A reputation for bad customer service can stick to an organization, and institutions of higher education aren’t immune. But when schools provide good customer service, students feel more comfortable asking for help, assured that their issues will be taken seriously. A solid foundation for customer service can even make the jobs of all faculty and staff much, much easier.

Best practices for customer service at institutions of higher ed

There are key customer service practices that all institutions, regardless of enrollment size, can benefit from. Developed by Steve Smith, Director of Student Success at Trellis Company, the following five principles can help shape a better customer service experience at colleges and universities.

Follow your own rules

If you can’t understand or follow your own rules, how can you expect anyone else to? Rules provide the clarity and consistency students are looking for from their school. With clear rules in place, faculty and staff can treat students the same way every time. They won’t have to remember what they did right the last time they helped a student; that solution is baked into the rules.

Exceptions to your rules are okay, but only when they are 100% transparent. Exceptions can appear unfair when they aren’t treated carefully and honestly. Rules put students and the school on the same page. They’re an agreement. Exceptions for some students may appear to others like the playing field is uneven.

Own the issue

If a student or parent comes to you with an issue, consider it like a game of tag: now, you’re it. Their situation is your situation to help them resolve. Their concern is your concern. In that moment, you’re the one who needs to take care of them, at least at first, even if their issue might be better handled by someone in another department.

In this case, it’s your responsibility to make the student or parent feel heard, then personally hand them off to the proper department. This may mean physically walking them to the correct office and introducing them to the proper department representative. On a phone or video call, it may mean staying on the line to provide an introduction, making sure that the student or parent is handed off personally.

View the issue from their perspective

When students look at their school’s organizational structure—all the different administrative offices and departments—what they really see is simply “the school.” The responsibilities of each department, for all practical purposes, means nothing to them. Every department and every staff member is “the school,” and they expect help from whoever they talk to. If you’re not convinced, just ask any of the work-study students who work in your office. They can give you a student’s outside perspective of your institutional structure.

It’s critical to make rules plain and easy to understand. Ask yourself: Do these rules make sense to me? Can I see myself following them? Make sure your instructions are free of regulatory language or occupational jargon. Try to look at your policies from a student’s (or a parent’s) perspective.

Don’t match emotions

When rules and policies are unclear, or when students and parents misunderstand them, frustration can set in. In that moment, it’s of upmost importance to remember that they’re not upset at you in particular. They’re upset about something causing them to be disappointed or confused. Thinking otherwise can lead to bad results—specifically, matching emotions.

When you match emotions with a frustrated student or parent, you don’t do anything to deescalate the situation. Instead, you can leave them feeling unheard and disappointed with an ineffective process. The first step to avoiding this is to recognize when a customer is getting upset, and step back emotionally. Be methodical. Ask more questions about their issue. Take your time and focus on the root cause.

The customer (i.e., the student, parent, or guardian) deserves to be helped and heard, and that’s why you’re there. Don’t argue, empathize. Don’t shift deflect blame to another department, take ownership of helping them resolve their issue. If a different department can help solve their issue, be there to gently hand them off.

Don’t be afraid to say no…

…when no is the only acceptable answer. “No” can be a powerful word. Make sure to use it truthfully and intentionally.

This may be the most important principle to master. Many times, saying no is used as an excuse to get out of owning your part of the equation. That’s when you hear the infamous phrase, “Let me speak to a manager” (or, in higher ed, “I’d like to I speak to the university president”).

Students and parents can tell the difference between this weak “no” and an honest, good-faith no. They’ll typically accept a real no. In fact, they may even thank you for a real no. They’ll understand when you give them what they really came to you for: the truth.

If no isn’t the final answer, slow down and take the time to give them a real answer. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time to try and fulfil their request. Putting forward that effort will make students and parents happier in the long run.

Customer service for consistency in an inconsistent world

To prevent students from feeling stranded, college and university practitioners—from the highest levels of administration down through the ranks—need to provide excellent customer service. The principles of customer service go beyond retail businesses, and they can create a consistent experience for students. While external factors may be stressful or fluid, one thing that institutions can control is their commitment to providing a great educational experience. That can get boosted with excellent customer service.

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