Todd Nelson uses surveys to improve EDMC’s service Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2010

Year after year, Todd S. Nelson watches as Education Management Corp. adds to its list of locations. As the company expands into new cities and new states, like its recent venture into New Mexico, the more Nelson and his top team are removed from direct contact with their students.

However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a pulse on the students’ needs.

“If you’re planning ahead and you understand your growth, make sure that you are providing the resources to be able to maintain that healthy level of contact with your customers,” says Nelson, CEO of EDMC. “Really the key is making sure that you’re planning ahead ... regardless of how fast you’re growing or how big you become; (maintaining customer contact) is a very core guiding principle that will help you and your company to stay successful.”

In order to maintain that healthy level of contact, you must stay in touch with your customers, monitor and measure customer satisfaction and hold employees accountable to providing great service.

Nelson has done just that to better understand those who EDMC serves, its students, and to better determine how to make the $2 billion company (NASDAQ: EDMC) stronger.

As one of the largest providers of private post-secondary education, EDMC has four primary education institutions — Argosy University, The Art Institutes, Brown Mackie College and South University — as well as Western State University College of Law. With 20,212 employees and 136,000 students, as of October 2009, providing quality education and service is a constant priority.

“As an organization becomes larger, it’s easy, at times, to get caught up in the organizational issues,” Nelson says. “As it gets bigger, it’s easier to get more removed from the customer, and that is a huge mistake. If you’re not communicating with them, you don’t know their perception of whether you’re doing a good job or not.”

Stay connected

You need to be in touch with your customers so you understand what they think of your company and the service you’re providing. Without that connection, you won’t have a strong hold on your strengths and weaknesses.

Nelson says making that connection can be broken into two simple, but necessary, steps. Step one is provide the customer with an avenue to communicate with you. Step two is being proactive in personally connecting with the customer.

Nelson oversees institutions with 136,000 students. They’re in 98 locations in 30 U.S. states and Canada, so reaching out to each one of them is nearly impossible. Even if you can’t directly talk to all of your customers about their questions, concerns and general feedback, you have to give them the ability to reach you.

“By providing them an avenue to have access to you, that allows them, those who may have low-end type of feedback, an opportunity to communicate with you,” Nelson says. “Then, you can make sure that you’re addressing their issues.”

There are fairly simple ways to give customers constant access to the company or divisions within the company. You can set up hot lines or e-mail addresses that cater to specific segments of your organization. Perhaps you send out a survey that is readily available to them when they use your product or service.

“The most important thing is to make sure that you have and you’re providing them a tool at their fingertips that they, at any given time, can communicate back with you,” Nelson says. “There are a lot of different things that you can do. Just make sure that it’s accessible and visible for the customer so they know they can get in touch with you.”

Communication is at its best when the tools to converse are simple and allow for timely and ample reply. While you have to use a communication structure that works best for your company, it’s always a good idea to ask those whom you’re serving their preferred method of communication.

“By talking with them or communicating with them and asking them that question, they’ll let you know,” Nelson says.

That ties into the second step: being proactive in maintaining that line of communication. You don’t only need to understand how your customers want to be communicated with but, also, how often. Those are two questions that can differ drastically based on your company, industry and service offering. The easiest way to find out that information is simply ask the customer.

Nelson says a direct conversation, whether in person or by phone, tends to be the most efficient means for communicating.

“Your ability to communicate effectively is enhanced because you’re not only able to hear what they’re saying, but you can put it in the context of whether there’s body language,” he says. “Also, I believe it shows your commitment to your product and the customer. For example, in my past, when I’ve had someone who has physically taken the time to talk to me about something, I know it’s a priority.”

Depending on your number of customers, you’re going to have time and, possibly, geographic limitations trying to touch base with all of them. Those restrictions mean you need to work even harder at determining who to engage in conversation to understand the views of your organization.

The best thing to do is reach out to a methodical sample of your customers.

In EDMC’s case, the company picks a communication vehicle and then pulls from a cross-section of students based on geographic locations, degree programs, online students and on-ground students.

“Where there’s any differentiation in a particular class of your customers or group of your customers, you would want a reasonable sample,” Nelson says. “Again, it’s us proactively going out and communicating with them and not waiting for them to have to come back and communicate with us.

