Too often, student services are like 'going to the DMV.' One school tried to make it 'like Amazon.'

Applying a customer service mindset helped overhaul culture

Over the past two years, a comprehensive and systematic review of student services at one university has resulted in a streamlined enrollment process that took customer service from "the DMV" to "Amazon."

Savannah, Georgia-based Armstrong State University (ASU) had spent several years struggling with falling enrollment and missed benchmarks. Adding to the pressure, Georgia leaders announced that in 2017, the state will start awarding funding based on performance, as measured by enrollment numbers, persistence, and graduation rates.

Turning over a new leaf

It was time for a change. David Carson, ASU's former business and finance VP, and Robert Howard, CIO, explained in Business Officer Magazine how a holistic look at the enrollment process resulted in a culture shift and greater staff and student satisfaction.

"Although student services alone do not win students, they can certainly lose them," write Carson and Howard. Higher education, they say, is one of a few industries that expect students to understand back-office dealings.

With the goal of making the student—or customer—experience better, Carson, Howard, and five other university leaders formed a project team two years ago to tackle the issue. They identified a host of problems impairing enrollment services:

  • Delays caused by missing documents;
  • Culture of relying on tradition over efficiency;
  • Inefficient use of available computer software; and
  • Department silos leading to unilateral decisions.

Avoid fight or flight behaviors in student onboarding

In response, the team hired consultants to review customer service, processes, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Then, they created a dashboard to track year-over-year enrollment data for new and returning students, allowing officials to measure their progress and quantify success. The team paid for the project through one-time allocated funds totaling about $500,000 across two years.

A win-win

Carson and Howard say their efforts have lifted both student and staff morale. Students comment that the processes are much more customer-friendly. Staff members report that streamlining paperwork has created time for them to focus on meaningful conversations with students. They say they feel much more fulfilled and see the impact of their work more clearly.

Specific changes to the system included:

  • Notifying students of their financial aid packages earlier. New document imaging and workflow allows employees to do in a day what used to take a week. Faster turnaround on financial aid will allow students make decisions and improve yield, say Carson and Howard.
  • Revised tuition bills. A simple change made bills easier to comprehend, particularly for first-generation students.
  • Compiling all data in the ERP. Eliminating shadow databases and removing ERP customizations allowed the office to integrate useful third-party applications. New workflow software allows users to aggregate information pertinent to their jobs in real time.

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Achieving this cultural shift and these major transformations was not easy, say Carson and Howard. They noted some lessons learned along the way:

  • Budget extra funds for unforeseen work. The reviewing process revealed unexpected issues that will take an additional three years to tackle.
  • Keep communication lines open between CFOs and CIOs. CFOs can focus the IT conversation on risk, value creation, and cost—factors the CIO must understand. Additionally, the CIO must ensure the technology department understands its role "as a change agent."
  • Transparency is key. Continually update staff about progress—and problems—to keep them engaged in the process. Similarly, set clear expectations with the cabinet and prepare to update them about progress.
  • Do not skimp on training. Infuse departments with regular training to minimize the impact of departures. Often, a few staff members will leave when an overhaul such as this takes place—but highly skilled successors can be ready to step in quickly.
  • Transfer leadership back to staff as soon as possible. Initially, the IT team led the program, implementing changes across departments. Handing that leadership to functional staff makes the process seem less forced and more independent, improving the likeliness that each will accept and adopt the new processes.

Scale up support and focus on the students who need you most

The real key to success, say Carson and Howard, were the strong partnerships they fostered between departments: "IT often functions best when it acts not only as a service organization but also as a consultant to solve problems or create opportunities through the use of technology." (Carson/Howard, Business Officer Magazine, October 2014).

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