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Using Good Customer Service in the Higher Education Marketplace

I have often said that people don’t want to know how much you know until they know how much you care.  Students today have more choices than ever before on what to do when they graduate from high school.  If their choice is college, then what will they and their parents be looking for before making a final decision.

 Increasingly, more students are staying closer to home, which brings into play local two-year and four-year campuses. Because students are staying in their communities, cost is a factor. Some critics suggest that location and cost are two of the deciding factors that students and parents use in making their decision. Students were more adventuresome back in the day or maybe it just seemed that way. I went to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., which was only a few hours away from my hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. Now, I must tell you, I thought Charlotte, N .C., was a million miles away as a freshman student. Most of my high school classmates went to colleges located in North Carolina, yet I am not so sure that cost was as big a factor as it is now.

 Another factor in college selection is what majors are offered and what the college’s reputation is. I do wonder how many students of my generation went to a particular college because of the majors it offered. When I arrived on the campus of Johnson C. Smith University, I really didn’t know what I wanted to pursue as a major, so knowing the majors wasn’t on my radar screen. 

 Today both students and parents look at a lot of national publications as they are making their college selection. Did magazines rate colleges in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the extent that they do today? I would say not! I had a good buddy, Albert Jordan, who was attending Johnson C. Smith University and knew of a local attorney, Mr. Ervin, who was an alumnus, so that was good enough for me. It is my thinking that, for many colleges and HBCUs in particular, it is the alumni network and people in the community who really make the “pitch” to prospective students. As colleges have become more competitive, they are all trying new strategies to engage would-be students. Online applications, live chats with admissions counselors, and instant admissions decisions are just some of the new initiatives that are bringing students to campus.

 All of these strategies work; yet, what separates one school from the other? I believe it is the caring factor! It is that intangible ingredient that some schools have and some schools don’t. Let me suggest here that the size of the school doesn’t necessarily mean that it cares or does not care. It really is about creating a culture of caring. It is my opinion that, with all the technology out there, the caring factor might be on the backburner at some colleges. Websites can be informative, but it is the admissions phone call that you make and the college visit that you take that will play a huge role in your decision. You will come in contact with people on each of the aforementioned, and it will depend upon how you are received that might sway your decision to attend.

 One of the key offices on any college campus is the admissions office. It is there that first impressions are often made. That original phone call might just be the difference-maker. If the voice is warm and pleasant, the student and parent will probably want to visit the campus. Education in my opinion is the ultimate people business. No matter how high tech your campus is, it is still the people that make the difference. Once prospective students are on campus for a visit, admissions counselors must be personable and informative. And if the weather is inclement please have some umbrellas available. It shows that you care! If the recruited student becomes an enrolled student, then the caring factor must continue. There are some who don’t think much of customer service programs; however, I am a strong proponent of them. I believe that customer service training sessions ought to be a part of every college’s program. Treating students and parents with dignity and respect will go a lot farther than trying to banter with them or to make your point.

 I disagree with some who believe that you must always “win’ the discussions with students and parents. If you lose your cool just to be right, it will be an empty right because you will probably lose that student. What follows are some tips that might be useful as you interact with students and their parents:


If you tell a parent you will call them back today, then call them back today.

  • A hostile voice will bring on a hostile response.
  • Treat each student differently but always with dignity and respect.
  • It is OK to apologize and to admit that you are wrong.
  • Respect is earned by the quality of your work and not by your title.
  • Hang out in the student center.
  • Looking stern and tough will get people looking stern and tough at you.

 Dr. James B. Ewers Jr. is vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at Edward Waters College.

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