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Creating Electronic Student and Customer Services: Learning from Higher Education and Business

  • ID: 41892
  • Report
  • October 2003
  • 88 pages
  • American Productivity & Quality Center, APQC
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The development of a “customer service” focus at colleges and universities is central to many of the reform agendas at both the state and campus levels. States, systems, and campuses continue to look for opportunities to reduce costs and improve quality. Given the increasing importance (and cost) of student services, ample opportunities exist to gain economies of scale in the student services arena through the use of emerging technologies. The necessity for a well-integrated approach to key functions such as admissions, registration, financial aid, and counseling and advising has become apparent. For example, student enrollment in electronic-based courses from multiple providers is increasing, adding to the complexity of providing high-quality student support services.

Another trend developing is the concept of “one-stop” centers for services such as career placement. This trend parallels the corporate emphasis on customer service through the use of technologies such as “customer call centers.” These systems provide one-stop service for all of a caller’s needs and provide feedback for improving service and productivity.


The following scope defines the content and structure of the entire benchmarking study. Sponsors spent a day-and-a-half with the project team from APQC, SHEEO, and subject matter expert Mary Beth Susman, collaborating to create a crisp and meaningful project scope.

I. Organizational Change Management
A. Vision for Change
B. Cross-functional Approach (beyond silos, process view)
C. Human Resources to Support Change Management

II. Technology
A. Multiple Modes of Access (Web, Kiosk, Touch-tone)
B. Data Systems Integration
C. Inquiry Management/Call Center

III. Policy/Strategic Issues
A. Policy Standardization Across Campuses
B. Partnering Relationships
C. Financing

IV. Performance Measurement
A. Measurement Strategy and Policy
B. Key Performance Indicators
C. Incentives


The past decade has seen wrenching reorganization and change for many organizations. As firms have looked for ways to survive and remain profitable, a simple but powerful change strategy called “benchmarking” has evolved and become popular. Benchmarking can be described as the process by which organizations learn, modeled on the human learning process. A good working definition is “the process of identifying, learning, and adapting outstanding practices and processes from any organization, anywhere in the world, to help an organization improve its performance.” The underlying rationale for the benchmarking process is that learning by example, from best-practice cases, is the most effective means of understanding the principles and the specifics of
effective practices.

The most important aspects of benchmarking are twofold: first, it is not a fixed technique imposed by “experts” but rather a process driven by the participants who are trying to change their organizations; and second, it does not use prescribed solutions to a problem but is a process through which participants learn about successful practices in other organizations and then draw on those cases to develop solutions that are most suitable for their own organizations.

Benchmarking is not copying, networking, or passively reading abstracts, articles, or books. It is action learning, as demonstrated in the following description of the consortium methodology. Benchmarking is also not simply a comparison of numbers or performance statistics. Numbers are helpful for identifying gaps in performance, but true process benchmarking identifies the “hows” and “whys” for performance gaps and helps organizations learn and understand how to perform at higher levels.


There are two main phases in the consortium benchmarking methodology:
1. selecting best-practice partner organizations, and
2. learning from the best.

Phase I: Selecting Best-Practice Partner Organizations

A list of best-practice candidate organizations was developed through primary
and secondary research conducted by APQC. Suggestions were compiled from this
research, as well as from periodicals, industry journals, and knowledge from sponsors. A screening survey was developed and sent to 80 candidate organizations. Fortytwo (53 percent) of the surveys were completed. Responses from these surveys were analyzed, scored, and presented to the study sponsors at the Review Meeting, held February 20–21, 1997, in Houston. Based on the screening survey data, as well as other information collected by the study team, sponsors selected six best-practice organizations. These six organizations were invited to join the study as best-practice partners.

Phase II: Learning from the Best

The sponsor group and the study team developed a Detailed Questionnaire and a
Site Visit Discussion Guide for use as the Phase II data collection tools. The six bestpractice partners completed the Detailed Questionnaire and hosted subsets of the sponsor group on facilitated site visits. During the site visits, key personnel were asked questions from the Site Visit Discussion Guide. Excerpts from the site visit summaries are included throughout the Final Report.


This section lists the key findings from the study. They are organized into the
five main focus areas of the study scope.

Range of Electronic Student and Customer Services

Finding 1: Best-practice partner organizations have made substantial progress
in providing electronic “self-help” tools for students and customers.

Finding 2: Electronic student and customer services add value to recruitment, marketing, and admissions.

Finding 3: Among the various student services that are offered electronically,
student financial aid transactions remain limited (primarily because of state and federal regulations). Organizational Change Management

Finding 4: A key enabler for successful electronic student and customer services is to examine the business process itself, not just automate existing functions.

Finding 5: If you build it, (demonstrate it, and market it,) they will come.

Finding 6: Cross-functionality remains a goal, not a reality, for educational organizations. Rather than breaking down functional silos, the focus has been on making those silos more porous and less visible to students.


Finding 7: The explosion of networking, computer, and telephone technologies,
as well as the means of integrating them, has been a key driving force for creating electronic student and customer services.

Finding 8: The emerging sophistication and capabilities of client/server systems in general, and vendor products in particular, have contributed to information technology development trends.

Finding 9: Technical decisions are based on business process and application
needs, and IT support services are structured in a way that best meets those needs. Policy and Strategic Issues

Finding 10: The move to initiate electronic student services starts with a general sentiment (internal or external) that the institution needs to be more student focused or customer oriented.

Finding 11: Electronic student services open the door for distance education

Finding 12: Electronic student and customer services force organizations to confront standardization issues.

Finding 13: Electronic student and customer services have strengthened internal
and external partnerships.

Finding 14: In best-practice partner institutions, electronic student services are a budgetary priority and are integrated into the overall university fiscal strategy. It is seen as “mission critical” to reach long-range institutional goals.

Finding 15: The primary measure of success for education best-practice partners
is improved service—cost savings is secondary. Both cost savings and improved
services are critical measures of success for business partners.

Finding 16: Listening to customers can be a catalyst for change for both education and business best-practice partners.
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- Sponsor and Partner Organizations

A complete listing of the sponsor organizations in this study, as well as the best-practice (“partner”) organizations that were benchmarked for their
innovation and advancement in electronic student or customer services.

- Executive Summary

A bird’s-eye view of the study, presenting the methodology used and the key findings discovered during the course of the study. These findings are
explored in detail in following sections.

- Key Findings

An in-depth look at the 16 key findings in five macro topic areas: Range of Electronic Student and Customer Services, Organizational Change Management, Technology, Policy and Strategic Issues, and Performance Measurement. Organizational examples provide supporting evidence for the findings.

- Partner Organization Profiles

Background information on the partner organizations, as well as a look at their use of electronic student or customer services.
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Note: Product cover images may vary from those shown