A Publication of WTVP

Illinois Central College belongs to a national association of institutions of higher education that focuses exclusively on quality improvement. This group meets annually and zeroes in on one topic—for example, innovation. Most recently, the organization explored customer service vis-à-vis the Ritz-Carlton “Gold Standard.”

In general, the word “customer” causes academics to bristle. For some, it seems to cheapen the interaction between teacher and learner. For others, the old Ritz-Carlton adage that the customer is always right just doesn’t hold water. A student can’t give the wrong answer on a calculus problem, use incorrect grammar in a paper or not turn in homework and still be “right.”

But more and more colleges and universities are beginning to embrace the concept of consistent and valid service to students. It’s not just because students have come to expect higher levels of service. It also has to do with enhancing the learning environment.

Think of it this way: How well can you focus on studies if you’re worried about all the hoops you need to jump through to get your bill paid? Or if you never receive a return call from your instructor or advisor? Or if, right before a big test, you get into an argument with a college staff member? We all know that, biologically, these things cause stress, and intellectually, we know they cause unnecessary stress.

Illinois Central College commissioned a special team of staff and faculty to work on improving service at the college. The team included a number of “frontline” people who bear the brunt of problems students encounter with college processes. (As an aside, ICC also has an active Six Sigma initiative working on smoothing out the bumps in key processes.) These staff members traced the likely encounters students have at ICC, gathered data on the questions students are most likely to have, and surveyed staff on where they get those answers. The team found that staff needed some quick information resources and produced a “QuicckGuide” to do just that.

Moreover, the team found that the concept of service varied from department to department. As a result of this finding, the Executive Cabinet used Noel Tichy’s approach to a “Teachable Point of View” to create a consistent idea of what service should and would look like. Next, managers identified the need to clarify the behavioral components of the college’s core values. More than 200 people participated in “values conversations” to create specific behavioral expectations for the core values.

These high-level activities provided the foundation for the next service approach. The frontline members of the team created a list of service expectations that they thought were appropriate for all ICC employees to follow. What was remarkable about this effort is that their managers were willing to accept less stringent requirements or simply make the service expectations “guidelines.” But the frontliners recognized the importance of having high face-to-face standards and raised the bar. They researched other organizations, including places like Disney and Ritz-Carlton, and created a list of service expectations called the CougarCare Principles.

These principles will be launched mid-semester and will become part of the ICC employee enculturation process. They will provide the bedrock on which personnel interact with students—and with each other. ICC will become one of the first colleges in their association— and perhaps in the nation—to actually codify service standards. All of the college will be trained in these standards, and they will be incorporated into performance evaluations. Today, colleges and universities are constantly chasing new technologies, trying to reduce costs and initiating new curricula to attract and retrain students. Often, our institutions neglect an initiative that costs very little but can go a long way—service expectations like the CougarCare Principles that make students feel welcome and staff feel good about what they do. iBi