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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

Service Through the Eyes of Your Customers

October 20, 2015

By Laura Humberger and Cathy Hasenpflug

As an outgrowth of a larger effort called OpenMSU, Montana State University launched a service excellence initiative in February 2014 to empower staff and faculty to optimize mission support effectiveness. This staff-driven effort has included a broader focus on improving service to students and beyond, most specifically with regard to MSU's administrative business transactions.

To gauge where we needed to focus attention, we surveyed faculty and staff to collect input from two perspectives: from employees providing services to internal colleagues and from those receiving the services. While the survey feedback helped reveal specific pain points related to particular processes that were too cumbersome or took too long to complete, employee comments also pointed to a pervasive need for better customer service overall. The comments were not an indictment against those providing service. Rather, the feedback seemed to suggest the culprit might be inadequate staffing levels, ineffective policies, or a lack of appropriate tools in place to help employees perform their best.

See What the Customer Sees

To begin developing a framework for improved service, we decided to tailor our initiative around the service excellence concepts of author and consultant Teri Yanovitch, whom we also hired to help us with the early assessment and leadership workshops/development. A core element of Yanovitch's framework in her book Unleashing Excellence: The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service (Wiley, November 2009) that we found most relevant was the concept of looking at a process through the lens of the stakeholder, whether a student, colleague, community member, service provider, or anyone else with whom employees come in contact. This meant learning to pay attention to how things look, sound, and feel with respect to the physical environment of our campus and office settings as well as scrutinizing the various steps in university business processes.

Initial meetings brought together a broad group of high-level administrators, faculty, and staff to develop a service philosophy and service standards. The service philosophy the university adopted focuses on building a supportive environment that inspires excellence in everything we do. We knew this wasn't about ramping up standard customer service training, but about how we as an institution could build a better framework to enable staff to provide excellent service by removing barriers and equipping them with the proper tools.

One tool that has proven especially useful is service mapping. This essentially entails developing flow charts of a particular work process, but instead of the traditional operational viewpoint, preparing them from the "lens of the customer." Focusing on wait times, touch points, and potentially frustrating obstacles was enlightening. From a customer perspective, where did it seem like things were getting hung up? Were we communicating with the customer during the process with status updates, or were we leaving the customer to wonder what was happening and whether anyone was actually doing anything to move the transaction along? In short, what could we do to make it easier to do business with us?

Map Your Service Approach

Two early examples of how MSU is applying this new customer-focused service approach are in our onboarding and benefits enrollment processes.

Getting employees up and running in a timely manner. As we began to take a closer look at internal employee customer service, it became apparent that one multifaceted transaction for which we needed dramatic service improvement related to welcoming new employees to the university. Whether employed in food service or in MSU's college of engineering, all new employees need grounding in much of the same information. The problem was that on average it was taking three weeks to get a new hire up and running on computer systems and with the e-mail and system access required to become fully productive. This slow start was no way to motivate new employees or make them feel valued, and it was frustrating for those current employees in the department who had to wait for a new hire to get acclimated and begin contributing to the team. Once this long lag time was identified, we set a goal to cut the three-week period to no more than three days.

In 2014, HR launched a pilot program to improve the experience of new employees during their first week of work. Our "JumpStart" initiative redesigned process workflows to reduce the wait time for system access for new hires and also created a mini-orientation option to deliver practical information, tools, and hands-on support to complete paperwork during the first days of work. The goal was to provide just-in-time practical information so that employees understood how they would get paid, how to sign up for benefits, and how to navigate MSU's computer system. By partnering with central HR to jump-start new employees with general information, processes, and tools, academic and administrative staff alike can now focus more time on specific departmental orientation needs and on assisting students, which is especially important at the beginning of a semester.

Making employee benefits selections quick and easy. A second example of internal customer service improvement is the re-engineering of MSU's online benefits enrollment, a process that had generated significant campus dissatisfaction over the past several years. When we mapped this process to identify how to make it more user-friendly, we started by asking the question: How do employees experience this process? How many steps are involved, and do these steps serve the needs of the employee? It quickly became evident that our process design served the needs of our technology platform, but required multiple steps that provided no value to employees, particularly those employees who did not want to make any changes to their plan choices. It could take some employees more than an hour to navigate the tool. Instead of focusing on making the best benefits choices, employees and staff were concentrating most of their time and effort feeding information into a frustrating online user interface. The merits of a comprehensive and thoughtful benefits package were all but forgotten in the minds of employees.

All of this challenged us to create a one-page, user-friendly interface so that employees could quickly make their selections and receive immediate confirmation of their choices. This improvement goal provided an opportunity to collaborate across departments, with HR and IT staff developing a new vision for the tool's design and navigation based on the "employee lens." The resulting new online tool exceeded campus expectations, reducing the time spent to log selected benefit choices to less than five minutes. As a result, nearly all time spent at benefits help sessions focused on the merits of the benefit package, rather than the tool used to make benefit selections. Faculty and staff now have more time to understand their benefits choices and spend minimal effort enrolling.

