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Customer Service in Alumni Engagement

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By Jamie Hunte, Project Associate, Bentz Whaley Flessner

I recently had a stunning customer service experience. After finishing my purchase, the cashier asked if I was aware of a special discount that I could have applied to my purchase. When I replied that I didn’t know about said offer, she quickly (and happily) processed the offer and issued me a refund of 25% savings! I walked away a highly satisfied customer, with soaring affinity for this retailer.

This experience started me thinking about the role of customer service in alumni engagement. Admittedly, alumni relations programs and alumni associations don’t exist merely to serve alumni interests. We have dual stakeholders, our institutions and our alumni, and our best work is done when we realize that an investment in one truly serves the other. Great service to alumni builds affinity for our colleges and universities, which in turn strengthens the institution’s brand.

In an age of increasing levels of consumer expectations, alumni organizations are not exempt from the need to be attentive to alumni expectations while delivering on our service to the institution. And in such a high-touch field, alumni organizations are uniquely positioned to help (or hinder) the advancement of the institution.

What are the consequences of poor customer service? An unreturned phone call, a confusing website, or a poor experience at an event will decrease affinity, and others will hear about it. Studies show that after a poor customer service experience, 26% of consumers will post a negative comment via their social networks. Alumni with degrees from other institutions or with children enrolled at other schools may choose to support the alma mater that has given them the best alumni experience. And while not all alumni have the option to take their “business” to a competitor, there are plenty of opportunities for alumni to invest their time and resources elsewhere.

So, taking a cue from my friendly cashier, what opportunities do we have to build pride and spirit in our institution through our service to alumni?

The KISSmetrics blog compiled a fantastic infographic on why companies with great customer service succeed.

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Friendly employees, easy-to-find information/help, and personalized experiences top the list. In alumni engagement, these translate into the day-to-day interactions alumni have with our organizations, including:

* User-friendly websites. How easy to navigate is your alumni organization website? Does it have an up-to-date look and feel? Is staff contact information easy to find? A great example is the University of Virginia Alumni Association’s site, which won a CASE District III award after a redesign last year.

* Easy access to live support. When alumni call your office for help, do they reach someone whocan really handle their request? Or do they get shuffled around to various departments? Many organizations are now providing a central email and phone number for an alumni “help desk” that can address any request, even across departments (development, admissions, or alumni relations). Having the right team member working the “help desk” is key to this approach. An engaging, dedicated problem solver will bring more to the customer service experience thansomeone who will only route calls.

* Seamless logistics at events. When alumni approach your event site, are parking options clear? Do attendees have to search for the registration line? How are personal touches added to the experience? When I worked in alumni events, walking through the event experience from beginning to end with a few colleagues helped identify and resolve trouble spots ahead of time.

Beyond the day-to-day interactions, our organizations and staff need to be empowered to meet alumni expectations.

* Do we know what alumni expect? The ever-popular alumni attitude/perceptions survey is one way to gather this information. What programs and services are most requested? Beyond those specifics, what are alumni expectations of the organization as a whole? Take advantage of some of your most engaged stakeholders by seeking input from volunteers and board members. But remember, don’t ask for alumni input if you don’t intend to follow through on their feedback.

* Are our front-line staff members empowered to deliver quality customer service? Are support staff members empowered to quickly resolve complaints? Or do they need permission to issue refunds or make a special arrangement to win over a dissatisfied alumnus? Ritz Carlton set a gold standard in empowering front-line staff when management authorized every hotel employee to spend up to $2,000 per incident, without approval from their general manager, to not only resolve issues but create an outstanding guest experience. Zappos is well-known for their unorthodox methods of going far beyond expectations to make customers not just happy, but ecstatic.

Lastly, the greatest opportunity to influence stellar customer service is through our organizational leadership. Alumni executives and directors can set the right tone of appreciation for and service to the alumni community in how they talk about the alumni body, and in particular, alumni volunteers. Further, recognizing the good efforts of program and support staff will reinforce and affirm the value of service. Staff respond as they are appreciated for their contribution to the culture of quality service to alumni that builds great brand affinity for the university.

As former Ritz Carlton CEO Simon Cooper noted, “If leadership doesn’t live the values that it requires of the organization, that is the swiftest way to undermine the culture. No culture sticks if it’s not lived at the highest levels of the organization.”

Jamie Hunte is a member of the alumni engagement practice at Bentz Whaley Flessner, where she helps colleges and universities build and grow strong alumni engagement programs. She is the founder and editor of the EngageAlumni blog, a source of news, ideas, and resources for alumni programs.

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