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Business Officer Magazine
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Upping the App

Mobile commerce solutions allow students to control how they conduct campus business—from buying tickets to ordering meals. See how this trend enhances the student ID card, while improving customer satisfaction and streamlining systems.

By David Rupp

Today's students expect a totally mobile-friendly campus that fulfills their needs via the latest in apps for their smart phones and tablets. While the typical student ID card provides cashless ordering and payment solutions for most purchases on campus, the mobile app goes a step beyond. Among the most recent entrants in campus e-commerce are flexible and full-service platforms that facilitate activity in certain niches of student life, particularly auxiliary services.   

Whether it's taking a campus survey, ordering event tickets, or gaining a better place in line for fast food pickup, the apps can serve customers effectively, improve the campus experience, and keep busy people moving to their next appointments.

Several colleges and universities are taking advantage of these relatively new tools, with business officers and other administrators incorporating them into campus operations that make for more-satisfied students. Early results show some positive financial return, as well, particularly when it comes to food service.

New Niches

Picture the typical pattern of daily campus activity: A class finishes at around noon, and dozens of students and professors head for a quick lunch before their next session or appointment. Multiply that times the number of classes ending simultaneously, and you'll find that the line to order at the dining hall can stretch outside the building at certain times of the day. "If you want to purchase coffee but have limited time, you either have to forgo the drink or wait in a line that almost guarantees that you'll be late to your next stop," says Jeffrey Hardy, chief business officer of Tapingo, San Francisco, a mobile commerce platform that seeks to make purchasing and fulfillment better for both sides—the customer and the merchant.

The company is a recent entrant into the expanding mobile app industry, finding a niche on a growing number of college campuses by taking the dining experience to the next level. Designed to alleviate long waiting lines, the app provides a seamless ordering system for the busy student, faculty member, or administrator. Users can search for local eateries (on- and off-campus), order from a menu, make a payment, and receive notification when the order is ready.

Flashback ... 8 Years Ago

In the June 2007 Business Officer article "Everywhere a Cell Phone" about cellular services that reduce costs and connect students to all things on campus ...

"... institutions are steadily losing a decades-old cash cow—the reselling of long-distance minutes to students. Consequently, they are scrambling to eliminate the overhead cost of supporting expensive landlines while looking to create a new revenue
source ... ."We have 14,000 landlines," says Fred Siff, chief information officer at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio. "It's a product people don't want anymore. They want cell phones."

This and other such mobile solutions are catching on in a big way. For Tapingo, the quick adoption of the app has translated into servicing about 40 campuses in 2014 to supporting its current client list of more than 100, including campuses at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro; San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif.; and Towson University, Towson, Md. The company's transactions can reach more than 25,000 per day; the average user places four orders a week.

CBORD, a provider of cashless card systems, recently reported that in the first half of 2015 its GET app had been implemented by 25 new customers, including the University of Oregon, Eugene; Northern Virginia Community College; and Keene State College, Keene, N.H. "There is a significant upside to having the campus card office, dining, and marketing functionality in one app," says Rebecca Hunt, marketing manager with dining services, at Keene State. "Offering food ordering with the app that students are already using to manage their other accounts allowed us to add value for them, while streamlining and simplifying our Owl Card Office services and marketing." In all, about 110 colleges and universities are using GET, with more than 200,000 individual users.

The University of Albany State University of New York recently used a mobile app to solve an operational problem resulting from a multiyear construction and renovation project that made the SUNYCard office difficult to access during summer orientations. By rolling out online photo uploads through the GET platform, the SUNYCard staff allowed students to upload their own ID card photos in advance, rather than going to the card office.

"This was an opportunity to make a major impact on the quality of our students' experiences during orientation," says Michelle Schifley, senior director of administration at university auxiliary services. "With all the renovation in our facility, students would otherwise have spent hours going through this process."

As an added service, students who didn't submit photos in advance were able to snap their own smartphone photos at a "selfie station" set up in the orientation residence hall. After students scanned a QR code to upload their photos through the app, the card office printed the ID cards and delivered them to the students in their residence halls later in the day.

Options to Order

For the popular food service app, once a student downloads it and creates an account, ordering a coffee from Starbucks or a take-out meal from the dining hall or another restaurant is quite simple. The system lists all the local eateries available in the network, including their locations and operating hours. The user selects a location, examines the menu, makes his or her selections, and provides any special instructions ("light on the ice in my coffee, please"). After confirming a payment type, the customer receives an estimate of the order's expected preparation time.

