17 Dec 2009

Improving the Student Experience #1

What can EFL schools do to improve the 'student experience'?  And what can they learn from big businesses that set the standards for customer care?  


Well, I learned a very interesting idea from the Ritz-Carlton's book of customer care via Guy Kawasaki's Alltop.com (original article at Forbes magazine).  Simon F. Cooper, president of the hotel company, explains how they exceed the expectations of their guests:

    "We entrust every single Ritz-Carlton staff member, without approval from their general manager, to spend up to $2,000 on a guest. And that's not per year. It's per incident."  
Imagine that!  Employees trusted to make decisions and spend money keeping guests happy; and management confident the employees are trained to make the right decision.  No wonder they win awards for quality and staff training.

One example of this was when an employee overheard that a disabled guest could not get to the beach.  Next day, maintenance had built them a walkway.  Now THAT is service! 

Although I read the article last month, I was reminded of the 'learning from big business' theme by some recent blog posts and tweets by Johannes Ahrenfelt who was asking what can educators learn from industry in terms of presentation techniques and content design. Customer care is another area where there is much to learn, and one of paramount importance in EFL schools. 

While it seems obvious that the quality of the teaching is the most important factor in delivering student satisfaction, most of the (valid) complaints I have heard at the schools where I have worked have focused on accommodation and welfare issues.  Students spend the majority of their time outside the school and usually expect the school to help them with all manner of extra-curricular needs - bus routes, child care, golf lessons, bank cards that got chewed up in ATMs, boxes that got stuck in customs, etc.  Planning services to meet such unpredictable needs is far from easy and it is very hard to explain something is outside the remit of your service provision when, very often, they don't understand what you are saying!

Enhancing the quality of the overall student experience has become a vogue topic with UK colleges and universities with the mantra popping up everywhere on home pages, policy statements, research articles and conference abstracts.  Over the last few years, Will Archer's igraduate reports have provided FE institutions with regular student feedback on their academic and social life which has helped them focus on what the students are really concerned with.  The most recent report put the difficulty experienced opening a UK bank account and the lack of decent broadband access at the top of university students' troubles - with little or no mention of academic issues.  In my experience, EFL schools have similar issues. 

But what can the small EFL school with a small budget do to improve something as vague and all-encompassing as the overall student experience? Well, following the model of the Ritz-Carlton would be a good start: set aside a student welfare fund.  I know no EFL school is going to authorise front line staff to spend anything like $2000 per student but the budget available to spend over a year could be based on how much was spent (or should have been spent) fixing all the student welfare problems in the previous year.  And not just the obvious student problems but agent problems, host complaints, accommodation provider mixups, taxi driver mishaps, and the like.  Then throw in some extra for a few birthday cards, a present for the birth of a student's child, the cost for an emergency lock change if someone loses their keys, etc., and you're nearly there.  

All that's left is to train the staff to know how and when to use the money (that can wait for another blog post).  A credit card with a limit of £100 would go a long way to solving most problems and it's definitely enough to put a smile on the face of a homesick student who thinks the odds are stacked against them enjoying life in a foreign country.

You're guaranteed to get good feedback and students will spread happy stories back home to their friends and family.  I am sure the staff too will feel a lovely warm glow being able to help not just those who complain but those who actually deserve a helping hand or special gift.  Trusting them to make the right decisions will make them feel empowered too. 

Is that barking mad or does it make perfect sense?


Andy H said...

Great, Tony, I'm glad you're doing this, and a good one to start off.

I think one of the easiest things to do along these lines is to make sure that every complaint/problem is dealt with as soon as possible. By which I mean almost immediately. Staff need to know that every time something of this nature comes up, that the most important thing is to make a (physical, written) note of it and take care of it as soon as they can. If that staff member happens to be a teacher, for example, and the problem comes up during class - it needs to be handled right after class. And handling it can mean either actually responding to and solving it or taking it (and possibly the problem-holder) to the person who can take care of it, who then should do so. If it is something that can be taken care of in a relatively short time span, it should be. If it is something bigger (like for example changing host families), then it needs to be done as fast as possible.

