I was talking to a local apartment complex manager a few weeks ago about their leasing and renewal process. I work for University Housing, so I try and keep abreast of trends in the local rental community so I know what competitors are offering to students.
The manager told me that from a business perspective, their philosophy is all about getting new tenants in. “Retention isn’t really something we’re concerned about.” By bringing in new tenants every 10-12 months, they ensure a high occupancy level at the highest rental rates possible.
This quote really stuck with me, because it seems to be the exact opposite of how I approach serving students who live in my residence halls. At the same time, it reaffirmed why I think customer service on a college campus can be so impactful in retaining students on campus.
I have always had very high expectations for customer service. Much of my high standards come from having a mother who had a strong sense of right and wrong, and what she should expect when being served. My mother was never afraid to speak her mind when she felt she was being served poorly, and was always willing to sing praises when she was served well. This service expectation helped me adapt my own standards of customer service as I grew older and gained more of my own personal experiences. Most of it can be surmised by who treats me as a number versus a human being with real needs.
Every job I’ve ever had has had some element of customer service. Whether it’s renting videos at my local Blockbuster (back in the VHS days, no less!), or working in my college mailroom, I’ve always prided myself on serving others well. As I approached college graduation, I wasn’t clear what I wanted to do for a profession, but I did know that whatever I ended up doing would incorporate my developing philosophy on customer service.
As is true for many of us in Student Affairs, I sort of fell into working for the University, specifically for University Housing, and found that my skills in customer service were a natural fit for the housing assignments process. While it seemed intuitive for me to treat students as customers, I unintentionally stirred up controversy in my graduate school defense by referring to students as customers. As educational enterprises, Universities have long had a disconnect between bureaucratic structures and helping students navigate their educational experiences. How do we balance policy and procedure with treating each student as a unique person with differing needs? How do our traditional structures impede students from persisting through to graduation?
This past July, I attended the Association of College and University Housing Officers International (ACUHO-I) annual conference, and had the opportunity to talk to a colleague about my customer service philosophy. Our conversation started when my colleague told me that he had a hard time seeing students as customers, but rationalized this line of thinking as being more “old school.”
Since the colleague initiated the conversation, I decided to delve deeper to find out what he meant. I should really add some context here: this colleague is well respected in our field, and has been the director of a department for years. I knew I needed to respect the work he had contributed to our field while challenging some misconceptions about how we define the word “customer”.
I explained that it seems that most people have a more narrow definition of “customer” than I do. Most of us grew up hearing things like: “the customer is always right.” and “you do everything you can to keep customers from going to your competitors.” While these definitions aren’t wholly untrue, they don’t really account for the varying needs of customers that make them truly unique. If we rely on such rigid definitions of “customer” it is hard to find correlations to our educational environments and customer service.
Since I didn’t appear to offend my colleague so far, I decided to go further and explain my own philosophy of customer service in a college setting. I explained that in my experience, customers may not always be right, but what they are is justified. Using University Housing as my example, I may have a student come to my office demanding to have a room change because of the terrible roommate experience they have had to date. While I may not be able to grant this request, I certainly owe it to the student to hear them out, and understand why the room change is important to them.
I also think there is a tendency in higher education to get mired in policies while losing the human element to our work. While it may not be convenient for me to have a parent calling at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon with a concern about their student’s experience in our residence halls, it will not serve any good to wave my FERPA flag in the parents’ face and tell them I need to talk with their student to resolve the situation (preferably on Monday).
My colleague understood my point, and even thanked me for expanding his perspective on customer service. That conversation, as well as the one with the apartment manager reminded me that there needs to be an element of intentionality in the way we treat the students who choose to attend our institutions. Who knows, if we don’t take the time to hear a student out or treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve, then they may just leave and take their business elsewhere.
So how do you think customer service is defined in a college setting?
Operations Manager, Assignments & Customer Service Oregon State University