Beyond satisfied? Five ways to amaze and delight your students

SatisfactionI never thought I’d say this, but the education sector could learn a lot from multinational corporations when it comes to customer satisfaction.  Quotes like ‘don’t just satisfy your customers, but amaze and delight them’ have become cliches in the corporate world.  But even with student satisfaction scores now an essential element of the Teaching Excellence Framework, most British universities are still thinking in terms of meeting students’ expectations – rather than aspiring to exceed them.

As highlighted by KPMG in its 2016 report How Much Is Customer Experience Worth?,  customer experiences can be divided into the three categories.  There are ‘must-have’ experiences: mess those up, and you’re in serious trouble.  There are ‘selectors’: the factors that led customers to choose you over your competitors.  And there are ‘delighters’: those rare moments when you exceed their expectations.

There’s a caveat to following the bliss. If you don’t have your must-haves and your selectors in place, it doesn’t matter what else you throw at students: they’ll still hate you.  But assuming you’ve got the basics covered, throwing a few low-cost delighters into the mix is likely to yield significant increases in student satisfaction scores, year on year.

So here are Green Spiral Consulting’s five essential Amaze-And-Delight strategies.  Some are deceptively simple: they sound easy until you try them.  Others really ARE simple…

#1: Ask them what they want.

No, I’m serious.  Don’t ask them standard NSS questions.  Ask them what they want.  Ask them what they need from you.  Ask them what they wish you’d do, and what else you could be doing.   Ask them how they feel about their actual experience.  If they think it’s okayish, or even quite good, ask them, ‘How can we make it even better?’

Ask them in Student Union surveys.  Set up stalls in the cafeteria, with free cupcakes, and ask them.  Have a suggestions box in every lecture theatre, and remind lecturers to ask them to put suggestions in it.

Act as though you actually care about the quality of their experience.  Because you do.  Of course you do.  Don’t you??

#2: Focus on marginalised groups.

People often say you can tell a lot about a society from the way it treats its most vulnerable members.  The same is true of universities.

So don’t just do generic surveys: organise focus groups with the students who have additional barriers to overcome.  Put out open calls for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students; for LGBT+ students; for single parents; for mature students and part-timers; for students with disabilities; and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

And when you’ve got them round the table, don’t just ask them what you’re getting right, so you can pat yourself on the back.  Ask them what would make their lives easier…

#3. Focus on the MOST marginalised groups.

Let’s get intersectional.  Who’s facing double, triple, or even quadruple disadvantage?  Where are the ‘Pluses’ in LGBT+ – the non-binary, genderqueer, asexual, pansexual, demisexual and intersex folks?  What about trans people of colour?  People with hidden disabilities, like autistic spectrum disorders, depression or fibromyalgia?  Mature students who are studying part-time, precisely because they’re caring for young children and elderly parents at the same time – the so-called ‘sandwich generation’?

Don’t try and tell me you haven’t got any.  If you call them, they will come.

Except they probably won’t, if you just stick a poster up in the Student Union bar to advertise your focus group…because they don’t have time to hang out in the bar when their kids need picking up from school.  Or they might not have the energy to get up the stairs today.  Or they might not want to go there ever again because they always get deliberately misgendered and deadnamed by the person behind the counter.  Or if they have autism, the bar might be the very last place they’d ever want to go.

Be creative.  Find out where people are…and then meet them where they need to be met.  With the right pronouns.  I can help you here; I’ve got enough lived experience of intersectional disadvantage to know what to say, and what to never say.

There’s potentially an added bonus to doing this kind of work.  As well as giving a much-needed boost to your student satisfaction score, you might just be contributing to something else:  a person’s decision to stay alive.  There’s nothing more powerful than feeling seen, heard and acknowledged, and knowing that someone genuinely cares.

#4. Give students something they didn’t know they needed.

Do your homework and spy on your competitors.  Which are the top ten universities for student satisfaction this year?  Which of your immediate neighbours is highest in the NSS league table?

Go and visit them, if you can.  What do the campuses feel like?  What makes them great places to be?  What are they doing that you’re not?  And then think about low-cost interventions that will meet needs that your students never even knew they had.

Think about how you can be more creative, more accessible, more inclusive, more vibrant, more inspiring, more convenient… and more distinctive.

#5. Remember the biophilia hypothesis.

Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat, because it’s just a more specific example of #4.  (What do you mean, #3 was a cheat as well?)  But a prime example of something that students don’t know they need is… nature.