In many schools the good intention is there, but people are busy and dealing with the problem gets slowly pushed down the list of priorities - whereas in fact it is THE priority. Staff need to realise this, be given the authority (and like you say, sometimes the resources, financial or otherwise) to take care of it (and they need to know that what the decide to do to deal with a student problem is not going to be looked at askance - they need to know that they are trusted)

I think this really helps give the message that students' problems are being taken seriously - and often this is half the battle. People need to feel heard and they need to feel that their problems are being given the full attention of those responsible - and if this happens, even if the problem is not actually "solved", the student/customer is likelier to feel pleased with their experience.

[All this shouldn't, of course, be taken to mean that every single student complaint should be necessarily treated as equally valid and/or that all should be responded to exactly as the plaintiff demands]

Sue Leather said...

Hi Tony

A great question!

As a former school manager and EIBAS inspector, I really do think that most student problems arise outside of class. (Though when I was a teacher my view of the world was very class-centric)

I love the idea of the student welfare fund and the credit card limit of £100 . I haven't heard that idea before and I think it's great lateral thinking, and very practical. I agree,too, that training is important.Look forward to hearing what you think about that.

I agree with Andy, too, that speed of response is absolutely essential.

Though I think we can learn a lot from customer service in business, it's not always that great.
In the ELT world, I've often found that teachers are the ones who are really good at making sure that a student's problems get sorted out. Could that be because they see the student not as a 'customer' , but as a human being?


Tony Watt said...

Thanks Andy and Sue, glad to have comments from people like you!

@Andy - "The intention is there, but people are so busy the problem gets pushed down the list of priorities", I think you hit the nail on the head there! I've seen that over and over again, and I have to hold my hand up too!

Successful quality management means learning from your mistakes and taking the time to fix a problem and plan to avoid it happening again will always save time and money in the long run. Often this is forgotten, especially in the mad rush of summer in UK ELT schools.

@Sue - I know 'big business' often only pays lip service to customer care in insipid mission statements, but some companies DO do it right and we can learn from them.

I like the view that the people working in education see the 'human' rather than just a 'customer'. That would explain why we are so keen to bend over backwards to help students beyond outside the remit of learning the language or finding accommodation!

I think I will try to include that perspective in future staff training and appraisals!


Aaron said...

Great read, and great service oriented ideas. I totally agree with the idea of "empowering" teachers to solve problems - and putting money behind that, well that's pretty interesting too.

We serve corporate clients - and our classes are usually in client work places. Classes are before/after client work day.

I'm not sure of what our main service issues would be - not likely student welfare, as students are not staying with us. We visit them. But surely some food for thought here.

1. Service issue: Clients often have busy schedules that often have them bumping their English class because of unexpected meetings. I wonder what would happen if "classes on demand" were designed.

2. Service issue: Students often get stuck en route to class - rush hour is a royal pain in Mexico City - students often arrive 15 or 20 min late to a 1.5 hr class = service bump - progress is slowed.

Just thinking a bit...thanks.

Tony Watt said...


I recommend you follow best 'service design' practice and do some research into the clients' and teachers' experience and you should find areas to improve. Maybe shadow a teacher or student one day from their commute to the end of their class.

Maybe they need an emergency phone number to make last minute changes to the start time, maybe the teacher needs a blackberry, maybe the class can begin and late students take part via a conference call or video chat while people are commuting... You might be surprised what you discover is possible.

I think clients would respond positively to more flexible lessons - perhaps they pay per minute rather per hour and can make up lost time later, perhaps the teacher can make up time at the end of the scheduled lesson? You would need to make sure the teachers are empowered to make the decisions when face-to-face with the clients.

Just some ideas for you! Thanks for commenting. :-)