I 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.