Writing a student charter is only one step in looking after your university's customers, says Harriet Swain. You need to keep your promises, be accessible and listen to any feedback and act on it
Smile. See, not so bad is it? Even if the idea of treating students as customers does stick in your craw. Whatever your opinion, it's not worth getting too bogged down in the debate, says Alan Ingle, secretary and registrar of the University of East London, which has been awarded a Charter Mark.
He argues that universities need to pay attention to the service they provide to everyone, from students to staff, parents, employers and the local community. "Once you think of them as service users and get over the hurdle of whether they are customers, you get over the semantics and into the essence of it, which is providing good-quality services to whoever happens to need them at the time," Ingle says.
He says an important aspect of service for universities is engaging with external communities, including being environmentally responsible and encouraging staff to volunteer. "It's about not simply meeting the immediate needs of the client but thinking longer term about putting something back."
Ingle recommends going for a Charter Mark because it offers a framework to think about all kinds of issues to do with service, from ensuring that staff are well motivated to making Quality Assurance Agency assessments publicly available.
Paul Harrington, an independent assessor working with SGS (UK) Ltd, which carried out UEL's assessment, says a Charter Mark assessor will establish that a university is meeting its financial and educational targets and that these are publicly available, but the assessor's main concern will be that the institution is keeping the promises made in its student charter.
"Writing a charter is all very well," he says. "But is it just a pious sentiment?" He says good service has to be apparent in every part of the university.
Harrington recommends thinking about what you would expect in the other person's place - what kind of information you would look for, in what form, how quickly you would like to get it and how you would want to be treated, and then trying to supply that. "If universities aren't keeping their promises and things do go wrong I want to know if they are being open about it and are they putting it right," he says. His three key questions for anyone trying for a Charter Mark are: "Are you any good? Can you prove it? And who knows about it?"
Paul Cooper, director of the Institute of Customer Service, says: "Being great at customer service is something to tell the world about, as long as you really are great. Customers can see through the marketing hype when it comes to service much easier than they often can with products." He says research has shown that building a reputation for customer service rests on four things: going the extra mile, treating people as individuals, keeping promises and handling queries and complaints brilliantly.
Cooper says you should welcome complaints as free market research and learn lessons from them. Don't worry if you get more complaints in the short term - "you always had them but didn't know about it".
He advises that when you measure your performance, you must make sure you are measuring the right things, rather than the easiest things, and that what you discover will lead to action. Communication, he says, is vital.
You need to keep people informed, recognise good performance, celebrate success and make sure you have a good telephone-answering system and website.
As part of its efforts to win a Charter Mark, UEL put up photoboards in every school allowing students to see who staff are and how to contact them.
It also introduced feedback boxes throughout its campuses in which students, staff, visitors and any other stakeholder could post comments, compliments or concerns. Students and visitors are encouraged to give feedback online. Results are published in the form of "You said... We did"
Wes Streeting, the National Union of Students vice-president education, says the NUS wants universities to place more importance on canvassing student opinion and using it in their planning. "We would urge universities to develop robust mechanisms for engaging with students and student opinion, including good internal complaints procedures and regular and meaningful interaction with students' unions," he says.
This is something that has long been recognised at the private Buckingham University. V. S. Mahefh, programme director in service management at the university's business school, says it systematically gathers students'
views of their university experience, from their arrival to their graduation. "Every instance of contact between a student and the university is a moment of truth," he says. "How do you manage these moments of truth?"
Buckingham's answer is to gather together every department that a student will encounter in his or her first ten days, from registration to accommodation to academic departments, the library and IT services, and think about how each service could be improved. This is done for every new intake. "If you make a good impression to start with, it is much easier to sustain it," he says. From the vice-chancellor downwards, every person is encouraged to be accessible to students and to respond to student feedback.
On the other hand, Mahefh says, giving good service does not mean allowing customers to walk all over you. Students must understand that they have a role to play, and the university needs to tell them what they should do to fulfil this role.
Finally, Cooper says the key to providing good service is recruiting and retaining the right staff and keeping them happy. You also need a clear recognition from the top that customer service is important. So your vice-chancellor needs to be smiling, too.
SGS, inspection, verification, testing and certification company: www.uk.sgs.com
The official website for Charter Mark, the Government's national standard for excellence: www.chartermark.gov.uk
Institute of Customer Service: www.instituteofcustomerservice.com