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Financial Aid

Campus lessons learned from the traditional rules of service

University Business, Jan 2008

FINANCIAL AID OFFICES strive to provide excellent customer service to students and parents, but federal regulations, state mandates, and institutional guidelines can limit the services they are able to provide.

Superior customer service through the financial aid office is unlike traditional customer service-where the customer is always right. However, financial aid offices can take some lessons from traditional customer service techniques and use some tricks to ease the blow when regulations prevent offices from fulfilling all the expectations of students and parents.

Financial aid offices can also improve customer service by avoiding the assumption that students and parents are a captive audience.

It's important to realize that students and parents sometimes select a competing institution or transfer midstream due to poor service, notes Brian Vander Schee, assistant professor of business management at the University of Pittsburgh. Word of mouth is more powerful than ever as students communicate verbally and online with friends far and near. A reputation for providing poor service can have a noticeably negative impact on future enrollment and the campus climate, not to mention future alumni support.

Today's students have a choice. Competition among colleges and universities continues to escalate. The service provided by the financial aid office can significantly impact a student's satisfaction with the institution as a whole. Ensuring that financial aid office staff members know how their level of customer service can affect student enrollment and retention helps foster an attitude that encourages superior customer service.

The right attitude is a
good foundation for
effective customer service,
but more can be done.

The right attitude is a good foundation for effective customer service, but more can be done. Tom Quinn, Sallie Mae's senior vice president of the Central Region, has compiled a list of tips for financial aid directors and managers to implement to improve customer service. The list is based on presentations at financial aid conferences around the country.

Spend time yourself working on the front line, either on the phones or at the front desk. A regular pulse check allows for a snapshot of customer service at work and is helpful in understanding the challenges and rewards of working one-on-one with students.

Lead by example. Employees watch how managers treat customers and other staff members. If managers try to excel at customer service, staff will follow suit.

Develop a list of frequently asked questions with standard, commonsense answers for office staff to use. This is especially helpful for offices that use student employees or that are continually hiring new staff.

Make sure financial aid office staff feel appreciated. Recognize exceptional examples of customer service. Encourage employees to congratulate each other when they notice examples of good customer service. If the staff is satisfied, students will be satisfied. The number one need of most employees is to feel appreciated.

Train staff on providing superior customer service, and emphasize the importance of this level of service.

It only takes five seconds to make a first impression, and if that impression is not great, it could take up to seven more encounters to turn that first impression around, Quinn says. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators' Standards of Excellence (SOE) Review Program provides some easy ways to make the first impressions positive and ensure a positive experience for financial aid office customers:

Use customers' names and look them in the eye when speaking to them.

Try to smile more.

Give customers all your attention. Customers can see that you are distracted in actions such as glancing at your watch or at other staff members, or they can hear it over the phone-especially if you are typing or listening to music.

Avoid the use of undefined jargon and acronyms.

Be thorough and don't rush.

Make customers' last impression a positive one, and make sure all of their questions are answered.

Show respect and a genuine concern for customer needs and concerns.

Practice proactive care. Uncover customers' true needs and try to anticipate needs as well.

Watch for nonverbal cues.

Remember to ask if there is anything else that you can do for your customer. Taking the time to ask the question often results in better service and a more satisfied customer.

In a perfect world, the financial aid office would be able to meet all the needs and wants of students and their parents, but there are a variety of factors that can prevent financial aid office customers from being fully satisfied. However, the SOE Review Program also provides some steps you can take to ensure customers have a positive experience even if they don't get everything they expect:

Allow irate customers to vent. Do not interrupt them or start to speak until they have finished having their say.

Don't take an irate customer's attitude, words, or tone personally. Recognize that the person is not angry with you, but at the system. This makes it easier to maintain a pleasant attitude.

Don't be afraid to apologize, even if it is not your fault. This can be a good way to diffuse anger. For example, you might say, "I'm sorry you're having this trouble. Let's see what we can do to work this out."

Patiently explain regulations and rules that prevent you from providing what a customer wants so it doesn't seem like decisions are made arbitrarily.

Require staff to attend customer service workshops that focus on strategies for dealing with discontented customers and on conflict resolution. Give them guidelines for what to say and do in nearly every conceivable case.

Fostering feelings of
goodwill is like building
a line of good credit that
you can draw upon.

Providing superior customer service is a good first step. Next you need to let others on campus know about the superior service you are providing. Compliance requirements sometimes put financial aid office practices at odds with a school's customer-service ideals, and complaints from students and their families can end up in the hands of the school officials. Additionally, those officials may not have a clear understanding of the important role that financial aid has in enrollment and retention, two areas that affect a school's bottom line, according to an article in the online newsletter USA Funds Education Access Report.

Spreading the word about the superior customer service provided by the financial aid office can smooth relations between the financial aid office and other offices and departments on campus. USA Funds suggests these tips to help financial aid offices highlight their accomplishments.

Provide regular reports about your office to school administrators. Share with them how the goals of the institution affect financial aid operations and the roles your office plays in achieving the goals. Invite administrators to meet with financial aid staff.

Develop relationships with your peers. Meet regularly with representatives of other campus offices to discuss shared concerns, challenges, and strategies for working with students. Schedule "Financial Aid 101" sessions for staff from other offices.

Attend academic department meetings. Invite yourself to these meetings to discuss issues such as satisfactory academic progress requirements.

Get coverage in the school newspaper. Establish a working relationship with the editor. Offer to write a regular column focusing on financial aid issues. Suggest topics for articles at appropriate times in the financial aid cycle.

Seek feedback from students. Develop your own student survey, delivered through whatever means your students prefer to communicate, and respond to suggestions or inquiries.

Distribute a financial aid newsletter. Target students and their families with this publication, which should include timely information.

Provide information on a financial aid website. It's an ideal place to share news about upcoming financial aid events and up-to-date statistics about your office's operations and successes.

Become visible on campus and in the community. Volunteer for school committees and in community activities such as high school nights. Conduct a Financial Aid Awareness Week prior to the deadline for filing aid applications.

These actions can foster feelings of goodwill and a positive view of the financial aid office. Think of this as building a line of good credit that you can draw upon when there is negative news or feelings about the financial aid office. If students and others on campus have a positive view of the financial aid office, then they will be less likely to judge the office harshly and more likely to be understanding of the thin line the office has to walk to balance providing superior customer service with complying with countless rules and regulations.

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