Delivering a Better Student Experience in a Connected New World

Kivanc Oner, Senior Associate Vice Provost, Chris Heavey, Executive Vice President and Provost, and Keith E. Whitfield, President, University of Nevada

Kivanc Oner, Senior Associate Vice Provost, Chris Heavey, Executive Vice President and Provost, and Keith E. Whitfield, President, University of Nevada

Institutions of higher education are like small cities, with many “residents,” multiple offices, and a web of complex connections between them.  As our information technology environments have evolved over the years, they have been built incrementally to tackle different challenges or processes for students, faculty, and the many offices that inhabit the campus.  While the IT components have become more varied and sophisticated, we have struggled with establishing links among them and delivering a seamless user experience.  Users have often needed to learn multiple systems and not infrequently had to engage in multiple ways to address particular needs.  The old “campus run-around” has become the new “IT run-around.”  If we want satisfied customers, especially students, we need to do better. 

This is particularly true because we are now in the business of educating digital natives, students who have always had smartphones and been engaged with technology practically 24/7.  These “always-connected" customers expect instant access to information when they want it along with the power to explore and solve their own problems on their own timeline, often long after business hours have ended.  In today’s fast-paced and mobile society, all users, whether students, faculty, or staff, demand timely, personalized, and relevant content delivered to them wherever they are, on whatever device they are using, and in their chosen format. Their expectations are high and their time is short.

“We need to change from a problem-focused view of the requirements, where IT solutions and tools are added incrementally and often in relative isolation, to a customer experience-focused view, where the user experience is at the center of every consideration”

To satisfy these new consumers with our campus IT resources, we must think differently.  We need to change from a problem-focused view of the requirements, where IT solutions and tools are added incrementally and often in relative isolation, to a customer experience-focused view, where the user experience is at the center of every consideration. This customer-centric view will support institutional strategic goals of student success, faculty and staff retention, and strong brand loyalty.  The reverse will be true of institutions that are not able to create a smooth and seamless IT experience due to the frustrations users will undergo, especially when various offices ask them to tell their story one more time as they traverse different platforms or go from place to place in an effort to find information or assistance. 

How do we create a truly customer-centric experience? Becoming customer-centric first requires institutions to anticipate student or employee needs in order to create a culture designed to support them with great experiences from initial to final interaction. Once we have identified a need, we must pursue a coordinated approach to addressing that requirement through various policies, processes, resources, and services. Such a coordinated approach necessarily requires vision of an integrated solution that considers how all users will be impacted by the new technologies or tools involved. This vision can be bottom-up, but it will require at least a degree of top-down oversight.  To be successful in making it customer-centric, the institutional IT team will need to identify the downstream impacts and behavioural changes needed by students and employees across all levels of the institution. 

In terms of the other elements critical to creating a customer-centric IT experience, foremost is a multi-channel environment in which users can deftly move between channels without having to start again.  Today’s users expect to be able to access their information, make changes, and solve problems using their mobile devices and to be able to do so 24/7.  They want to be able to look up an answer and fix the problem on their own at a time convenient for them, even if it's in the middle of the night, without having to contact anyone.

A robust multi-channel platform to facilitate an excellent user experience begins with reliable information provided via comprehensive web content and extensive FAQs.  When users require assistance, live chat, including a chatbot supported by live-agent backing, is a key asset to an omni-channel, customer-centric experience because of zero to low hold times.

Texting remains animportantelement of customer service. Allowing users to quickly register for events, book appointments, and receive reminders, SMS is exceptionally timely andconvenient.Finally, email continues to be another reliable communication channel. Because it provides a secure and trusted platform,many prefer email for simple customer service issues.  Overall, successful omni-channel customer service should allow interactions across multiple touch-points by integrating text, email, live-agent, instant messaging, social media, etc., to provide a unified brand experience.

The human touch cannot be forgotten in an omni-channel approach.  Users experiencing difficulties or unable to find solutions will want a human guide.  Well-trained staff with access to the right technology solutions to deliver a positive image of the institution's brand is critical to providing excellent customer service.

Today’s users see social media as an outlet to show satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their overall experience.  Institutions trying to build a customer-centric experience should consider “social listening” to understand both the overall user experience and to identify pain points in the current customer support model.  Attention to social-media feedback will increase the satisfaction of individual users and help identify needed improvements. 

Here at UNLV, we strive to bring systems and data together to provide an optimum user experience. As do many other institutions, the university utilizes various technologies for our student information system (SIS), learning management system (LMS), enterprise document management system (EDMS), human resources management system (HRMS), financial management system (FMS), customer relationship management (CRM) system, and others. We are working to better connect these systems and enable better data-sharing among them to help students, faculty, and staff to have seamless experiences as they engage with the university.

When students begin a conversation with the chatbot, it can access the related systems, including financial aid and other information, to answer questions specific to the situation of that individual student.  If the student needs a live agent to go beyond what the chatbot can answer, the agent will be able to access the history of the conversation and related information.  For example, if the live agent needs to create an appointment for the student to see an advisor, the history of this interaction along with relevant student information, such as the transcript, are all forwarded to the advisor in advance of the live meeting to help the advisor prepare. This hopefully creates a seamless experience from question to answer or problem to solution.

A central challenge of transforming the IT culture to a customer-centric one is resources.  We are all operating in resource-constrained environments, so the changes needed to realize this vision will likely need to occur with no or few additional financial resources.  One strategy that may provide the needed resource flexibility is to better leverage cloud computing and other emerging technologies to gain economies of scale and efficiencies on backend IT infrastructures.  This can create opportunities to divert those resources to initiatives that will build and support customer-centric experiences.

Digital transformation is leveraging emerging technologies to build new business models and processes that focus on customer experiences. Effecting cultural change and delivering a fully customer-centric experience is complex and lengthy; however, even the most minor changes to processes and institutional focus will benefit both students and employees.

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