Leveraging Technology at the Crossroads of Customer Service and Compliance

Several considerations are crucial for maintaining a high level of service while meeting regulatory requirements
By: | Issue: June, 2015
May 13, 2015

Maintaining customer service and compliance goals often creates conflicts at higher education institutions, because of the resources needed to attain success. While laws, regulations and policies may create unintended barriers to service delivery, compliance requirements cannot be ignored in the face of potential penalties. In this web seminar, originally broadcast on April 2, 2015, the assistant vice president and bursar at Temple University discussed strategies to ensure that institutions can foster a quality service environment while also maintaining a compliant operation.

Senior Vice President
Nelnet Business Solutions

Nelnet Business Solutions is part of Nelnet, a $2 billion market cap, publicly traded company. We serve more than 750 colleges and universities across the country. Institutions can take comfort in our financial strength and experience as a large, publicly traded organization. We offer actively managed payment plans, e-billing and e-payment services, a revolutionary student choice refund service, e-store functionality, and a host of additional products and services capable of processing every payment on campus.

We are pleased to help Temple University streamline business operations and payment processes, while also improving the student experience with our suite of campus commerce services. And we very much appreciate their loyalty and trust in Nelnet Business Solutions.

Assistant Vice President and Bursar
Temple University

In higher education we tend not to talk about customers as much as we talk about students and parents. We use a lot of different terminologies. For our discussion today, every one of these constituencies is a customer.

When I started in higher education almost 35 years ago, the goal was dealing with our students—helping them succeed as much as possible, but also, from the business office side, making sure that tuition was paid. Today, the experience may start as early as middle school for prospective students looking at our institutions. Those students who apply and are admitted, and actually attend and graduate, their experience with our institutions doesn’t stop the day of commencement. We’re then looking at alumni who could become potential donors. The experience is now not so much a two- or four-year on-campus experience, but almost what I call a high-school-to-grave relationship. In providing customer service and providing the necessities for education, how do we deal with compliance? In understanding compliance, we’re looking at two levels: the external rules that are placed upon our institutions, and the internal control processes that help us maintain an environment that is compliant with all those external rules. I’m not an attorney, so none of this should be construed as legal advice; when you are dealing with compliance issues on your campus, you should always engage your own institutional counsel for advice and direction.

In today’s environment, our customers are looking for not only more service and better service, but more timely service. And their expectation is that the information they are getting is not only immediate, but also accurate. In order to be more efficient, to be more effective with the resources that we have, we migrate to technology. We use technology also as a means to help us when we look at our business processes, as it is always a good checkpoint to determine what we are doing and why we are doing it. For example, student privacy is a major area where we’re dealing with the crossroads of customer service and compliance.

FERPA is a great example, because in business offices where you are dealing with parents, many times it’s mom and dad who are paying the student’s tuition bill. Without a FERPA waiver, we’re very limited in what information we can provide to anyone except the student. The barrier we can run into almost immediately is that it’s very difficult at times to explain to a parent, “We’re not trying to make it harder for you to pay us, or for you to find out information about your student’s account, but we can’t share that information without their consent.” We have other cases where there are longstanding statutes and other regulations that dictate how we do certain things and handle certain processes. But when some of the statutes were written, no one thought about the concept of fax machines, email, the internet, text messaging or social media. It can be very difficult to reconcile the issues and come up with a simple solution.

Technology tends to outpace the rules. There are customer service issues where technology comes into play, especially in billing. A vast majority of schools have gone to exclusive e-billing. For those institutions that are tuition-driven for revenue, it’s crucial to be able to get a clear, accurate bill out on time and, for cash-flow purposes, to pull those funds in as quickly as possible. And the goal here, again, is to do this in the simplest way not just for the institution, but also for our customers. The other customer service issue we always hear about: “Where’s my refund?” Again, there is usually an expectation: “I get my bill. I have enough financial aid to cover my balance. Why can’t I get my money now?” Well, there is a federal regulation. We can’t distribute any of your money until 10 days prior to the start of the term. And if you disperse the money too early and that student doesn’t come, now you are in a situation where you have to recover money.

These are hot-button customer service issues we run into day in and day out, and we look for technology to help us manage them. In terms of paying tuition bills, we find online payments are so much easier, especially for timely payment. People forget—we understand that. But on the due date, you are not going to want to drive five hours to Philadelphia to pay your bill, and you don’t want to depend on overnight delivery, and you don’t want to depend on the postal service. The easiest way is to just go online. It’s available 24/7, 365, and you can make your payment by electronic check or credit card. It also reduces the in-person volume. We still have a number of students and families who tend to bring payments in, but it used to be 60 to 70 percent of them before electronic payments were common, and today it’s 8 to 10 percent.

Some other things to consider: First of all, understand your own philosophy for customer service. What’s a requirement? What’s non-negotiable? What’s optional? What can you do without? Who needs to be involved in compliance and who’s ultimately going to be responsible for compliance at your institution? When you have a conflict between customer service and compliance, who mediates the conflict? Who are the real decision-makers? Does it have to migrate up to the president for a decision, or is it dealt with at a lower level? And how does your institution proceed? In terms of how you leverage technology, look at the metrics and analytics that are available to help you with process improvements and enhancements to your systems. Always be looking to simplify processes. Perform an annual business process review just to see what’s working and what isn’t. Find where you can make changes that will benefit customer service and that bring you into compliance, but more importantly, focus on any changes that will make your offices more efficient and effective.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to www.universitybusiness.com/ws040215