First Impressions & Customer Service Failures

We all know how important first impressions are, right? It's sort of like how Anne McCaffrey's dragons "impress" on new dragonriders-to-be. (Yes, I'm feeling nostalgic with a new herd of freshmen on campus.) First impressions are essential, particularly when you're talking about freshmen, wet behind the ears, completely disoriented and overwhelmed by being at a state school for their first college experience, and stressed out by trying to find their classrooms and last-minute add/drops on their schedule.

I usually don't think of them this way, because I'm not a fundraiser or in the alumni office, but the University at large should also think about the fact that these are the kids we hope will call this university 'home' even after they leave. (That could be my small liberal arts college experience shining through, though.) If nothing else, due to UTC's abysmal retention rates, you'd think the entire university would be bending over backwards to help out this fresh crop of new students.

You'd be wrong. About the "entire" part at least. Oh, yes, this is going to be a call-out on customer service suckage.

The story begins: I could not find my jeans this morning. My apartment is not that big - but seriously, an hour of looking, no jeans. No biggie, except they have my university ID in the back pocket. Gah. Oh, wait - ID located. Mangled by my chompity Basset Hound of Doom. *sigh* So, I need a new ID. Easy, right? No, not right. ID office opens at 8 at teh University Center, but you cannot get new ID until you go to the bursar's office (other side of campus), pay, get a receipt, and *then* you can go to ID office. Bursar's office, of course, does not open until 8:30. Very convenient for all involved.

I truck over to the bursar's office and wait outside the door, beside a young woman growing hysterical on the phone. Obviously a new freshman, obviously upset, I ask her if I can help. Turns out she had a last minute drop/add, knows the class she's supposed to be in is in this building, but doesn't know where. No computer terminals for her to log into the student system and look at a copy. She, near tears, asks a woman walking into the bursar's office (whose windows are taped opaque - nice welcome, that), and the reply is a brusque "Sorry, honey, can't help you. Looks like you're out of luck." Woman walks into office, and locks door behind her.

Bucket. Of. Fail.

My reaction (which was likely obvious on my face) was a giant WTF. I tell now-crying girl she can call Valarie at the reference desk and give her instructions on how to log into the system for her, if she doesn't mind giving up her password. Girl thinks this is too complicated - so do I. Hmm. The freshman now decides at 10 minutes past she is too late and will just skip the class. I barge into the Disbursement office, and ask if anyone can give this poor girl computer access or look up her schedule, and a nice woman says yes. Girl soon dashes off to class with a wave and a "thank you so much," so, yay, my job done.

Not really. Did I mention I was already in a mood when I got over there?

Bursar's office opens up and lo and behold, who is chitchatting with her bursarial comrades than Rude Lady. I walk up to Rude Lady's window and inform her that I was appalled at her treatment of an obviously new and upset student when it would have taken 2 minutes of her time, and that as a faculty member, I thought she set a really terrible example for anyone who might have seen it. I told her that her customer service was an embarrassment to every UTC employee and that I was glad I worked at the library where we take our influence on students seriously. (I was already cranky about a number of other things. And I realize it was not my place to chastise a staff member I don't supervise. But I really was horrified at her callousness.) I paid for my card replacement and left, still steamed.

Now, I understand the stresses of working at an office like the bursar, or the registrar, or admissions. People come in making demands you can't help them with for a variety of reasons, most of them the customer's fault. I've been there, I know all about this. But in addition to actually doing the work of bill collecting and such, customer service is also part of your job. Feel superior to people later when you're off work, or on your lunch hour. But if someone has a simple request that it doesn't hurt you to help them with, why wouldn't you? It makes you look like an ass in front of any other faculty or staff that see you, and you upset a brand new student who is still trying to find her way around.

UGH, people. If you cannot be civil and help, get out of the service position you are in. You're not doing us as an institution any favors. And you never know if someone who sees an exchange like this is going to blog about it, and mention that while the one lady in the bursar's office is a complete witch, the disbursements office seems to be filled with friendly, helpful folks. Mental note made.


Ryan Deschamps said…
This hits home pretty hard. When I took my first shot at an undergrad, I came from a family with zero post-grad experience. I barely knew what a university was, forget having to deal with self-important academic bureaucracy.

If universities want to play any role in helping young people be the best they can be, they should start at making the registration process as friendly as possible. Big fail here.
Allison said…
Hell, it's not even about customer service sometimes. It's about not being a crappy person.

There are no classes that meet in my building, but I guarantee you that when students come back next week I will encounter at least a half a dozen lost undergrads wandering the halls when they really ought to be next door. We stop them, ask if they need help, and point them in the right direction. Since we're the PR office we have a stack of campus maps (a good thing for every office to have) and will help them locate their building on it. And believe me, we are like grand central station for people asking us to help with things that aren't our job. But we still take the time to be considerate to people in need of help.

And you know what? I was late to my first college class ever because I couldn't find the room. And I would have been horrified if nobody would help me.
Colleen said…
@Ryan - yep. We serve a largely 1st generation college student population. You can't expect people to just "know" things.

@allison - I vote that we revoke this lady's personhood. And hooray on you for rescuing lost frosh!
Allison said…
Let me add something - at Big State U. where I work (and Colleen used to, so she knows what I'm talking about), the campus is huge and very intimidating to new freshmen. So at least last year we stationed volunteer faculty and staff around campus wearing blue shirts and holding stacks of maps on the first day of class. So lost students could easily identify someone to point them toward various campus buildings. It didn't really cost the university anything, and probably saved some people from being lost and anxious.
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