Field Notes: Lessons learned from implementing a new model for providing student financial information services

October 1, 2018
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"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Michael S. Flanigan, EdD, Director of Planning and Operational Technologies , Division of Strategic Enrollment Management, Virginia Commonwealth University

At Virginia Commonwealth University, an increasing demand for knowledge and advice, coupled with stagnant staffing budgets, generally increasing complexity, and a 24/7 availability expectation were overwhelming our capacity to meet some of our constituent’s expectations. And those constituents increasingly included non-students such as parents and those in parent-like roles. Our tried-and-true “brute force” models of adding more constituent-facing bodies to the mix to compensate, or adding yet more text to our web sites, were no longer working or no longer available to us.  Our constituents were not shy about vocalizing their dissatisfaction with how we were doing – often to our President’s Office. 

Their dissatisfaction centered on three areas where we were falling short:

First, we were becoming so overwhelmed we were losing track of how many of our constituents were seeking services and what kind of services they were seeking. 

Second, while we knew were being overwhelmed with demand, we could not come up with accurate metrics that identified how overwhelmed we were or how far short of expectations we were falling. 

Third, in an effort to increase our efficiency and accuracy (or plug the leaks – depending on how you look at it), we were devolving our information dissemination services into silos requiring constituents to figure out for themselves which of our offices to contact for the answers to their questions. 

We needed a new strategy.

A partnership service model
After considering a variety of options, we chose a partnership strategy with a well-known vendor of higher education contact center services.  Under the arrangement, our partner provides 24/7/365 telephone, chat, and knowledge-base hosting services for our financial aid and student accounting (accounts receivable) departments.  The vendor representative (we refer to them as “student services consultants”) enters information about all contacts into a shared case management system and the advice or information given to the constituent. 

In general, the vendor provides tier-one response to all contacts, regardless of question, and escalates those that are beyond their capacity to resolve.  Because we share the case management system, escalations are “assigned” to our financial aid and student accounting areas where they are re-assigned to individuals in the office for resolution.  Answers to the majority of the tier-one questions student services consultants encounter are stored in a knowledge base created by our own subject experts and housed remotely by the vendor.  The knowledge base is available to our constituents for self-service but also stores non-public instructions and information for use by vendor representatives.  

We were in uncharted territory with this service model at first but a really, really great team from our financial aid and student accounting areas got us through a very successful implementation. 

After operating for about a year, we now find that this service model has met our need but has also surfaced some interesting challenges and tensions, changed our operating roles, and created new opportunities to improve our services. 

Changes and challenges
If you work in student services you probably have a predisposition to action and are excited or jazzed by providing information directly to constituents.  In our new model, many issues will be resolved directly by vendor agents and our role has morphed; we now indirectly participate in that process through clear and relevant guidance to the vendor agents for their use in providing direct solutions.  Performing indirect service is not nearly as viscerally satisfying as performing direct service for service providers – the feedback process is very different and less visible. We are predisposed to believe that high touch is better than high tech.  Being unable to be high touch in this profession is frustrating and will cause some angst.

Additionally, the new “arm’s length” service model means we lose the ability to “duck around the corner” to give information providers a quick off the cuff update on a process change.  Formalized processes need to be implemented to ensure the message delivered to constituents was the message intended – and that can be challenging logistically in a fast-paced environment like ours. Complex processes mean complex instructions and guidance; and we found we have some pretty complex processes to try and explain.  The more complex our processes are, the more difficult they are to explain, especially at a distance, and the more likely it is that erroneous information will be given out.  This was probably a challenge all along, we just didn’t know it until this project came along. 

Other challenges included:

  • Shifting roles and responsibilities. This model creates new work – not less work -- and the new work needs to be deliberate and managed. 
  • Project management and communications. Change of this magnitude can be difficult to manage and requires a significant planning effort to minimize disruptions to staff and constituents.  We need to add to our skills set in this area to meet this challenge.
  • Measuring success. Good macro-level satisfaction metrics from constituents may conflict with the perceptions of staff who deal solely with the stickiest issues.  Staff often see only the problems in the arrangement caused by the new processes because the successes are less visible and more distant.

Opportunities
If executed well, consistent messages and guidance can be distributed beyond a vendor partner.  A well-built and easily indexed knowledge base could be shared with virtually anyone inside the institution, essentially enlisting everyone as an information dissemination agent on behalf of your organization or department.  

A shared case management system also means that errors and mistakes can be accurately measured and identified, individuals committing the error can be corrected, and the effect of misinformation can rectified at scale.

Additionally, the vendor partnership arrangements in the contact center space come with rich metrics that promote a robust quantitative view of your information dissemination operations.  These metrics may allow a new level of insight into operations.

Tips and suggestions
On balance, this experience has been a positive and important one for us because it created a way to objectively measure our successes and challenges. 

Lessons learned include:

  • Analyze the query terms used to search your knowledge repository for patterns including questions that are not answered by the KB.  Review the most frequently searched terms by time of year/enrollment cycle position to gain insights into the timing of sought after answers.
  • Be sure you know how and when to shift from a project management approach of creating and implementing the new processes to a service management approach of sustaining and refining ongoing processes. When the knowledge (particularly procedures and FAQ’s) stored in your knowledge base need to change, be sure you utilize a formal change management process to initiate, review, approve, notify, log, and implement the change.
  • When information dissemination services are scaled to include others outside your office, the time between when a process change is approved  and when information dissemination about the process change can be passed on to your constituents by vendor agents grows longer.  Start planning cycles earlier to compensate.  
  • Whether scaling services provision internally or partnering with an external vendor, more people who are further away from your office will now be interacting with your constituents.  Formally identify quality control, service liaison, and overall service coordinator/relationship owner roles into position descriptions so changes to service procedures can be consistently implemented and staff.
  • Identify an expedited response procedure for critical or escalated situations.  Be sure you have a single and redundant point of contact within units or vendors that will be in contact with your constituents. 
  • Ensure that you have individuals in your organization designated as expediters that are immediately available to external units and vendor partners and are empowered to resolve these situations. It is likely that external units or vendors will encounter sensitive situations with your constituents that need to be communicated back to your team for quick resolution.  

This new model is clarifying our opportunities as the needs of our constituents continue their movement away from transactional support toward advisory guidance and information dissemination. But perhaps most importantly, we are now able to actively and intentionally evolve and mature our constituent services capacities using evidence and metrics as a complement to our deep experience providing constituent services.