"We work with clients to recruit off-campus merchants based on the institution's own criteria," notes Susan Chaffee, CBORD's director of product development. "Along with debit and credit cards, the merchant can accept the student card for payment, as well."

Meanwhile, in the selected restaurant's back office, a networked printer spits out a ticket with the order details. The ticket is treated as the next order to be processed, as though the customer were waiting in line out front. The kitchen prepares and delivers the order to a special pickup location, and then alerts the customer via text message that the order is ready.

When the customer arrives, he or she bypasses the regular order line, steps up to the appropriate counter, grabs the meal, and goes.

While Tapingo and a few other recent entrants to the mobile app market use their own branding, others, such as CBORD, TouchNet, and Oracle build on their existing administrative applications. Oracle's Campus Mobile is a good example. "We don't deliver Campus Mobile directly to the app store," explains Cary Brown, director of development. "Rather, we deliver a mobile application file to institutions so they can brand it first. Students don't want to see an Oracle app; they want to see Stanford's app. The school can change icons, colors, and logos, as well as configure the file on a technical level to operate within its IT environment."

Decision Time

Timing for deciding on and implementing a mobile app varies depending on the size of the institution and its administrative processes. And, of course, implementation requires collaboration by representatives from several departments on campus. Typically, staff from auxiliary services, campus card operations, information technology, dining, and student life are involved.

Dan Slattery was the director of auxiliary services at California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, when he discovered Tapingo in the exhibit hall at a NACAS conference in 2012. He discussed the concept with his supervisor—the vice president for facilities, operations, and planning—and the university's Sodexo representative.

Interestingly, the previous year, California Lutheran had studied and evaluated its students' perceptions of campus food service, learning that the primary complaint was the lost value when students couldn't use the total amount of their prepaid food plans because of long lines. "The Tapingo app wasn't a large investment in terms of the hardware and software," Slattery says. "Affordability was the key. We thought we could get a quick return in terms of an uptick on student satisfaction by implementing this kind of service." Consequently, within a month Slattery, his supervisor, and the Sodexo representative collectively made their decision to proceed with the process.

When Slattery became associate vice president for auxiliary services at Towson University, he brought along his experience with the mobile ordering concept. Not surprisingly, the decision-making process at the larger university moved more slowly and required wider collaboration. "I wasn't trying to force it on the community too quickly," he says. "That project took six to eight months."

At Georgia Southern University, the student government association, ID card office, and dining services office were involved in the decision. "We talked about how we could use it, how it might work, and what benefits we might realize," says Eddie Mills, associate vice president of auxiliary services. "The students were sold right away on it; it took less than a week to decide to move forward."

Nitty Gritty Implementation

After receiving signed contracts, vendors typically send an account manager on site to meet with representatives of the particular campus and review a timeline and action steps for rolling out the program. A joint operational walk-through of venues is key to understanding workflow and customer peaks and lulls.

With Tapingo, the company and campus representatives decide where to place equipment, such as data lines and printers, in addition to the logistics of separate waiting lines for order pickup. Company and campus IT people collaborate on the technical deployment, involving software and hardware installation; integration of payment systems; and interfacing with system participants to provide menus, hours of operation, and other details.

Managing cooperation across campus departments was part of Slattery's implementation responsibility at Towson. "We started out conservatively," he says. "Once the IT, food service, and other departments saw that the app was effective and easily managed, they were comfortable with expanding its reach."

As with other product or service introductions, opting to roll out solutions in limited stages helps in working the snags out of the process. At San Jose State University, Calif., "It's been a very gradual thing so far," says Brian Mitchler, dining systems manager. "Every one of our operations is slightly different. We had to prove the concept in the first facility. Once we were comfortable that we could handle orders without fumbling, that we could anticipate the increase in orders through that channel without it affecting our normal in-building business, then we did a rollout for that unit."

Market It and Will They Come?

Promoting a new mobile commerce app is clearly a crucial step to achieving success, although word-of-mouth usually plays a significant role in informing potential users about where to find the app and download it, how to place an order, and how and where to pick up the purchase. Adoption of this new process can be slow at first, but seems to build.

Tapingo's model includes marketing representatives who visit the campus to promote the service through giveaways such as T-shirts. They also demonstrate how to download the app and set up account preferences. Generally, the most successful efforts are joint operations between the company and the campus.