Edward O. Wilson’s classic 1984 book Biophilia suggests that human beings need contact with non-human life in order to flourish.  We are, literally, hard-wired for connection with nature: without it, our mental health suffers.  If just putting plants in hospital rooms is enough to speed up the healing process, and nature-based interventions make a significant difference to people with mental ill-health, how far might a dose of nature transform your students’ lives?   How could you use your outdoor space more effectively, especially during the warmer months?  How could you bring nature indoors, or adopt biophilic design principles in your new buildings?

Your students still won’t forgive you for low-quality teaching.  But if they’re hovering somewhere between ‘meh’ and ‘yes’, and there’s a beautiful tree in the corner of the lecture room, it might just help.  As long as someone remembered to water it…


For more ideas on how to improve student satisfaction, visit our Evolve page, or call +44 7902 381577 today to book a complimentary Discovery Session.




EVALUATE: Where you are is where it all begins

When I first started making art, I couldn’t afford canvases – so I used whatever I could find.  Old bits of paper, old bits of cardboard, polystyrene pizza bases, broken clocks, chipped plates, plastic packaging…

This particular piece of art, which is called Spiralling Into Life and was part of my ‘in another light’ collection, was created from an empty plastic chocolate box, a piece of gold foil, some acrylic paint, and sea-glass collected from a Scottish beach.

I love sea-glass.  It’s little pieces of broken glass that have been thrown around by the sea until the sharp edges are all worn smooth.  I find that a good analogy for life…

But I’m getting off the point, which is that when you want to make art, or when you want to create projects that exceed everyone’s expectations (which is just another way of making art) you have to start from where you are. 

It sounds obvious – where else would you start from?  But it’s all to easy to create projects that are all about making someone else’s dreams come true, especially when that ‘someone else’ is holding the purse strings, and go on for year after year without hitting the targets that matter to you.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, but I’m now – in my 40th year – realising the importance of starting with what I’ve already got.  With what’s inside.  With the things that matter most to me even if that doesn’t match anyone else’s idea of who I am and what I should be doing.  (Which is why I’ve recently come out as transgender…but that’s another blog post for another day!)

Of understanding where I am, right now, and taking the next small step.

That’s why you have to evaluate, before you can envision or evolve – and in order to evaluate what matters most, you have to ‘start on the inside and work your way out’, as the singer Ani DiFranco puts it.

Understanding where you are, right now, is where it all begins.

And once you’ve recognised that – once you’ve truly reflected on what makes you tick, what excites you most about this project idea, and what you’d love to see happening in a ‘best case scenario’ – you can work with your delivery partners, funders and service users to learn together about what excites them.

The magic of Multi-Level Evaluation is that the process of creating an evaluation framework can become a journey of discovery… a way of seeing your project ‘in another light’, and building strong bonds of friendship right from the outset.  Because at the end of the day, we’re all human… well, mostly.

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ENVISION: Strategic planning outside the box

Vision-building and strategic planning are crucial aspects of any organisation’s development.  When you have a powerful shared vision, you can plan your next steps efficiently and confidently, evolve to the next level of excellence in your field, and use monitoring and evaluation to build a culture of continuous improvement.

As a consultant, I can help you to clarify your shared values, build a collective vision for a project or the whole organisation, develop a strategic plan through a participatory approach with multiple stakeholders, or understand how you want to collaborate – as well as what you want to achieve – with people from different sectors or cultures.

But sometimes I need a different view before I can do any of those things…because human beings aren’t meant to live their entire lives in boxes. 

Reconnecting with ‘nature’ – with the wide world outside the window – creates space for new insights, and helps me see that one piece of the puzzle that everyone’s been missing.  Walking in a wide-open landscape can open the mind.

That’s why, when I start working with a new client, the first thing I do is to listen, not just do the monologue-disguised-as-dialogue thing, but really listen – and the second, before I even attempt to make any recommendations, is to put on my walking shoes.

And that’s why what I bring you is a breath of fresh air.

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EVOLVE: The art of becoming the change

Gandhi’s quote, “You must be the change you want to see in the world,” often seems daunting.  It’s easy to feel that we have to be everything, all at the same time… that we have to work on ourselves and our organisations, day and night, until we’re good role models for the rest of the world.

I like to think about the art of becoming the change that you want to see.

