.’ She was dead serious when she replied, ‘What’s PCI?’” Kallighan recalls. “A rep from another school chimed in that he didn’t know, either.”

One of the biggest reasons campuses turn to vendors to establish their storefronts, according to Mark Davies, Higher One’s CASHNet product manager, is precisely for PCI certification. “It’s a huge project that requires a lot of resources and involves a long, detailed process. That’s why they want to offload that burden onto a third-party provider,” he says. For instance, if a user enters a credit card number incorrectly into Richmond’s system, it erases the entire string and requires the person to start over—an excellent way to avoid having credit card numbers visible to passers-by for too long.

2. Don’t over-think your site.

Departments often come to Pola asking her to set up a site to sell merchandise. They need to know who is buying, how they are paying, and where to send the item, but the department staff then try to throw in boxes for the buyer’s connection to Notre Dame, how they heard about the site, etc., turning the ordering process into a survey. That’s not always appropriate.  “People say it isn’t worth their time to fill out all that information when they just wanted [to buy] a journal,” she explains. 

The point, after all, is sales.

3. Make the customer’s life easier.

When tire-kicking e-commerce platforms, ask if the templates help you define just what you are selling. For example, does the item come in different colors? Will you allow the buyer to purchase more than five at a time? Is there a quantity discount if someone purchases three or more? At what inventory level do you need a reorder notice? Davies says this is a great way to avoid problems that irritate customers.

On an even more sophisticated level, ask if you, as the administrator, can emulate the user’s experience on your screen. Consider the buyer loyalty you’ll gain when you can use the software on your computer to see their transaction, and help them finish the purchase when they hit a rough patch, as opposed to verbally guessing what’s happening on the other end of a call. (Bonus points if you also make sure the software flags these transactions for different back-end processing, per PCI compliance rules.)Notre Dame commencement

Dartmouth College officials began putting students’ account statements online in 2007, detailing activities ranging from housing charges to tuition standings. Customer service begins with the school’s Sallie Mae Campus Solutions’ program generating an automated email to students to announce the latest posting. If an individual doesn’t click through the link to their statement within 10 days, the system emails a reminder.

Once students find themselves staring at an invoice (which resembles a credit card bill), each line features pop-up tabs to explain different columns and categories. A navigation bar provides links to explore a charge in more detail—director of student financial services Ron Hiser says they’re ready to launch a third redesign of this feature, the better to make sure users find exactly what they’re looking for—and an FAQ addresses the common questions the department fields during office hours: What are your hours? When is the bill due? 

“We need to make sure they get what they need when they’re looking at 11 p.m. and there’s no one in the office to call or email,” he notes. “There are charges for different fees, fines, insurance. ... The newer the student, the more likely he won’t understand some of it. And it’s important to help them through that at the beginning, because if students don’t feel like they were able to get their answers, they tend to avoid it until it’s a problem. Taking care of it right away creates a much better experience.”

Finally, offer more than one front door, as Notre Dame does. Pola set up a marketplace landing page that acts as an umbrella for all 36 storefronts; each department website also has a link.

4. Keep the personal touch.

Hiser is a realist. E-commerce has become a self-service world for students because that’s their preferred interaction. “They don’t want to know who we are,” he jokes.

But their parents do.

And that’s who typically calls the bursar’s office when advance deposits—those $600 payments that signal a student will be attending the University of Richmond next semester, so save her dorm space—are due. Before online payment came along, Kallighan’s office physically mailed instructions and deadlines for the checks, and the mood of callers who thought they’d missed something was “panicked.” Since contracting with Nelnet Business Solutions to put the information online, along with a convenient pay button, the call volume has dropped significantly. (On a related program, the student spending card, Kallighan says her office phones ring 75 percent less than they did as parents switch to their computers to load the cards instead.) 

Richmond still sends an email to families, of course, but stresses that online is only one of several routes to pay. When someone does pick up the phone, her office is less stressed and able to focus on a friendly, personal conversation. “I’m always happy to speak to a parent, and I encourage them to call me. I’m here to help,” Kallighan says. “But I’ll add, ‘Just in case you need this and we’re not here, you can make these payments online as well.’ ” Presenting it as a customer service perk rather than a “go away, don’t bug me” command builds customer loyalty.

5.  Include social media.

College campuses have their own way of life, so it doesn’t surprise Friedman that Facebook was born in the heart of Harvard. The interaction this and other sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, Trip Advisor, and Pinterest have spawned, however, make a social media plan more critical to a campus enterprise than even a mass consumer one, he says. People tend to respond far better as buyers when you participate in their community and subtly promote your product as a side note.

In other words, the theater department hoping to sell tickets to its spring performances needs to be willing to engage with students on any topic taking place on campus through its Facebook page. At the same time, administrators want to also offer sweepstakes, games, contests and other instant gratification prizes to keep its audience engaged, Friedman suggests. “Using these to constantly communicate with students on campus is potentially much more effective than how the general public would interact with a Barnes and Noble page, for instance,” he explains.

And it’s a mistake to limit social media to specific URLs. The interaction elements need to be everywhere. Friedman recommends that clients include online chat capabilities as a help desk option, allow users to rate the products they buy, and set up online auctions for certain categories, such as used textbooks. It may mean offering PayPal as an alternative payment method.

But whatever you add, one old-fashioned approach is never wrong, in Hiser’s experience: Ask the users, and preferably do it in person. That’s why Dartmouth polled students and formed focus groups for its initial e-commerce launch. “We talked through stuff so they could bounce things off each other,” he says. “It made our online experience a lot better than just doing a survey.”

Julie Sturgeon is a freelance journalist based in the Indianapolis area who also handles marketing/sales for small businesses.