"We did some local marketing within our first facility and surrounding area," says Mitchler. "That proved to be successful on a small scale. We went from a few orders to maybe 10 a day, just by word-of-mouth. Then we decided to roll out to other units cautiously. In the first weeks of the fall semester, we'll introduce it to the entire campus with a large push to spread the word. The idea is to get the incoming freshmen to become the key users."

Matt Camino, director for e-commerce and compliance at the University of the Pacific, Stockton, Calif., reports a similar strategy. "We launched in one location, The Lair. It was the best place to start in order to see if we could get some time-savings for the students." During that launch, four company representatives came on site to promote the service and instruct students on its use. Since then, says Camino, "The Lair has been the most popular location for mobile ordering. Students love doing it when they get out of class and can place their orders before coming over."

Students can be the best ambassadors for other students, confirms Mills. "Word-of-mouth and social media outlets helped spread the word." For example, Georgia Southern started using the app at just two locations, and has expanded over time to another five.

So, How's It Going?

Anecdotal evidence indicates several benefits gained via mobile commerce apps.

In addition to shorter lines and positive feedback, administrators measured customer satisfaction in economic terms.

"When we first started using the app at the Coffee House," says Camino, "I was picking up my order and a female student walked past several people in line to pick up her prepaid order at a nearby counter. Someone also waiting in line said, 'Hey, what are you doing?' The other customer whips around with the phone in her hand and points to the app. I thought that would be the perfect commercial," jokes Camino.

"Some think it's the best thing ever," says Mills. "You follow people on social media talking about how the app was something they never experienced before, where has it been all of their lives."

Zach Garret, a former student at Georgia Southern University, recalls, "I noticed a very quick adoption of Tapingo." In the beginning, when I would pick up my order in a special line, people would ask about the process. I would tell them about the app, and they would immediately download it. Students were picking up the word that this app would allow them to circumvent the line."

In addition to shorter lines and positive feedback, administrators measured customer satisfaction in economic terms. At the University of the Pacific, Camino explains, "Students were spending about $5.50 when in line at The Lair, but when they were ordering from the app, they spent about $7.50 per transaction. That was significant."

At Georgia Southern, says Mills, "The average check was 8 to 10 percent higher when they used the app than when they stood in line to order." 

Obviously, such applications will continue to evolve. Mark Armstrong, vice president of Oracle higher education product development, shares this expectation: "Campus constituents, particularly the youngest ones, assume that they will be able to do a great deal of their business on their mobile devices. It's a reflection of the overall market reality of the way our clients will need to run their businesses—in order to be relevant to the types of customers they are trying to attract."

DAVID RUPP, Pittsburgh, Pa., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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Learning-Curve Caveats

As with most processes, implementation has its challenges. Here is some advice from some of the early adopters of mobile apps that fill some new niches.

  • Don't rush. Towson University's Dan Slattery recommends taking a patient pace when implementing any type of operational change. "You can control the comfort level of the rollout by setting deadlines that your staff can handle. I couldn't imagine trying to release the app at all nine units on the same day. Some training needs to be done. Once some of the staff learn that supporting the process is not that difficult, they spread the word to people in other units. Giving appropriate notice of upcoming changes that may affect their scope of work is also an important step that sets up expectations."
  • Foster cooperation of campus staff who interact daily with the system. "Before launching the new tool, make sure you involve all your food service staff. You have to get buy-in, whether it's a self-operating system or a third-party food service. Get the information technology people together with the campus-card office people, and the business office people involved with the project team. And, of course, don't forget student buy-in," says Matt Camino, director of ecommerce and compliance at the University of the Pacific.
  • Learn from the experience of earlier adopters. San Jose State University's Brian Mitchler says, "I was concerned with integrating the app orders into our point-of-sale system, so that could generate a single set of reportable data for our franchise royalty reports. I thought we might not need as many office staff to complete these transactions. However, after speaking with staff from the University of Southern California about their system, we realized that we needed to re-evaluate. We accept that there will be some back-end data compilation required, but every transaction will still be more efficient."
  • Consider and communicate to users environmental factors that may interfere with usage. "When you are walking around campus, passing different buildings, your phone tries to stay connected to different WiFi routers and can cause a little trouble when placing orders," notes Zach Garrett, who used the system when he was a student at Georgia State University. Out of 30 to 40 orders placed on the app, one or two didn't get submitted, and I had to reorder at the register."
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