“It’s a way to build a better, more responsive, healthy organization because, at the end of the day, the most important people are your customers and your employees. It’s just incredibly important that you know what they’re thinking. Otherwise you could lose touch with whether you’re really doing a good job providing that service or product to your customer.”

Measure satisfaction

As your organization grows, you have to put techniques and processes in place that allow you to monitor how well you’re meeting customers’ needs and expectations.

But measuring customer satisfaction isn’t only about asking the right questions and properly compiling the data. The person or department you put in charge of this segment of your business needs to have a strong understanding of analytics and they have to work with you, the CEO.

“Sometimes they might report directly to the CEO, but if not, they have to have direct access to the CEO,” Nelson says. “That’s the key to keeping clear and timely communication with your customers.”

Also, whomever you give the responsibility must have the technical training to perform the job and a deep understanding of the organization as a whole. At EDMC, the Academic Programs and Student Affairs Department undertakes surveying students.

“I would think that as a person is developing their own management team, that it is very important that they recruit or find within part of their management team someone who has expertise in that area,” Nelson says. “You want to hire the best and brightest in an area like that that is so important to the future success of the company.”

Like Nelson says, measuring customer satisfaction must be seen as a priority, which means how you gather feedback and the topics you’re gathering feedback on are just as important.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to capture the information you’re looking for is by developing a format to survey customers. When creating the survey, think of how your customers prefer to be communicated with because their participation is an essential part of the process.

EDMC performs a variety of informal and formal, electronic and physical surveys. But the company sees the best response is when it keeps the customer in mind and asks: How can I make this convenient, user-friendly and in an appreciative way?

Not only must the survey be easy to access, but the questions must be on target and easy for the customer to understand.

“The types of questions that you would ask would be related specifically to the profile of that particular customer,” Nelson says. “In our case, if someone is one of our doctoral students in our doctoral pharmacy program, you would want to ask them about their faculty member, their classroom facilities, the clinical facilities, the curriculum — those things that are very specific to that particular customer.”

You want to survey customers in every area they might have expectations of your service, as well as the service outcomes. For example, EDMC tracks how students are doing in the program they’re enrolled in, graduation rates, whether they’re finding jobs and the salaries they earn. EDMC also surveys potential and past customers, as well.

“It’s all, in some way, related to the customer,” Nelson says. “Everything that we can, we try to measure and make sure that we’re tracking.”

Obviously, it’s a lot of information to collect. You need a solid team because the process doesn’t stop there.

“It’s very important that that data is then quickly analyzed because, again, there is a shelf life to the data you collect,” he says. “Quickly analyze it and put it in a format that the leadership of the company at all levels has access to for the areas of the company they’re responsible.”

Create accountability

If customer service is one of the core values you list, then everybody from you and your management team down to the newest hire need to treat it as such.

There are several ways to send the message that customer service is a priority and that employees will be held accountable to upholding that value. First and foremost, Nelson says it starts with the CEO’s leadership.

At management meetings, employee meetings and whenever Nelson has the chance, he makes a point to report on where EDMC stands in terms of the level of student interaction and satisfaction.

“If you’re talking about it and you’re reviewing it and you’re sharing it with the people who work directly with you, it becomes very obvious,” he says. “So first is by being an example.”

Part of the communication is making sure you and your management team share with employees what metrics the organization is tracking. EDMC uses the standard methods of communication, such as company Web site, department meetings, companywide voice mails and e-mails to get the message across, but the important point is that employees are hearing it repeatedly.

Using metrics to gauge customers’ thoughts makes holding employees accountable easier, because you always know what grade the organization is making when it comes to service and specific aspects of service. As the leader of the company, you can’t reach out to every employee and every department. But you can get the conversation rolling by following up on the metrics with your direct reports and setting the expectations to follow suit down the line.

“In other words, on a regular basis through the management structure, you follow up to make sure that they’re following up,” Nelson says.

You can maintain customer communication and monitor customer satisfaction, but remember they are directly linked to your employees and their abilities. Nelson says the commitment to EDMC’s students has to be shown during a new hire’s interview process.

“For those who are current employees, you continue to do management development and employee training to make sure that those values that are so important are being reinforced and framed and taught to the people in the organization — all of us,” Nelson says.

HOW TO REACH: Education Management Corp., (412) 562-0900 or www.edmc.edu