Take a peek at Yale’s alumni relations successes from the past year, and learn some interesting trends and approaches. Among them: Reunions today are more vibrant than ever, setting new records in 2015 for overall attendance. More than 7,000 graduates, family, and friends returned for Yale College reunions in the spring of 2015.
The Guardian’s Higher Education Network offers this great article on communicating with alumni. The bottom line: “You’re up against Twitter, text messages and diminishing attention spans, so make it snappy (and not about strategic plans).”
The University of Missouri’s alumni association has re-instituted its Black Alumni Network in response to numerous requests made in the weeks after racial tensions exploded on the school’s campus.
Corporate Insights recently reported that although nearly eight in ten alumni “feel positively” about their alma mater, only 22% have donated to their college or university in the last year. The report explored characteristics of donors vs. non-donors, and a key finding was that eighty percent of alumni donors indicated they have benefitted from their association with their alma mater. Among others, this finding underscores the new framework for alumni engagement: providing lifelong value for lifelong loyalty.
Ohio State University has launched a new tool to connect alumni and members of the Buckeye community with volunteer opportunities. This new portal (Volunteer Match) will enable alumni to choose specific areas of interest and allow for more extensive outreach, improved communication, and automated follow up.
Josh Cline, President and CEO of The Cline Group International, discusses the effect of student loans and the decline of alumni engagement. To help improve the relationship between alumni and their institution, Cline suggests the creation of university-affiliated investment funds.
About 1 in 4 graduates will have transferred schools by the time they finish college. As the number of students transferring increases and the number of alumni decreases, what does this mean for alumni affinity and giving?
Harvard alumnus Gerald Chan co-directs the Morningside Foundation, which donated $350 million to the university, making this the largest contribution in the institution’s history.
Image republished with permission of The Lantern, thelantern.com, Ohio State University.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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, http://blog.kissmetrics.com/great-customer-service-infographic/?wide=1
The academic year is in full swing, and with all your alumni events, board meetings, and much more, you might be experiencing some stress.
In the video below, BWF’s Jamie Hunte offers her favorite tips for staying energized and focused through the year.
What are you doing to beat the stress and keep your alumni program operating at top quality? Email us your ideas at email@example.com or comment below.
A recent Huffington Post article explored changing demographics among alumni populations at colleges and universities.
With students of color comprising one-third of last year’s graduating class, author Marybeth Gasman urges schools to prepare for a “sea change” in their alumni communities, noting that “few colleges are prepared or preparing to engage their very diverse alumni.”
How can alumni relations programs lead their institutions in this process?
Alumni relations programs are uniquely positioned to nurture their institution’s relationships with diverse alumni. One stellar example is the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Spectrum: an Alumni Conference Celebrating Diversity. We spoke with Penn Alumni Director of Multicultural Outreach Nicole Maloy for insight on how the conference began and what successes they’ve seen as the conference enters its second year.
Maloy said that “all wise universities are thinking about what needs to be done to better engage alumni from different populations.” The Penn Alumni Relations program was no different, and as they considered what more they could be doing to engage their diverse community, some alumni suggested doing a large-scale event.
They focused on alumni of color and LGBT alumni, as they had a unique asset in the Penn Alumni Diversity Alliance – a volunteer coalition including alumni of diverse race, ethnicity, and orientation. With a long history of collaborative events, the planning began. “We were blown away by the support we received from throughout the university and from the highest levels. Our president made this a university priority,” said Maloy.
The conference was marketed to all alumni as an opportunity to rediscover Penn. “It was an important message for historically underserved populations, to celebrate what has been accomplished in terms of diversity and inclusion,” said Maloy.
What happened was remarkable: 450 participants and rave reviews.
With a bevy of programming options, the conference allowed alumni to connect in different ways: by era, racial group, gender identity, and intellectual interest. This year’s conference schedule is full of opportunities for personal enrichment, connecting with other alumni, and learning how Penn is advancing diversity on campus.
Alumni volunteer leaders were the backbone of the conference. The steering committee decided on the conference structure, speakers, topics, and marketing and outreach.
In terms of budget, Maloy compared the conference to a reunion weekend, noting the registration fee doesn’t nearly cover the costs. Corporate sponsors are solicited, and the event is co-sponsored by the Office of the President and Penn Alumni Relations.
Asked how the conference has contributed to Penn Alumni’s overall engagement strategy, Maloy said, “It gives us branding, and an opportunity to go beyond what we’ve been able to do in the past. We’ve launched a regional program called Penn Spectrum on the Road as an extension of the conference. Most importantly, we encourage all attendees to remain involved – whether through Diversity Alliance group membership, regional clubs, class reunions – anything that keeps them connected with the University beyond the conclusion of the conference. We want these relationships to be ongoing.”
Reflecting on Penn’s success with this unique event, here are a few guiding principles for launching a diversity initiative:
- Listen to the opinions, insights, and ideas of your alumni as to what initiatives are desirable and welcomed among your alumni community.
- Commit whole-heartedly to the initiative and invest staffing and resources accordingly.
- Enlist the support of the university community and communicate the value of what your initiative will accomplish for the institution.
- Engage alumni volunteers to lead the effort.
- Plan well in advance.
BWF helps colleges and universities build alumni relations programs that mobilize alumni as volunteers, donors, and goodwill ambassadors. For more on BWF’s alumni engagement services, click here.