We have all been there – your office phone rings and, without knowing who is on the line, you answer. The person on the other side of the call besieges you with details of their troubles in a manner that is overwhelming, especially if you are not ready for an intense situation. At that moment, we have to make a decision on how best to respond. The response should ensure that the student’s voice is heard, allows us to gather relevant information to assist in addressing the matter, and provide insight into the context of the issue. The manner in which we respond, however, is often rooted in the desire to be a resource for the student or simply acting as a customer service representative for the institution.
Can the customer service approach and a student development resource approach coexist? Each institution and department may approach interactions with students differently, potentially leaning heavily in one direction over another. As Student Affairs professionals, we affect student development directly. That often correlates to influence on retention and persistence. Whereas, the Financial Aid office may be required to approach students in a less developmental manner, but has an equally important influence on the student. The approach need for a particular interaction may require a determination based on the situation and the circumstances.
From a Student Affairs perspective, the benefits of the customer service model somewhat mimics the traditional skills that are associated with student advocacy. The primary difference may be the concept that “the customer is always right.” As educators and personal development specialists, we must challenge students when their perspective is narrow, or if they engaged in behavior that is not conducive to the community or their personal success. In those moments, we cannot acquiesce to a customer service model that allows the student to believe that administrators are willing to allow them to engage in an unchallenged process of learning. The process of challenging students is widely theorized and many within our profession are extremely effective in putting a hybrid customer service/student development model to work in the favor of all involved in a situation. The basic tenets that exist in customer service as well as education transcend categorization. As long as we continue to do the following, we can make even the most frustrating moment for a student an opportunity for education and personal growth :
Respect the person, the process, and the issue.
If a student is upset or feels the need to voice concern over an aspect of their student experience, then we must respect that it has/is having a significant influence on them. To disregard those issues as petty complaints is an act that disregards the person as well. Respecting the person and the issue are somewhat connected. In terms of process, you must remember that you may not be able to resolve the matter immediately. If a process for addressing the issue exists, trust it and follow it. It is there for that specific reason. If you deviate from the approach deemed appropriate within your department, you risk contributing to assumptions that you have lost objectivity or will do whatever the student wishes to resolve the issue—which isn’t always possible.
Listen before responding.
Our role is to hear what students are expressing. We cannot accomplish this without truly listening to their concern and attempting to identify underlying issues through their own words. Before offering solutions or embarking on the process of challenging a student’s perspective, ensure that you have objectively heard their concerns. From there, you can formulate a response that is most appropriate for the circumstances and the developmental level of the student in need.
Be patient and keep your cool.
Getting wrapped into the emotion of the issue will affect your ability to be objective, especially if the issue involves more than one individual. It is easy to feel as if complaints are directed at you, especially if the student expresses a lack of attention to a matter (regardless if you were previously aware of the issue or not!). Take a deep breath, stay focused, and respond appropriately. It is good to empathize in difficult situations, but try to avoid sympathizing, as it may lead to solidifying a student’s perspective, which will affect your ability to educate in that moment should that become necessary.
The common theme in each of the above tenets is objectivity. As long as you can maintain an unbiased position, the approach may be flexible to the situation. A student centered approach, regardless, should not be negotiable and if we adhere to the basics mentioned above, difficult situations and discussions are more manageable for both the student and the professional.
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Podcast With Kimberly White on Experiential Learning