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CLAYTON, Missouri — The man in the impeccably tailored black suit has the people in his audience engrossed as he describes the secrets that have made his multibillion-dollar company internationally known for 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 may not seem unusual for business leaders to seek out other business leaders for ideas that can improve their own customer service and employee morale. But the business these people work in may be a surprise:

They’re presidents and administrators from community and technical colleges and a few four-year colleges and universities, part of 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.

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“There’s almost a confrontational relationship with students in some places,” said John Politi, executive director of the group, called the Continuous Quality Improvement Network, or CQIN.

File photo of a group of graduating Richland Community College students recite an oath after receiving their nursing pins in Decatur, Ill. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Mark Roberts)
File photo of a group of graduating Richland Community College students recite an oath after receiving their nursing pins in Decatur, Ill. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Mark Roberts)

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, for example. 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 while unable to get their questions answered or problems solved. 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,” said 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: even regarding students as customers. That may seem like a minor semantic distinction but Politi said higher education wrestles mightily with it.

“The ‘customer’ issue is alive and well,” he said. “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.”

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On his campus at Jackson College in Mississippi President Daniel Phelan said he’s learned to be diplomatic about this.

“They are customers until the moment they walk into the classroom,” Phelan said. “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 said. “But there are also things we can do that make a huge difference for the student—the customer.”

All of these attempts at tact are nice, said Laura Helminski, a retired faculty member at Rio Salado College in Arizona who is also active in CQIN.

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But for the people who are most affected, they miss the point.

“Our students say, ‘Damn tootin’ I’m a customer,’” Helminski said. “‘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 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 said, 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,” said Tom Thibodeau, who teaches a management philosophy called “servant leadership” at Viterbo University in Wisconsin, many of whose students he said are the children of area farmers. “My boss is a farmer.”

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Thibodeau told the CQIN conference, in an impassioned motivational speech, “I ask myself every day: Is my effort worth that man’s sacrifice?” And: “How long into the semester does it have to be before you tell a student that you care about them?”

There’s a practical reason, and not just an emotional one, for the kind of realignment Thibodeau described, said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center. He said that the more states cut allocations for higher education, the more public universities and colleges become 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 said. “All of that is driving more customer responsiveness like the kind you see there.”

So every week, at Western Technical College, everyone who works on the president’s floor of the administration building holds something akin to the daily employee lineup that occurs at every Ritz-Carlton hotel to discuss what’s happening with other employees and with students and anticipate problems or challenges just as Ritz workers go over lists of upcoming functions and arriving guests.

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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,” said Saunders, the Richland president. “We don’t let you go until we’ve got everything taken care of that you need.”

From the Poudre Valley Health System in Colorado, Saunders said, her college learned how to create the performance scorecard it now uses to check, once a month, on such things as the number of students who are on track to degrees and the number getting jobs when they finish.          “It’s focused on measuring what we’re doing and continuously trying to improve it every day,” said 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 said.

But Politi said that among those “who will be surprised that we have this group of schools doing this kind of work are other institutions of higher learning.”

Phelan said he hopes that cultural divide will narrow.

“Otherwise,” he said, “we’re going to be less and less relevant to more and more people.”

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  1. Jon, this article made my day! Educational institutions tend to shy away from the idea of customer service but as Mr. Phelan points out above it is all about being relevant. People have to be comfortable to learn and the entire educational process is part of the learning environment.
    I went to a for-profit school for my Masters and it was the best educational experience of my life – because of the customer service. I never had to make more than one call when I had a question, my advisor took the initiative to reach out to me regularly, my instructors took time to get to know me and value my experience and request my contributions. They made it easy. All I had to do was learn.

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