Posted April 23, 2014 by

Serving the Student-Customer

Happy female student working on a laptop

Happy female student working on a laptop. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

A funny thing happened on the way to the student services office during the first week of classes. The long winding line of students had disappeared, replaced by small groups and individuals contentedly tapping away on their mobile devices.

Campuses today are serving a tech-savvy, always connected generation of students that is increasingly empowered to learn and communicate in a non-traditional way – on their own time using their own devices.  This culture of anytime, anywhere communication, with its accompanying expectation of a real-time response, is a challenge that higher education institutions across the country, including the The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, have met using an array of strategies.

Providing student service and support is a vital part of this overall challenge for higher education institutions. No one wants to wait in line anymore for financial aid, enrollment information, or even technical support.  Nor do they expect to, when everything else in their lives is online and available on the go.

With more than 5,000 undergraduate, MBA, executive MBA, and doctoral students and nearly 9,000 annual participants in executive education programs, Wharton Computing decided over a decade ago that it needed a way to better serve its students as service offerings and information migrated online. The school’s Student Computing Support team became an early adopter of customer service software (in this case, Parature), and other support services soon followed. This trend has seen steady across-the-board adoption, and now Higher Ed administrators are internalizing the concept of students as customers in key ways:

Providing Students Better and Faster Access to Information

Just as businesses use an online self-service knowledgebase model to provide information on products, services and policies, Higher Education now offers similar tools to give students 24/7 access to information designed to maintain high productivity rates. The questions haven’t changed significantly but  the delivery method has:  from downloadable forms, how-to videos and answers to questions ranging from “how do I change my login password” to “where can I find the financial aid form I need.”

And the results are dramatic.  Instead of getting hundreds of calls from students asking the same question, Registrar and Financial Aid offices, have significantly reduced the number of repeat questions they must handle, and students have become accustomed to getting the answers they need at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m. by going to the school’s support portal. Students who run into trouble accessing their course materials online can solve the problem before the start of classes the next day.  Many of these knowledgebases are also increasingly being shared across a variety of platforms including social media, resulting in call and email deflection.  Best of all, online knowledgebases provide consistent and current information across all major channels.

Improving, Yet Streamlining Support Delivery

In addition to online self-service offerings, colleges and universities are incorporating other ways for their communities to engage with staff for assistance. Online portals now offer more personalized support options, including live chat, help desk ticketing and troubleshooting wizards, to complement the traditional email option. Advanced service desk and workflow systems on the back end make sure every question or issue is tracked and answered in a timely fashion.  This makes it possible to provide a higher touch experience without increasing staffing, and allows for flexible staff scheduling. Whether questions come from email, an online form, social media or another channel, students, prospective students, alumni or others using the portal are treated like valued customers, which they are, with their question quickly routed to the best person or department that can answer and tracked to ensure a timely response. Trends are more easily and quickly identified, enabling preventative or proactive ability to avert problems.

Providing a Presence on Social Media

Because Millennials are such active users of social media for communication, questions and support, higher education has had to embrace social media as a viable communications platform. Monitoring the media, and responding in kind is a growing need, not only for communication and marketing needs, but also for reputation and crisis management as well as coordinated and consistent communication.  This real-time engagement across official and unofficial social media properties embraces alumni relations, student organizations, athletics, individual academic departments, foundations and more.

Social media use for new student recruitment and communication has also soared in the past few years. According to a Zinch and Inigral 2012 Social Admissions Report, approximately two-thirds of high school students now use social media to research colleges and enrollment, looking for responses to their questions ranging from academics and financial aid, to admissions processes and visits to the campus.

Whether it’s a prospective, current, or former student, response times must be quick and collaboration between multiple departments must be coordinated.  Universities are increasingly focusing on managing relationships, from Applicant to future Alumni, which is why customer service and related software solutions work well for them.

Leaving Students to Their Own Devices

According to recent Pew Research, 83% of millennials now sleep with their smartphones next to them.  In the University environment, BYOD has long been the norm; students have needed their devices to consume content and deliver assignments for years.  And now, the supporting technologies are catching up:  departments are reworking support portals to accommodate mobile devices, simplifying information for small screens, facilitating increased engagement and access to real-time information (e.g. campus safety alerts and weather closures), and engaging and supporting students on their own devices.  These factors are integral in the new matrix for providing student services.

As the BYOD landscape, use of social media and need for real-time support and information continue to evolve in learning environments, higher education support services need to keep pace in order to serve its student body and all the related constituencies. Applying universal customer service best practices to student services is an idea that for many higher education institutions, like Wharton, makes perfect sense.

Authors: Alex Milne, Technical Director, and Anna Kent, Sr. IT Project Leader, Wharton Computing and Instructional Technology at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania

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