Boosting college admissions office customer service: Mystery shopping and more

How to uncover—and solve—service weaknesses in contact with prospective students and applicants

It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to see how mediocre customer service in a college admissions office can sway a student’s college choice and have a colossal impact on the institution over time. Online inquiries that go unanswered or questions met with lukewarm or generic responses result in prospective students or family members looking elsewhere—and leave the institution with fewer contacts in the enrollment funnel.

“Quality of service helps differentiate us,” says Cate Clark, associate dean for graduate and adult undergraduate admissions at Regis University, a private institution based in Denver that competes with several area state schools. “In any service organization outside of education, it’s rare not to have a quality assurance plan,” she adds. Hiring “mystery shoppers” to report back on staff responsiveness helps her office meet its goals—which are especially important in today’s “Starbucks/Amazon culture,” she says.

Stellar service also helps in the college transition. Whether prospective students are first generation or part of a highly educated family, says Ashleigh Spatt of Eastern Michigan University, “there’s so much anxiety. They’re scared. They’re excited. There’s all this emotion. We need to be this stalwart beacon of strength.”

Admissions office mystery shopping
tips and tricks

Kurt Eddins, co-owner and president of 360 Intel, a mystery shopping provider for higher ed and other industries, offers this advice for implementing mystery shops to improve admissions customer service:

– Decide if you’ll handle it internally or through a provider. “There are a lot of do-it-yourselfers out there,” he says. But he makes the case for an outside partnership because of the more formal nature of the work. 360 Intel offers customers access to a sophisticated reporting dashboard.

– Determine what exactly you want shopped. Colleges can use mystery shopping for initial calls or emails or for campus visits. As Eddins points out, though, it’s much more challenging to hire campus visit shoppers. CSU Global used 360 Intel to check up on its third-party call center.

– Understand in advance what a shop will entail. Shop reports from 360 Intel are broken into sections, covering response time, response quality (customer service, salesmanship, etc.), and responses to deeper questions such as one about a particular academic program. “A lot of our clients will include certain curveballs to test their team on how they handle them,” Eddins says.

– Be prepared for constructive criticism. Reports prompted the Regis University team to build more career pathways knowledge, such as demand for jobs and salary outcomes, says Cate Clark, associate dean for graduate and adult undergraduate admissions. “We were failing in that area miserably.”

– Use reports as teaching opportunities (and reasons to celebrate). Admissions leaders will want to share immediately and see if trends and patterns emerge over time. Some have put together materials such as a “top 5 things we struggle with” memo. Other colleges have been able to share the good news that a shopper ended up enrolling. “It’s not something we are necessarily pitching,“ says Eddins, “but that’s a great side benefit if it ends up happening.”

A late arrival for a campus visit or parking struggles “may seem like the end of the world to them,” but a quick, friendly text back from admissions will ease those worries, adds Spatt, associate director of admissions. “At the end of the day, yes, we do admissions recruiting. But it’s basically sales, and we need to be there to provide service.”

Admissions work tends to attract outgoing, welcoming people. “They’re generally cheerleader types,” says Kurt Eddins, co-owner and president of 360 Intel, a mystery shopping provider for higher ed and other industries. “But I have known several directors of admissions who did not blow me away with their personality. I was curious how they ended up where they did.”

No matter how great the team, areas to improve can always be found.

From ensuring quick, quality replies at first contact to being that friendly guide throughout the whole application and enrollment process, admissions officers are upping their customer service game by uncovering weaknesses and then converting them into strengths.

Behind the scenes of a mystery shop

Regis has used mystery shopping since 2018 to keep tabs on service levels within graduate and adult undergraduate admissions—areas that use a lot of paid media and paid searches to find potential students, says Clark. “With so much money being invested in marketing, it would behoove us to make sure we’re following up on inquiries.”

Shopping helps evaluate response timing and how well staff ask the right questions to ensure prospective students know their options, Clark says. “We really wanted our ‘speed to lead’ to be better.”

Her team of 26 counselors follows a six-step recruitment process, which could happen in one or more conversations. It involves building rapport to determine interests and goals, seeing if the person is a qualified candidate, presenting potential academic programs, explaining what the Regis community is like and the expectation for online students (the majority of adult learners), and going over financial aid options and finally the application process.

The department hired 360 Intel for 30 email and phone shops a month initially, and then reduced it to 12 shops per month. Clark says she liked the a la carte options, as opposed to a higher ed marketing service company that might offer similar services as part of a bundle only. (360 Intel completes about 5,000 shops a month across the country, with most costing about $50 each, says Eddins.)

Early on, the effort uncovered a technical glitch resulting in records of some submitted inquiry forms not getting through to counselors. “Had we not been shopping, we never would have known that,” says Clark.

In terms of service quality, she has found counselors generally appreciate the opportunity to improve. “We tried to make sure they understood that this is best for the student,” she says. Individual shop details are shared as they come in, and overall results—including excellent feedback such as a shopper saying they would now consider Regis themselves—get shared monthly with the whole team. Clark logs in to a portal for data visualizations and analysis.

Friendly faces—Eastern Michigan has students staffing the front desk of its Admissions Welcome Center, which features bright photos of students as decor. Seven of the 30 student employees are more senior-level coordinators who help guide newer staff in answering questions and conducting tours

One big team goal: more live transfers. “When a call comes in, it goes to an admissions assistant, who needs to find an available counselor,” Clark says. “More of our calls are going to voicemail than we’d like. That’s been eye-opening for us.”

Also read:

What’s the true role of a student tour guide on campus?

11 tips for creating a memorable campus tour

[infographic] How campus student service areas can use chatbots


Other sleuthing strategies—and service fixes

Matthew D. Shank, president emeritus of Marymount University in Virginia, worked with the head of institutional research and planning to organize mystery shops in offices across campus. The effort, which lasted several years, provided “another way to grab feedback on how people are treated within the office. Combine that with survey data and it paints a good picture,” says Shank, now president of the Virginia Foundation of Independent Colleges.

Many admissions offices learn about issues through post-tour and applicant surveys. Another option is a service such as the Campus Visit Audit from the company Welcome to College, examining everything from online registration to post-visit follow-up.

Related: Mystery shopping to improve customer service across a college campus

Eastern Michigan admissions leaders analyze contacts through the CRM to monitor inquiry form response speed and specific email and text replies, says Spatt. She also encourages faculty to reach out if they ever witness questionable admissions staff behavior, such as during visit programs.

Staff training sessions at most colleges communicate expectations and share service strategies. EMU extends training to its 30 student tour guides, who also staff the front desk. “They are kind of the faces in the office,” says Spatt. Going well beyond “the customer is always right” rule, across two months students learn how to mingle with a guest as well as phone basics such as handling cold calling and leaving appropriate messages.

“They are so nervous to answer the phone; it blows my mind,” Spatt says. She’ll suggest responses like “great question; let me find that answer for you, if I can put you on hold for one second.”

In her experience, visitors won’t remember the building was built in 1882, but rather how the staff made them feel. “We’re trying to give them that ‘say yes to the dress’ feeling,” explains Spatt. “When you set foot on the campus you know is right, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is it.’ ”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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