Other service-mapping projects in progress at MSU are electronic document management and workflow, HR recruitment, HR payroll process, and the payment authorization and purchasing process.

Put Students First and Foremost

Our review of customer satisfaction has gone beyond internal employee customers to focus on student stakeholders. We recognize the need to align MSU's quality of service with pursuit of academic excellence by providing the best service possible to students so they can focus on their studies. To students, it doesn't matter which department may be the culprit of perceived inefficiency. All they may know is that they aren't able to register for a required class or that their student bill doesn't reflect their financial aid. Working to improve service to students requires concerted collaboration across multiple departments so that no single area is holding the missing puzzle piece that can address a student's concern. The same holds true for faculty. If they are worried about receiving a timely travel advance for a trip with students, they can't fully focus on their research and teaching responsibilities. Transparency and accountability in all work processes are critical components of service excellence.

Roll Out the Workshops

To build an environment where everyone can concentrate on what they do best and where everyone knows who is responsible for how each process will be addressed requires concerted, consistent messaging and a common language with regard to service goals. To roll out our service excellence initiative, Teri Yanovitch developed a workshop format to engage all employees and to set clear expectations about MSU's service philosophy and standards. We began by conducting leader workshops from which 17 employees were certified to deliver service excellence workshops to all regular MSU employees.

To date, nearly 1,000 of MSU's more than 3,800 faculty and staff have participated in a service excellence workshop. The three-hour program introduces and explains the MSU service philosophy and service standards, allows participants to practice techniques and tools to improve service, reinforces each employee's role in delivering service excellence, and aims to provide a common language surrounding the new service excellence culture. It is important to have a language and framework in which managers from different departments not only get support and validation for the changes they want to make but also understand that the university encourages a shared value system and expectations for all.

Establish a Supportive Team

Establishing a service excellence team (see sidebar) has been an important element of making sure we move forward in a holistic manner. From the outset with our surveys, we made it clear we wanted to know the truth about our employees' experiences with internal service. We have also had to address the concerns that have surfaced as a result. To maintain momentum, our team is devoted to a broad range of service-related concerns, one of which is to recognize and affirm excellent service whenever and wherever employees are providing it. Our "random acts of excellence" postcard program allows peer-to-peer recognition for any individual or department on campus demonstrating excellent service.

Among the lessons we have learned through this process:

  • Service excellence begins with providing outstanding service to the institution's internal customers, and this applies to back-office personnel as much as those on the front lines serving students.
  • It is helpful to have some early tangible examples and wins to make service excellence real to employees. To assist with this process, we've begun developing some "marketing" pieces such as single-page stories of a particular "pain point," what the service mapping revealed about the potential solution, and what we did to improve service.
  • To make positive strides with improving service, you need to foster a culture in which no one feels like they are stepping on toes, where employees have permission to identify processes outside their own areas that can be improved. This can be a scary proposition, but you have to make it known that you want flaws exposed through the lens of those who are frustrated by poor service.

In the case of MSU, this entire initiative was spearheaded by staff, who identified the problem and requested the resources to address their concerns. Likewise, all the solutions have been identified by staff. Because this effort was not something imposed from the top down, it is much more likely to be sustained. It also helps that we have never positioned this as a training initiative. This is not about telling people to smile and be nice. Instead, it is about identifying and developing a new framework for service to customers, both internal and external, by first putting ourselves in the position of our customers to better understand what they need.

Laura Humberger is associate vice president for financial services, Montana State University, and Cathy Hasenpflug is MSU's associate chief human resources officer.

MSU's Service Excellence Team

MSU's service excellence team is bolstered by eight committees that help advance specific components of MSU's service excellence initiative.

1. Communications: Communicates to faculty and staff the impact they have in creating satisfied, happy, loyal students and stakeholders. Shares success stories and best practices from throughout the university.

2. Accountability: Develops and implements mechanisms to ensure day-to-day use of MSU service standards and service philosophy. 

3. Everything speaks: Raises awareness about the impact of the physical environment on the perception of service. Uses a perspective of looking through the lens of the user to identify more fluid and effective avenues to achieve the same, or better, outcome.

4. Measurement: Measures current and past satisfaction data to identify opportunities to improve MSU processes and systems to meet and exceed objectives in local departments and across campus. 

5. Onboarding and training: Leads the effort to build service excellence into every training opportunity for new and current faculty and staff. All training is tied back to MSU's service philosophy or service standards.

6. Recognition: Creates recognition opportunities for individuals and groups that demonstrate MSU's service standards and service philosophy.

7. Recruitment: Develops and maintains processes to locate and hire service-oriented personnel. Interview questions are tied back to MSU's service standards and philosophy, and descriptions of the position are listed and described to communicate the university's service-based culture.

8. Service opportunity system: Captures opportunities for service improvements through a system developed to solicit feedback from stakeholders to identify, resolve, and communicate processes they think should be improved through policy changes, better collaboration, and so forth.