Building Alumni Affinity through Great Customer Service

I recently had a stunning customer service experience. After finishing my purchase, the cashier asked if I was aware of a special discount that I could have applied to my purchase. When I replied that I didn’t know about said offer, she quickly (and happily) processed the offer and issued me a refund of 25% savings! I walked away a highly satisfied customer, with soaring affinity for this retailer.

This experience started me thinking about the role of customer service in alumni engagement. In an age of increasing levels of consumer expectations, alumni organizations need to be attentive to alumni expectations while delivering on our service to the institution. In our high-touch field, alumni professionals are uniquely positioned to build affinity for our colleges and universities through stellar customer service, which strengthens our institutions’ brands.

What are the consequences of poor customer service? An unreturned phone call, a confusing website, or a poor experience at an event will decrease affinity, and others will hear about it. Studies show that after a poor customer service experience, 26% of consumers will post a negative comment via their social networks. Alumni with degrees from other institutions or with children enrolled at other schools may choose to support the alma mater that has given them the best alumni experience. And while not all alumni have the option to take their “business” to a competitor, there are plenty of opportunities for alumni to invest their time and resources elsewhere.

So, taking a cue from my friendly cashier, what opportunities do we have to build pride and spirit in our institution through our service to alumni?

KISSmetrics compiled a fantastic infographic on why companies with great customer service succeed.


Friendly employees, easy-to-find information/help, and personalized experiences top the list. In alumni engagement, these translate into the day-to-day interactions alumni have with our organizations, including:

  • User-friendly websites. How easy to navigate is your alumni organization’s website? Does it have an up-to-date look and feel? Is staff contact information easy to find? A great example is the University of Virginia Alumni Association’s site, which won a CASE District III award after a redesign last year.
  • Easy access to live support. When alumni call your office for help, do they reach someone who can really handle their request? Or do they get shuffled around to various departments? Many organizations are now providing a central email and phone number for an alumni “help desk” that can address any request, even across departments (development, admissions, or alumni relations). Having the right team member working the “help desk” is key to this approach. An engaging, dedicated problem solver will bring more to the customer service experience than someone who will only route calls.
  • Seamless logistics at events. When alumni approach your event site, are parking options clear? Do attendees have to search for the registration line? How are personal touches added to the experience? Walking through the event experience from beginning to end with a few colleagues can help resolve trouble spots ahead of time.

Beyond the day-to-day interactions, our organizations and staff need to be empowered to meet alumni expectations.

  • Do we know what alumni expect? The ever-popular alumni attitude/perceptions survey is one way to gather this information. What programs and services are most requested? Beyond those specifics, what are alumni expectations of the organization as a whole? Take advantage of some of your most engaged stakeholders by seeking input from volunteers and board members. But remember, don’t ask for alumni input if you don’t intend to follow through on their feedback.
  • Are our front-line staff members empowered to deliver quality customer service? Are support staff members empowered to quickly resolve complaints? Or do they need permission to issue refunds or make a special arrangement to win over a dissatisfied alumnus? Ritz Carlton set a gold standard in empowering front-line staff when management authorized every hotel employee to spend up to $2,000 per incident, without approval from a general manager, to not only resolve issues but create an outstanding guest experience. Zappos is well-known for their unorthodox methods of going far beyond expectations to make customers not just happy, but ecstatic.

Lastly, the greatest opportunity to influence a culture of stellar customer service is through our organizational leadership. Alumni executives and directors can set the right tone of appreciation for and service to the alumni community in how they talk about the alumni body, and in particular, alumni volunteers. Further, recognizing the good efforts of program and support staff will reinforce and affirm the value of service. Staff respond as they are appreciated for their contribution to a culture of quality service to alumni that builds great brand affinity for the college or university.

As former Ritz Carlton CEO Simon Cooper noted, “If leadership doesn’t live the values that it requires of the organization, that is the swiftest way to undermine the culture. No culture sticks if it’s not lived at the highest levels of the organization.”

We’d love to hear how your organization is integrating a culture of service in your engagement. Post your comments below, or send your thoughts to

Jamie Hunte is a member of the alumni engagement practice at Bentz Whaley Flessner, where she helps colleges and universities build and grow strong alumni engagement programs. For help with building alumni affinity at your school, contact Jamie here

Photo credit: KISSmetrics,