Balancing the focus between customer service and student development is always a challenge, but with a deliberate approach, you can achieve both.
The University of Mississippi and Carnegie Mellon University have been successful with a mix of student support and sound business practices, consistent policies tempered with human compassion and clear communication that empowers students.
In our current culture, we are all accustomed to expecting good customer service. If we don’t get it, we do more than ask to speak to the manager, we take to the mean streets of social media. Twitter, Yelp and Google Reviews give us an instant voice. Students can’t help but bring some of this culture with them to campus.
“Customer service practices needed to be sound to maintain student satisfaction, recruit prospective students and encourage retention because these would ultimately keep students in our residence halls. The more students we have living in our residence halls, the more students we can reach with our student development efforts, which is central to our mission.”
The Struggle between Customer Service and Student Development
“A while back, we had a discussion about this very topic,” explains Danielle Meyer, Associate Director for Operations, Student Housing at Ole Miss, “We all agreed that our customer service practices needed to be sound to maintain student satisfaction, recruit prospective students and encourage retention because these would ultimately keep students in our residence halls. The more students we have living in our residence halls, the more students we can reach with our student development efforts, which is central to our mission.”
But student satisfaction is not the only measurement of success. Unlike the Starbucks model, the student is not always right and sometimes you have to make an unpopular decision to avoid setting a precedent that leads to poor financial practices.
“While we can’t forget that at the end of the day we, as an auxiliary, must consider ourselves a business and therefore put into practice an efficient and effective business model”. Of course, you can’t please everyone all the time, but satisfied students lead to better retention rates which result in a healthier bottom line. The balance may lie in helping a student understand the policy and that fairness and consistency benefit all students.
Clear communication empowers students
Carnegie Mellon tries to be very transparent about their policies and deadlines on their website, and the policies are emailed to residents when they sign housing contracts. When important deadlines are coming up – such as Room Selection or the Open Cancellation Period deadline – they send out email reminders about those dates and make sure to store those emails, “That way, a student can’t use the excuse of ‘Well, I didn’t know,’” explains Lisa Hartman, Associate Director of Housing Operations for Carnegie Mellon. They use StarRez to save correspondence records with students, so they have an easily accessible copy to refer to later.
“We need to look for ways to build strong, healthy connections with parents without compromising student development. We cannot lose the focus of our students and our commitment to their growth and development.”
More importantly, having the information and access to their own dashboard, empowers students to take control of their own issues. When students are given simple directions, and the ability to problem solve for themselves, they are ultimately more satisfied with the process. Nothing is more frustrating to any of us than endless complications and red tape.
Parents are key stakeholders and influencers. Ole Miss is currently having conversations about how they communicate with parents. Danielle said, “We need to look for ways to build strong, healthy connections with parents without compromising student development. We cannot lose the focus of our students and our commitment to their growth and development.” Carnegie Mellon is adamant about meeting with the student separately, away from the parents, so that they can truly understand what the student wants compared to what the parent is asking for.
Consistent policies tempered with human compassion
Even the best policies need to be viewed through a human lens. When an atypical request comes into Ole Miss, there are a lot of discussions. Danielle stated, “We talk a lot about the potential impact of a single decision – how is it going to impact the student? The institution? The foreseeable future? It’s a balance between all these things. For example, if a student is dealing with a serious, life-changing situation at home and comes in with a request, then we, as human beings, are going to look for ways to maintain departmental integrity while also allowing us to aid the student so that he or she can continue her education.
We’ll do this from a multitude of perspectives, considering both short-term and long-term implications. We’re going to keep looking at solutions until we find one that works for the student and our department.”
It’s not likely you chose a career in student housing because you imagined running your residence hall like a Starbucks, the customer is always right no matter what. It’s just as unlikely that you dreamt of profit and loss statements and a gleaming bottom line. Maybe you envisioned first-year students bonding with roommates, being mentored by more experienced classmates. Second-year students that had such a great experience on campus, they wouldn’t consider living anywhere else. Like most student housing professionals, you saw a rewarding career developing the next generation of leaders.
StarRez can help
It can be a definite juggling act between great customer service and solid business practices. StarRez can help with this process by managing your online requests, allowing students to upload documentation, submit requests, review statuses of those requests and sign contracts. Many universities use the flexibility of StarRez to build request forms and applications as well as design self-service workflows to better serve student needs. Contact us if you’d like to learn more about how StarRez can help you.
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