‘Art’, to me, means that changing the world should involve creativity, colour and fun.

‘Becoming the change’, rather than ‘being the change’, suggests that it’s a gentle, gradual process – something that can be learned and refined over a lifetime.  It’s not something that we can hope to achieve in a day, a month, or even a year.  That takes the pressure off and lets us focus on the journey, rather than the destination.

We’ve all learnt a lot, as we’ve grown up, about the way the world works – and, quite literally, about what different people do when they ‘go to work’.  We ‘know’ that project evaluation is about box-ticking; performance appraisal is stressful; and if you want to have a board meeting, you have to sit around a boardroom table and get bored.

We ‘know’ that paint, crayons and coloured chalks are off limits in the workplace – unless you work in a primary school or an arts centre.

We take it for granted that everything important happens indoors.

We’re willing to tolerate chronic illness, fatigue and depression for decade after decade – not just for ourselves, but among our families, friends, colleagues and employees – because, well, that’s life, isn’t it?

So the art of becoming the change is about challenging all these old ideas.  What if we let go of all those beliefs and started to take ‘sustainability’ and ‘well-being’ seriously?  What if, just as an experiment, we held the board meeting under a tree?  What if we handed out paints and brushes to senior academics?  What if a bring-and-share lunch, or an annual retreat with all the meals cooked over a campfire, became the new norm?

What if we learned to embrace real diversity – as in actually listening to people instead of doing the monologue-disguised-as-dialogue thing, and being ready to do things differently?  What if we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of a trans person, or someone with multiple disabilities, or a person from a completely different ethnic and cultural background, and asked ourselves what our program would look and feel like for them?

Go on, I dare you.  Learn the art of becoming the change. Give yourself permission to let more joy, more laughter, more energy, and more passion into your `working’ life… and then do one small thing differently, and watch what happens.

Green Spiral Consulting can offer training in Diversity and Inclusion, Sustainability, Partnership-Building and Performance Management.  We can do it in the traditional, boring ways; or we can do it in all manner of crazy, creative and unforgettable ways that will change your workplace forever.  Hopefully, for the better.  You get to choose…

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Surviving an inspection: three tips

None of us are perfect, which is just as well.  We can’t learn anything if we don’t make mistakes, miss the mark, screw up, get things wrong, and embarrass ourselves sometimes.  But for some reason, we still think we’re supposed to be perfect.

That’s why `inspection’ is such a scary word.  It conjures up visions of someone with a clipboard looking over your shoulder, adding up all your individual mistakes, quirks and imperfections, and writing a big red ‘FAIL’ at the bottom of the page.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, I promise.

Inspection can be empowering.  It can be life-changing.  It can even be fun…

If you know you’ve got an actual clipboard-wielder showing up soon, like an OFSTED inspector, an independent project evaluator or someone who’s assessing you for your PQASSO certification, the first trick is remembering not to take it personally.  They’re not evaluating your worth as an individual: they want to know about the big picture.  Regardless of everyone’s separate flaws, how is the project or organisation working?

The second trick is taking time to think a bit more about the person behind the clipboard.  Where are they coming from?  What boxes do they need to tick – and why?  What do they, or the people who sent them, care most about?

If you’re lucky, you might find there’s a big overlap between their values and yours – maybe you’ve got a common interest in equality, safety, sustainability and well-being, for example. In that case, the key is to convince them you’re just as obsessed with those things as they are.

If you’ve done your homework and know you’ve got some serious work to do on a few criteria, write a policy that clearly shows how (and when) you’re going to meet them.

If you’re doing something that’s not on their list but shows off your commitment to diversity, your efforts to empower service users, your green credentials or your passion for safeguarding vulnerable kids, make a poster of it and put it somewhere the inspector’s sure to see it.  Put it in as many policies as possible (within reason, of course).  Minute it in staff meetings.   And when you’re talking to them,  tell them about it.

The third trick is making sure that, for all your imperfections, you prove that you’re a learning organisation.  You’re committed to seeking feedback, thinking about what it means, and, crucially, acting on it – especially when it’s from previous inspectors, and especially when it’s not as positive as you’d have liked.

When you have a culture of learning, even the biggest screw-ups can become assets.

When your screw-ups become assets, that’s when you’ll start to exceed expectations.  And somewhere along the way, you’ll suddenly realise that you’re enjoying the process…

Image: Land art, We Are All Blemished (© Gemma Burford, 2013)