The audience is rapt as the man in the impeccably tailored black suit describes the secrets that have made his multibillion-dollar company an international leader in customer service.
They’re here to find out how to do a better job of it themselves, in this case from a general manager in the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, at whose suburban St. Louis location this three-day conference is taking place.
It's common for business leaders to seek out ideas that can improve their own customer service and employee morale. But the people in this audience are in the business of something that seems far removed from high-end hotels: They’re college presidents and administrators, mostly from community and technical schools. The conference was organized by the Continuous Quality Improvement Network, or CQIN, a small and little-known organization that uses private-sector lessons from companies — including Disney, Kimberly-Clark, Southwest Airlines, and Ritz-Carlton — to improve the notoriously impersonal and bureaucratic front-office student support functions blamed for worsening the already high college dropout rate.
“There’s almost a confrontational relationship with students in some places,” says John Politi, CQIN's executive director.
Among the examples of higher education's bad customer service: Registrars, financial-aid offices, and academic advisors are often spread out in separate offices open only during business hours in an era when increasing numbers of students go to school at night or on the weekends. And even when they are on duty, there can be long waits, since there’s an average of only one academic advisor for every 400 students, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America.
Increasing numbers of students who are the first in their families to go to college struggle to cut through this red tape and end up piling up and paying for credits they don’t need. Research by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that half of community-college students don’t even know advising is available to them.
“We’re a people business,” says Gayle Saunders, president of Richland Community College in Illinois and an at-large member of the CQIN executive board. “Yet we found out we had a number of places where it was easy for students to exit our colleges and maybe not ever come back.”
The first hurdle to addressing this is regarding students as customers. That may seem like a minor semantic distinction but Politi says higher education wrestles mightily with it.
“The ‘customer’ issue is alive and well,” he says. “The mindset, particularly from faculty members, is that a customer is always right, and they will not accept the concept that the student is always right.”
Jackson College President Daniel Phelan says it's possible to cater to customers without compromising students.
“They are customers until the moment they walk into the classroom,” Phelan says of pupils at the Mississippi school. “Then they become students.”
Lee Rasch, president of Western Technical College in Wisconsin and a past president of CQIN, urges his faculty to compare students to members of a health or fitness club.
“Obviously, they need to take their own responsibility for their fitness or wellness regimen,” Rasch says. “But there are also things we can do that make a huge difference for the student — the customer.”
To Laura Helminski, a retired faculty member at Rio Salado College in Arizona who is active in CQIN, this sort hair-splitting misunderstands how many students think. “Our students say, ‘Damn tootin’ I’m a customer,’” she says. “‘I’m paying all this money to go here.’”
It was Helminski who instructed the higher-education types at the conference to pick up their pencils after Ritz-Carlton general manager Doug Chang left the stage (quipping, before he did, “You’re not our usual group”) and make the audacious comparison of their experiences in the elegant hotel with students’ perceptions of their campuses.
“’We’re here to help you,’” she says, summarizing the Ritz staff’s credo. “Translate that back to your own organization. You have places marked, ‘No students.’ ‘Faculty parking only.’ What kind of message does that send?”
The point of all of these exercises seems stunningly self-evident: that students should be at the center of what colleges do.
“My boss is not the board. My boss is not the president. My boss is not the academic vice president,” says Tom Thibodeau, who teaches a management philosophy called “servant leadership” at Viterbo University in Wisconsin, where many students are the children of area farmers. “My boss is a farmer.”
There’s a practical reason for this renewed emphasis on the consumer, says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center. As states cut the amount they spend on higher education, public universities and colleges have become increasingly dependent on tuition.
“And the more they rely on tuition, the more they’re going to have to have programs that lead somewhere, and to have programs that lead somewhere, they have to be responsive,” Jenkins says.
At Western Technical College, everyone who works on the president’s floor of the administration building holds something akin to the daily employee lineup at Ritz-Carlton hotels. The goal is to be as prepared for problems with students or other employees as the Ritz-Carloton is for upcoming functions and arriving guests.
At Richland Community College, new employees go through eight hours of training in practices modeled on principles of customer service from the Disney theme parks, including moderating their tone of voice and never considering a conversation finished until the customer is satisfied.
“It’s a very personal approach,” says Saunders, Richland's president. “We don’t let you go until we’ve got everything taken care of that you need.”
A monthly performance scorecard the school uses to track things such as the number of students who are on track to degrees and the number getting jobs when they finish was based on a concept used by the Poudre Valley Health System in Colorado. "It’s focused on measuring what we’re doing and continuously trying to improve it every day,” says Saunders.
The presidents say these changes have lowered their number of dropouts and increased their graduation rates—dramatically, in some cases—though CQIN is only now beginning to collect statistics about this.
“We are large businesses and need to be entrepreneurial, even if we are nonprofit,” Saunders says.
Without that urgency, Phelan says, “we’re going to be less and less relevant to more and more people.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.