By G. Michael Johnson,
In the past year, and in this current blog series, I’ve been extolling the virtues of customer service concepts based on the book, Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business. I’m certain that Financial Aid Offices—just like any company—can sharpen customer service practices to meet the needs of our “customers,” our students. So, I presented this idea to several conferences while serving as president of WASFAA (Western Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators). This series is the result of those presentations and the conversations it sparked.
After introducing four essential service truths (discussed in my two previous blogs), authors Frei and Morriss explain that culture greatly influences an organization’s service model. Since my academic background is in anthropology, that idea really resonated. “Culture” is defined as a set of rules, norms, and values that a group shares—and that distinguishes it from other groups. A company’s culture, therefore, affects its level of risk acceptance or aversion—and how amenable (or resistant) it is to change—in order to better serve customers. This final post puts these concepts to work in the real world of the Financial Aid Office to help effect those changes.
Culture Creates Uncommon Service
Successful organizations have cultures and service models that align. To foster such alignment, those companies are clear about the characteristics of the culture that make them successful. They communicate and reinforce those characteristics to their employees. Southwest Airlines, for example, has an egalitarian employee structure (reflected in its boarding process), and a team-oriented approach to its operation. Everyone pitches in to solve problems. If a plane is on time, the team shares in the success; if a plane is late, the whole team is at fault.
Consider the Core Business Culture of Financial Aid
Think about how the Financial Aid Office culture compares to other business organizations, in terms of customers, costs, and competition:
- What service(s) does Financial Aid provide? Financial Aid staff members provide a variety of services that go well beyond what might be thought of as “customer service.” Narrowly defined, it could just mean explaining our policies and procedures as simply and effectively as possible. We provide back-end as well as front-end services, though: Serving students by processing their applications, determining their aid eligibility, revising their data based on new information, and acting as their liaison with internal and external offices. Also, instead of having a single point of service, we serve our “customers” throughout their entire time at school.
- How do you define cost—and what control do you have over it? While students pay tuition and fees, the Financial Aid Office doesn’t—and can’t—charge students directly for the services we provide. Regardless, we experience costs for providing services that are reflected in paying, training, and replacing staff; in retaining an optimal number of the students we enroll; and in the level of efficiency we achieve in creating and implementing policies and procedures. Improving our service, and increasing our students’ success, reduces the cost of providing those services—and potentially reduces the school’s cost to educate them.
- Who are your competitors, and how do you define them? Who are our competitors? Unlike buying groceries or going to movies, students can’t choose to go someplace else to get the services we provide—and the Registrar isn’t going to steal any students from us. But in a sense, we compete with every other service provider on campus. Students can compare us favorably or unfavorably to what they experience at other offices. They can tell their friends and mentors, and word will quickly get to our administration. Financial aid staff members must explain things that are more complex, more limited by regulations, and (at times) more emotionally loaded than is the case in most other offices on campus. We need to recognize those distinctions and help students understand what we do in that context.
- How do you measure your success? How do students and parents measure it? When we measure success, we should always try to do so from the student’s perspective. Given application volumes and staffing constraints, we may feel that reacting to a student’s special circumstances request in 10 days is acceptable. A student who is out of funds and has a rent payment due at the end of the week would likely disagree.
We need to do our best not only to maximize our efficiencies but to educate our students to set realistic expectations for what we can accomplish on their behalf.
Does Your Organizational Culture Welcome Change?
Armed with the knowledge of how your Financial Aid Office conducts its business, how possible is it for change—even change for the better—to occur? To reach true alignment between culture and customer service, some things might have to change. Consider these questions as next steps in applying an updated framework for uncommon (student) service to your FA Office:
- Reporting structure — What area do you report to? Do you think that reporting to Finance, Enrollment Management, or Student Services would affect how you create and evaluate your service model? What would you immediately do differently if you suddenly reported through one of these areas?
- Acceptance of change — Does your school encourage you to propose new ideas or solutions to problems? If so, are you comfortable doing that? If not, can you think of ways to make suggestions for improvement anyway? How many layers of decision-making do you have to get through?
- Acceptance of risk — How likely would it be for your school to consider making a change that involves some risk? If you work at a small, private, tuition-driven school for example, would decision-makers consider changing your awarding policy to bring in needier students, students with higher GPAs, or a group with other defined characteristics? Can you think of any unintended consequences that your school might experience in making such a change?
Let’s Strive for a Culture of Uncommon Service in Financial Aid
I hope that what you’ve read here has given you some ideas for creating a model of financial aid service excellence that soon will be more common than uncommon. Differences in size, location, governance, history, and other factors at your school will facilitate or limit particular approaches. Having an organizational culture that allows for a realistic assessment of the quality of your service model—and encourages you to try new things to improve it—will increase your chances of affecting positive change.
I also think that a critical component—possibly the most critical component—of improving your service model is to manage your students’ expectations. Then, surprise them by doing your best to exceed expectations—while you continue to remain in compliance with all of those pesky statutes and regulations, of course.
I wish you the best in your attempt!
Endnote: What are you doing to create a model of service excellence for your students? Feel free to send your thoughts and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org