Universities are using consultants posing as would-be students to test the 'customer care' skills of academics. Phil Baty reports
Groups of fake students and their parents are being unleashed on universities to test how well staff handle "customer relations" it emerged this week.
In a move more commonly found in the retail and catering industries, universities are embracing the controversial practice of "mystery shopping" exercises, where consultants are paid to pose as customers to check the level of service given. Some companies even offer to carry out tests using hidden cameras.
In what marketing chiefs say is a sign of the "modern reality" of higher education, where fee-paying students expect high levels of "customer care", consultants are being hired to phone, e-mail and visit university departments to keep staff on their toes.
Union leaders called the moves worrying and said they missed the point that staff were already run off their feet with heavy workloads.
One university confirmed this week that it planned to introduce the practice for open days to enable it to test how polite and helpful academics were in dealing with would-be students and their parents.
"I agree with it," said Donald McLeod, chair of the Higher Education External Relations Association and head of marketing at Hertfordshire University. "We should all be doing it. The sector needs to get to grips with the concept of customer service. There is a debate as to whether we are servicing 'customers' or students, but everyone expects a level of service now."
He said that Hertfordshire had not yet commissioned any mystery shopping research, "but it is likely that we will be". He added that he planned an "experiential" exercise to cover open days, in which mystery shoppers would test the politeness and helpfulness of staff and the operation of facilities.
"You do not improve if you do not look at yourself," he said.
A mystery shopping exercise carried out at Sheffield University in December 2005 involved 169 telephone calls and 109 e-mail requests being made to the university by researchers posing as students. The results, passed to The Times Higher , suggest that the university has a long way to go to meet basic standards of customer relations.
One in five telephone callers who asked for information received nothing.
One in six telephone inquirers felt that the person they spoke to did not give a positive impression of the university.
One in three callers who left a voicemail message asking to be called back was not, while 30 per cent of phone inquirers failed to get through to someone after three attempts.
Seven departments took more than a month to send requested material; one department took three months to reply.
The research also raised concerns that a quarter of all voicemail "greetings" messages were not personalised, that students received undated or unsigned letters, sometimes with an "inappropriate salutation, or none at all". Students were also receiving poor-quality photocopied material or out-of-date information.
Jane Chafer, director of student recruitment and marketing at Sheffield, said the university was leading the way in monitoring its image in this way - introducing training courses and further tests.
"We realise that students' expectations of us are changing, and we wish to continually improve and challenge ourselves to enhance the service we offer," Ms Chafer said.
"Inquiry handling is a sector-wide issue and, to tackle this, Sheffield regularly undertakes mystery shopping exercises," she added. "We do this because we care about the student experience and want to ensure that we meet the high standards we set ourselves."
She said the results seen by The Times Higher did not highlight "the many areas of excellence within the university".
"Since the survey was completed, a lot has happened and a number of initiatives and training courses have been put in place to ensure our staff are fully aware of the excellent service we expect them to offer. We believe that we are one of the first universities to do this."
Teesside University also confirmed this week that it had undertaken similar exercises.
Helen Caswell, Teesside marketing manager, said: "To put yourself in your customer's shoes is a very useful way to audit yourself.
"From ordering a prospectus to making a telephone inquiry, it can quickly identify strengths and areas for improvement. It has held us in good stead over a number of years, and it is something we plan to continue to use."
Roger Kline, head of equality at the University and College Union, said:
"One of the problems of being 'student-centred' with students as 'customers' is that it creates expectations of being available 24/7 and can lead to unacceptable working practices."
Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the UCU, said the poor results at Sheffield showed that academics were "run off their feet".
"Universities would be better advised to reduce student-to-staff ratios than to seek to turn the role of academics into little more than sandwich-board wearers for potential students," she said.
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Many mystery shopping companies now offer "video mystery shopping".
One major firm explained how it worked: "The interaction that takes place is clearly recorded with sound and colour video; actions taken by the researcher as well as the staff member are all captured.
"Video mystery shopping encompasses all the benefits of conventional written research with the following advantages: it captures body language, tone of voice and other subtleties better than a written report; videotaped mystery shopping brings home problem areas with more impact."