Just One Stop, But Many Potential Pitfalls

Just One Stop, But Many Potential Pitfalls

Ensuring a strategic student service initiative doesn't result in worse service.

More and more institutions are strategically bringing together interconnected offices such as Financial Aid, Bursar, Registrar, and Advising under a "one-stop shop" with the intention of improving customer service. However, if not planned and executed properly, the action could deteriorate rather than enhance service. The following real examples represent typical pitfalls to avoid in moving forward on your own campus.

Housing all key student service offices together isn't easy, and compromises may arise that can hinder service. At one institution, a chosen space that could house all the operations they wanted to include was away from the main campus, where no student parking was available, and getting to the building involved a one-mile walk.

Another institution's "solution": Separate front- and back-office functions so the one-stop shop included only front-line staff from the Financial Aid, Bursar's, and Registrar's offices. Processing staff and office leadership remained in their original spaces. But front-line staffers weren't empowered to make corrections, and they couldn't easily access physical files to answer questions. Students went directly to the various back-office units to have their issues addressed and front-line staffers were underutilized.

Given these space challenges, some schools now offer their one-stop shops virtually, allowing students online access to view their information, submit forms, and make certain changes through the web. As web-based services become increasingly sophisticated, this approach can be quite effective at helping students navigate routine functions and answer basic questions. However, students with more complex situations or detailed questions may find themselves running back and forth between offices if the various services are still provided by offices that function as "silos."

Institutions should provide a virtual one-stop shop and ensure staffers in key offices are trained to work effectively together to provide seamless service to students with issues that can't be handled over the web.

Creating a one-stop shop often involves bringing together offices that in the past had a distant or even adversarial relationship. Even when previous relationships were positive, staff members can be reluctant to learn new areas of responsibility or physically relocate. These challenges can be minimized by:

Being clear about the new organizational structure, the primary responsibilities of each staff member, and the new location of the office.

Involving the staff as much as possible in planning the details below the basic structure and set of responsibilities.

Building in sufficient time for both training and team building.

Setting measurable goals that can only be met with the staff truly working together as a team.

Here is a true story you won't believe. After her university consolidated several Admissions offices into a one-stop admissions shop, the business school dean at one Scannell & Kurz client did some "secret shopping" to check the new system. She called the campus switchboard to request information about MBA program admission. The campus operator offered two options: Graduate Admissions or the Graduate Education office. She requested Graduate Admissions, but was connected to the Registrar's office. The Registrar's office then connected her to the main Admissions number, where a young man attempted to be helpful but didn't know the graduate admission requirements. So, he connected her to the business school, at which point the call was transferred to her own phone!

The moral of this story, of course, is that informing the whole campus about changes in the configuration of offices is critical to the success of any reorganization. Directories must be updated with clear information about who should be contacted for which issues. Students must be informed of the changes as well as faculty and staff. For example, with virtual one-stop shops, students need clear instructions about using any new online services. A surprising number of institutions introduce new web-based functionality and fail to market the new services to students. Bottom line: You probably can't over-communicate about changes in how services will be provided.

Interoffice communication is equally important. Even within a one-stop shop, protocols for routine communication must be established. At one school Scannell & Kurz visited, front-line staff in the one-stop center reported having been taken by surprise when students inquired about certain programs or communications being handled by the office's processing staff (e.g., information about turn-around times on issuing refund checks). Officewide operations calendars, routine e-mail updates, and regular staff meetings can be very helpful in improving in-office communications.

In their quest to streamline service, some institutions mistakenly try to bring together too many offices with too little training.

The most successful combinations typically involve only two offices that already work closely together, such as Financial Aid and Student Accounts, or Registrar and Advising. Broader combinations can work, but the amount of training involved needs to expand exponentially. Without sufficient training and reasonable expectations about how much a front-line person can know about the intricacies of financial aid programs, degree requirements, registration policies, payment plans, etc., service at the one-stop shop can come to a grinding halt. Or, in the effort to be helpful, staff can think they know more than they do and give out incorrect information.

Some one-stop shops set up satellite offices during peak times, with "all hands on deck" to ensure the lines move quickly.

Even if the long-term vision is to combine a broad array of offices, it's best to start small, with just two offices, adding on once that effort has proven successful. Also critical: Having a clear, formal training plan and documentation of all office processes to ensure that all aspects of the one-stop shop are adequately covered. Sporadic and informal (or "on the job") training breeds unexpected gaps in staff members' understanding of office polices and procedures.

When offices with similar times for peak phone and walk-in traffic volumes are combined, thought needs to be given to staffing. What used to be two or three medium-sized lines or list of calls to return can become one very long line or an overwhelming volume of voice mail messages to return. Some one-stop shops actually set up satellite offices during peak times, with "all hands on deck" to ensure the lines move quickly. Other offices hire temporary staff to answer basic questions, or "walk the line" to address quick questions wherever possible.

Processing backlogs can be a challenge when functional processing peaks in the combined offices coincide. One client shifted staff responsibilities many times to address various processing crises. Staffers were then unclear about their assignments and processes became overly segmented with too many hands involved.

The real answer to both challenges, of course, is to work proactively to encourage students to resolve issues prior to peak times. For example, the more financial aid staff can follow up with students missing items from their applications, the lower the volumes will be when bills go out or classes begin. Also, offices should work to reduce paperwork for students wherever possible. Again using aid as an example, many offices no longer require students to return signed copies of award letters.

Some IHEs that combine administrative units intend to reduce staff. This often results in a loss of subject-matter expertise. At one client, even though staffing levels were not reduced, the staff composition changed dramatically with two functional experts being replaced with a general manager and an additional front-line generalist. The original plan: All staff members in the one-stop shop would be generalists, working with all aspects of service for an assigned section of the alphabet. This concept, however, proved impossible to implement because staff members couldn't adequately learn everything about all aspects of processing in the three merged functional areas. This approach also put the institution at risk of being out of compliance with regulatory requirements.

The technology currently in place can be a challenge when moving to a one-stop concept. One institution continued to have three separate comment screens to note contacts with students--one for each of the combined units--rather than one place to track comments related to the new center. At another institution, access to the financial aid system was limited to certain computers, which meant that staff trying to answer questions about both financial aid and student accounts had to be at the "right" machine. At yet another institution, bills didn't reflect anticipated financial aid, so although the staffs were "integrated," the information presented to students was not.

While there are many potential pitfalls with using a one-stop shop concept, proper planning, training, and communication makes all the difference. The benefits of providing seamless service to students can be well worth the initial pains of transition.

Kathy Kurz and Jim Scannell are partners in the enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz. They can be reached via their website, www.scannellkurz.com.


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