In the first two posts of this trilogy I discussed the background of the Flinders Connect student service centre and a strategy for driving the highest value from a combination of online self-service, service centre support, and more focused interactions. In this final post, I want to explore something which sets the University context apart from that of (say) a bank, a telco or a government department.
In the first post of this trilogy I set the scene around the creation of a new student service centre, and noted that many of the enquiries answered during our first ‘peak’ period at the start of Semester 1 could have been very easily done by students online. The question I posed at the end was which enquiries could have we avoided by having them done online via self-service, and how could we have achieved that?
Me: ‘You know you can make this purchase online and you won’t have to wait in a queue here, right?’
Student: *shrugs shoulders* ‘Yeah, but I’m here now anyway, so I might as well wait’.
This was a conversation, or a variant thereof, that I had more times than I can remember during the last week of February and first week of March this year. As you may already know, I accepted a role almost one year ago at Flinders University to lead the creation of a centralised student support centre, which went live in October last year, and which met its biggest test at the start of Semester 1 last month.
It was these many conversations that, about three weeks ago (just as the smoke was clearing from the start of semester frenetics), started off a blog post in my mind that I’ve been struggling to write ever since. It was only on the counsel of two people very close to me that I realised the post (which was seeming even more long and rambling than my usual efforts) was actually three separate posts, and should be written as such.
As some of you may know, my role for the last six months has been setting up a new student services centre at Flinders University. This new service, called Flinders Connect, opened its doors this week to students, so I thought it would be an opportune time to write a brief reflection on the week in relation to the psychology aspect of the UCE152 MOOC.
For the last two days I’ve been in attendance at the Strategies for Student Retention conference in Melbourne. The conference was an interesting mix of background information on retention stats in Australian higher education, strategies to improve these retention rates, arguments around the concept of students as customers, and plenty of discussion about the challenges that lay ahead for higher education. To summarise the themes of the conference in five points:
attrition at universities is a thing;
some of it is largely unavoidable, and relates to external factors in the lives of students;
some of it correlates to student demographics, but to varying degrees;
sometimes behavioural indicators can predict it;
sometimes intervention strategies can help students stay on if the challenges they are facing can be worked around.
I’m not going to spend time going into more detail on the above though – there are plenty of fine scholars already doing that far more justice than I can here. I will however demonstrate the variation of opinions on the matter by sharing some responses to the following question I posted on Twitter:
If I had a dollar to spend on increasing student retention, where would it be most effectively spent, and why?
Inspiration for blog posts can happen at the strangest, and most inopportune times, and this happened to me on Thursday last week, the penultimate day of preparation for the opening of Flinders Connect and a time when my mind was flying around the many last-minute jobs we still had to knock off. The inspiration didn’t so much hit me, it was more delivered in person as I was coming back with a quick bite of lunch, courtesy of Prof Colin Carati, the Director of the Flinders Uni Centre for Educational ICT. After exchanging pleasantries about the opening of Flinders Connect, Colin mentioned the blog post I wrote a couple of weeks back which in summary posited that the next big challenge for Universities could be how best to connect their students to large, open networks as a means to improve employability (based on research from the Booth School of Business).
As often happens, a valued node in my professional network friend has got me thinking, and thinking to the extent that I need to write a post to help structure out my rambling thoughts.
The background to this is a post by Techxplorer about his perspective on universities teaching ’employability’ skills, and in particular this quote from his post:
I’m not convinced that I want higher education institutions teaching students to be ‘work ready’.
On thinking through this statement I couldn’t help but feeling a general vibe of disagreement, but it took a little time to work out why.
As Techxplorer goes on to discuss, the conversations that go on around being ‘work ready’ or ’employable’ can be viewed through a number of different lenses, and I think this is where so much of my discomfort was springing from, and so I thought it was worth delving into that a little deeper here on this problem of perception.
In other words, our satisfaction relates to our expectations, the perceived service we get, and the disconnect (for better or worse) between the two. A follow up point was that initial expectations will have an impact on our overall satisfaction – the higher our expectations are coming in, the more likely we will be satisfied, even if the service has fallen below expectations. This is a fascinating part to me in the lead up to the opening of the service centre, as it flies somewhat in the face of the ‘be gentle on us’ mindset I’ve been personally thinking of promoting for our early days while we ‘find our feet’ as a services team. Should we instead be trying to set the expectations for students of the quality they will receive right from the outset? I can’t shake the feeling that the risk of trying to build expectation is greater than the risk of students having low expectations of our service – at least at the outset. This has also got me thinking about the expectations we have of ourselves in contrast to the expectations that students will have of us. On the latter I really have no idea what students will expect in terms of quality of service. This is possibly a blessing – a ‘blank canvas’ to work with in terms of client expectations.
The second reflection relates to the emotional responses that we want to elicit from the current students who come to us for support. We are, like most service centres, almost completely out of the picture from the mind of a student in their initial purchase decision. Nobody will choose to study a degree at Flinders university because our support team is awesome, and it is arguable as to how much an impact we would have on students returning for future study, or as an influencer to other potential students. What I do think is material in this context however is our ability to remove administrative barriers for students in order to let them focus on the main game – studying towards achieving their qualification.
What emotions do we want them to feel after they’ve been served by us? Perhaps relief, calmness and a sense of security in knowing that if they hit another administrative ‘distractor’ then we’ll be there to help. To me this sits in the lower right-hand quadrant of Russell’s Affect Circumplex – we don’t necessarily need to aim for students to leave us in the upper right-hand quadrant of intense joy after we serve them, but we do want them to leave us knowing we’ve solved their problem so they can forget us as quickly as possible and get back to focusing on their studies. Like many service centres, the support we provide and the emotions we can elicit might not attract a swathe of new business, but if we do well then it should reduce the number of students who disengage from the university, and in the worst cases leave altogether.
This scenario is quite different between the current students who come to us for support and the potential future students who come to us as the first point of call for studying at Flinders. For these, it is more important to try and elicit more of the ‘upper right hand quadrant’ of experiences – in the ideal scenario, these potential students would leave us at the very least interested, and at best excited, at the prospect of coming to Flinders. This reflection has been useful to put a more structured model around the differences between these two groups of users, and will be valuable as part of our internal training processes as we start to form as a team.
I’ll be using this blog as part of the course with the tag UCE152 as the identifier for related posts, so for those who are regular readers you might see some different (and hopefully interesting) posts here focused on customer experience.
To my fellow course participants – I look forward to learning more from you in the weeks ahead!
As part of the lead up to the opening of Flinders Connect next month, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the concept of ‘students as customers’, and the role that Universities (and our student services team one part of that greater whole) are expected to play in this relationship. In a recent staff forum I heard our Vice Chancellor muse that students may be customers, but they are not customers simply buying a commodity – they are more like adventurers signing up for a trek through the Himalayas, with an expectation that they will need to put in significant effort as part of the deal to get to their goal.
There must also, however, be the expectation from these customers that at the end of that trek there is some sort of payoff – most likely in the form of gainful employment – and yet we see plenty of stories like this one highlighting graduate employability being at its lowest level in Australia in over twenty years. We see the terms ‘job ready’ and ’employability’ skills’ bandied about, and yet we also see the counterpoint that Universities should absolutely not attempt to ‘educate to suit employers‘. So what then do we do to ensure that our students are getting the value they expect from their education? Read more Employability, entrepreneurship and the future of Higher Education ›