The New Standard for Service

A principle shared by nearly all higher education institutions is that of high-quality support services for constituents. Indeed, one of the most fundamental purposes of institutional reaccreditation is documenting efforts toward continuous quality improvement, which includes enhancing support services in the face of constant changes in all areas of society. Interestingly, there are arguably few other concepts more subject to interpretation than high-quality customer service.

We live and work in a world occupied by distinctive generations, each with its own understanding of “normal.” For traditional undergraduate students, technology mediation and digital literacy have shaped their development and now are basic elements of their daily lives. Older generations on the other hand, including many mid-level and senior administrators, developed perceptions of good service that were shaped by person-to-person experiences. Equally valid, though increasingly inconsistent today, high-quality customer service in this context is thus defined largely by the absence of technology mediation. How then do we define high-quality customer service and articulate a success condition in which it is achieved?

In 2002 the OCLC, an international coalition of libraries, published the results of a large, commissioned research study titled Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources. As noted in the report, the study grew out of a concern over changing patterns in library access and usage by clients, including the perception that libraries were being used less frequently and were therefore becoming less relevant. Professional librarians are widely and justifiably recognized for their commitment to excellent service, and it’s understandable that fewer in-person visits caused alarm.

The findings of the OCLC study were remarkable and of long-term importance — perhaps even more so today than a decade ago when the research was published. Among the most important findings was that library patrons had themselves redefined high-quality service, and then actively pursued it. Specifically, preferred service had come to be defined by three criteria: self-driven (i.e. online), seamless, and highly satisfactory. Physical place and person-to-person contact had been supplanted by a strong preference for online, web-enabled services, and resources quickly and efficiently accessed by clients through technology. Clients weren’t using libraries and information resources less; they were using them very differently.

Within this sea change, however, person-to-person service from professionals remains essential. But personal service is preserved for those times when needs surpass what online self-service systems provide, and when professional consultation is therefore truly needed. This blended service model is widely regarded as the best possible use of resources for both the service unit and the recipient. In this model, users satisfy the majority of their needs directly, and professionals are consulted when their training and experience can make a real difference.

Today numerous functions at our institutions, including libraries, admissions offices, registrars, and other service units, have seen changes in client expectations. Successful organizations have deployed increasingly sophisticated self-service technologies and have retrained their staffs regarding service delivery and technology alike. Highly regarded service units are characterized largely by their success in helping customers help themselves.

When developed and deployed successfully, self-service technology increases productivity (for both the customer and the service unit), reduces costs, and saves time. But these changes bring significant challenges. Units typically receive few if any new resources for enabling self-service functions. Significant problems may also occur with staff members who are reticent or unable to adapt to change, including technology.

Self-service often leads to processes that are far more transparent and unforgiving because the personal intermediary is removed from the process and therefore cannot compensate for errors with data, procedures, policies, and the like. Service units with fundamental operational issues typically struggle with implementing self-service solutions.

A crucial area for higher education where these problems are magnified is online courses and programs. For such programs to successfully serve a growing number of students who may never visit our physical campuses, program delivery and support services must fit the OCLC research findings: self-driven, seamless, and highly satisfactory. The new standard for high-quality service has been established by constituents and must be met by our institutions: excellent self-service in the vast majority of cases, with personal consultation by professionals when needed. 

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Resources and CIO at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He can be reached at 513/745-2985 or doddd@xavier.edu.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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