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ā€˜Personal Touch Initiativeā€™ Should Enhance Student Success

Terms like customer service and satisfaction surveys were not always aligned with higher education. More than likely, you heard people use these terms in the business community. It is quite a familiar sight these days to see greeters standing at the entrances of department stores extending a welcome to you. Consumers receive almost on a daily basis some type of written or telephone survey asking the ultimate question, ā€œWere you satisfiedā€?

What has prompted this higher level of customer service? It is my opinion that high on any list is the fact that we have more choices these days. For example, because of marketing and consumer confidence, many people are now using credit unions instead of banks. While some may take another view, choice has made more company executives take a harder look at how people are being treated while in their particular environment.

Higher education has always been an arena where choice has prevailed. Students have for many years been able to choose from a wide array of colleges and universities to attend. However some would say that the customer service component is new to the scene and that the competition for students has increased drastically over the past decade or so. As a result of this increased effort to get students, colleges and universities are looking for an edge. Of course there are new academic offerings, stronger partnerships with the community and more fund raising that have occurred. All colleges are keenly aware of these strategies yet there are some factors that separate one college from another.

Most colleges today have zeroed in on customer service as an initiative that will make them stand out. I would opine that good customer service is actually a powerful retention tool. Parents and students want to be treated with great dignity and respect throughout the educational experience. This starts with their very first encounter with us. If it is a phone call, the parent and student must intrinsically feel like we care about them. First year and transfer students must feel us ā€œsmileā€ on the phone.  While there are those with another opinion, not everyone can talk to people in a friendly manner on the telephone. For example, many companies now have call centers and they are particular about whom they let talk to consumers. So it must be that we in higher education be mindful of whom we put on the phone.

The campus visit made by parents and students is a big selling point. Colleges must place their best ā€œambassadorsā€ in front of them. Usually the focal point of the college visit is the admissions office. Parents and students want to meet effervescent and outgoing people while they are on campus. Most colleges have a cadre of students whom they use as tour guides. Some colleges provide a stipend for students who perform this service. Another important time during the educational engagement is registration. This time is traditionally set aside for completing a class schedule and to get acquainted with the campus. It is widely accepted that this is a tipping point in a studentā€™s life on campus. Colleges must have faculty and staff who have the three Cā€™s: competence, compassion and commitment. The aforementioned tenets will bode well for colleges that believe customer service is important. 

Edward Waters College located in Jacksonville, Fla., and founded in 1866 is an HBCU of long standing. It is embarking upon a recruitment and retention strategy called ā€œThe Personal Touch Initiative.ā€ The overarching goal is to provide exemplary customer service to both new and returning students. Plainly stated, ā€œThe PTIā€ is a series of behaviors and programs that the college will embrace in order to let the students know that we care. I have always believed in my educational career that students donā€™t want to know how much you know until they know how much you care.

There are several components to ā€œThe PTI.ā€ There are many colleges that have already created some of these strategies so we are following best practices. Some of The Personal Touch Initiative strategies include the following:

* A series of afternoon\evening conversations with students about issues of the day. These would be scheduled on a regular basis and would focus on campus, regional and national issues.

* The development of a Parents Club, which will partner with the college to foster student success.

* Increased mentoring of students by faculty and staff.

* The use of the phrase ā€œwe care about youā€ to be used on campus signage and the marquee.

* Increase the hours of the clothing boutique for students.

* An annual Personal Touch Initiative Award given to the faculty, staff and student who best exemplifies the goals of the program.

Edward Waters College takes pride in its historic past and looks with excitement to its future. The implementation of The Personal Touch Initiative will strengthen its commitment to students.

Dr. James B. Ewers Jr. is vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Fla. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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