With the higher ed industry more competitive than ever, retention rates are top of mind for industry professionals. A recent study by Stanford showed that students who leave before graduating can cost an institution up to $40,000 per student. All in all, another study by the Delta Cost Project showed that students who leave before graduating could cost an institution a combined estimate of over $3.8 billion in lifetime income.

So what can colleges do to increase retention rates? According to Tracy Hart, the Program Planning Officer at the University of New Mexico, “many factors affect retention, but the one that institutions have 100% control over is services.” For the corporate world, customer service is critical to the overall success of a business. Students and parents are receiving high quality  customer service in all other industries, so it’s natural that they would expect to see that same level of service in higher education.

According to an Academic Impressions survey, only six higher education professionals from 79 colleges and universities graded their school’s customer service with an “A.” Based off of this statistic alone, many institutions would agree that there is plenty of room to improve the quality of customer service at their campus.

We researched advice and strategies from industry professionals that specialize in student services to bring you 5 proven strategies you can use to optimize customer service in higher education.


1.Understand the needs of different student personas.

In the corporate world, the first step to quality customer service is understanding the needs of your customers. Just like with businesses, colleges and universities are home to a variety of different students that have different needs. For example, international students, low-income students, first-generation students, and athletes all have different types of support needs.

By mapping out the different student personas at your institution, you can start to take a look at how you can support their needs. First-generation students may need more support and assistance when it comes to lengthy paperwork and financial aid documents. International students likely need more travel and support around visa documents, as well as emotional support.

Once you’ve mapped out your different personas, you can start to strategize how you will meet the needs of different groups. It could be having different sections of your website that address certain personas, specific locations on campus to serve students, or even student support groups that align with the different personas. West Texas A&M found that decentralized departments and reporting structures were acting as a barrier to getting students’ questions answered. So, they created a student success center by bringing together all department heads and creating a one-stop-shop for things like financial aid, advising, placement services, study abroad, scholarships, and more. This allowed them to meet the needs of multiple personas in one place.


  1. Strive for fast response times.

Students and parents are used to immediate responses. Emily Richardson, Dean of the Hayworth School of Graduate & Continuing Studies at Queens University of Charlotte, noted that universities are now being compared to retailers like Amazon.com and Land’s End. Students and parents can become impatient and feel like their needs aren’t being met when they have to wait in long lines or be put on hold for answers to important questions.

Tools like online chat widgets or interactive Q & A, like Comevo’s Discover Dynamic Q&A service, provide staff with the ability to offer fast responses to frequently asked questions without taking up valuable resources. Quarterly student and parent surveys can help inform you on what type of questions are being asked. Search data in Google Analytics can also show you the most frequently asked questions on your website to help inform your interactive Q&A strategy.


  1. Create a culture around quality service.

“Customer service” didn’t use to be a term you would hear when referring to higher education. However, more and more institutions are beginning to look at students and parents as “customers”, with the goal of providing a level of service that students and parents would expect to see in other industries like retail or hospitality.

In order to improve the quality of service for an entire institution, all faculty and staff need to be bought in. This shift in mindset often needs to start with leadership, but it needs to carry through to frontline staff, as they are the ones providing the daily service to “customers”

To create a culture of service, Coastal Carolina University created a customer service program that utilized a “Feel the Teal® Service Excellence Initiative” to drive the program. This initiative embraced the idea that “the customer is not always right, but it is our job to make the situation right.” By taking this approach, staff at Coastal Carolina University didn’t feel like they were being told they were wrong (and that the customer is always right), but instead it empowered them to use their judgement to fully support the customer.


  1. Provide ongoing training to faculty and staff.

In order to keep a culture or initiative alive, frequent training should be provided to staff and faculty. Richardson suggests working directly with individual departments on their points of service — like the academic advising team for a specific department. Coastal Carolina University provides an online training that gives background to their culture of service by showcasing the history and traditions of the institution.

An online tool is the perfect medium for a “customer service” training, because it allows faculty and staff to access 24/7 and review on their on time — so it doesn’t feel like a chore. An online training could include topics like: how to deal with common frustrations of frontline staff, creating an inclusive environment for students, dealing with frequently asked questions, and what service excellence means at your institution.


  1. Measure your service.

Whenever a new initiative or plan is implemented, there should always be a way to measure success. Without that, institutions can’t say whether they should continue to invest in the program or initiative, or decide how to adjust if something isn’t working.

You can create both direct and influenced goals for your customer service program. For example, your overall driving goal might be to increase retention rate — and you plan to do that by improving the quality of customer service. You can easily measure the increase or decrease of retention rate after a program is initiated, but how do you measure the program itself?

Goals for the program can be measured with both qualitative and quantitative feedback. You can utilize surveys to collect feedback from both students/parents and staff/faculty to see how your program initiatives are working and if students/parents have specific feedback. You can also measure your Net Promoter Score (NPS) before and after you start your program, which is a score that businesses use to measure the willingness of customers to recommend a company’s services to others. In this case, you can find out your NPS for customer service at your institution.

Metrics like response time on emails, phone calls, and live chats can also be a helpful way to measure success. Consider sending out short feedback surveys after a service has been provided to find out if the level of service was what the “customer” expected (and if it met their needs).