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Do Less with Less (Because we're probably not going back to having more?)

Offering better service by behaving more intelligently
University Business, May 2010

Several years ago, I joined a University Cashier department as the first new employee hired after several staff cuts and a hiring freeze. Upon hiring me, my new manager enlightened me about the situation, and how unable he felt to "do any more with less." After thinking about what he said for a few weeks, I wondered if we should change our tack: rather than keep trying to do more, maybe we should do less.

Doing less with less. It's a reality that, regardless of our ingenuity, organizational ability, and diligence, at some point diminishing resources will force us to decrease the amount of service we provide. But that doesn't necessarily mean our customers must suffer - perhaps we can better serve our customers by behaving more intelligently.

We did several things to serve our customers more intelligently, most of them involving better use of technology. A new student system helped free our staff from entering many transactions; students could do most of their university business online. We also stopped processing credit card payments on student accounts, moving that online. The university saved $2 million per year in service charges and helped discourage the risky practice of using credit cards to finance college education.

It's customer service that allows staff to provide what students really need: solutions.

For "live" transactions at our counter, programmable magnetic card readers shaved several seconds off each in-person transaction, since a cashier no longer had to look up or key in a student's ID number. Our new student system also liberated staff from making changes to student contact information. Students were expected to keep their own data current.

Another time drain we eliminated was handing out refund checks for excess financial aid. We began promoting direct deposit of refund checks to students, so we no longer had lines stretching down the hall for several days at the beginning of each term. Students received their funds more quickly, and no one had to wait in a long line. And we replaced a nervous staffer delivering a loan exit counseling presentations with a recorded and narrated PowerPoint presentation then moved to an online presentation.

Better cross training of our staff was crucial to providing good customer service. Every person had at least one backup, and some had two. Such cross training is of little value without real empowerment and a genuine commitment to owning customer issues. Each of our staff was responsible for the ultimate success of each student (or parent, or instructor, or staffer) who presented them with a problem or question, whether or not that person was referred to someone else along the way.

We also provided staffers the same view of financial information that students had. Thus, those on the phones could direct students more easily, since they could see same information each student saw (I often overheard a staff member say to a student, "Look in the upper right-hand corner of your screen. Do you see the 'Make a Payment' link?").

This approach is not about freeing staff from delivering service. It's more about delivering staff from repetitive, routine tasks, enabling them to more effectively serve students who have detailed questions or complex difficulties. It's customer service that allows staff to provide what students really need: solutions.

Kent Sipes is a communications and training consultant at CedarCrestone.

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