I contend that quality is often sadly lacking across FE.
Of course I’m always delighted when I read that an FE provider has won recognition for quality. It might be that Ofsted has judged them as being Grade 1 or that QAA has confirmed a provider’s quality and standards of provision. That is to be commended.
But is that really quality as our customers understand it?
Academic quality is vitally important; but isn’t quality about more than the quality and standards of provision as determined by the QAA or similar bodies that focus on our academic delivery?
Where Does Quality Start?
Quality doesn’t start in the classroom. It starts when our customers first engage with us. That could be on our websites, when they phone us, when they drop in to reception for information about our offer or when they attend college events such as enrolment or open days.
So when they can’t find what they want on your website, or if when they phone they get into an automated telephone loop, or when they can’t get a straight answer when visiting reception or at an open day ….. they judge your quality as poor.
But our Quality has National Recognition
Congratulations. But did your recognition measure all aspects of your business? For example, I’ve just checked out the websites of 14 providers that have recently be awarded various forms of quality recognition. I tried to get details of a particular course from each of them.
First I looked online, then if I couldn’t find the information I wanted I phoned and tried to speak to someone. Only three providers managed to provide the information I sought quickly and efficiently.
In many cases I couldn’t find more than very basic information online, in some cases the course wasn’t on the website, despite the fact that I later discovered the provider ran that course. When I phoned for more information I failed to get the information required in over 80% of cases. All I wanted was basic information, like would the course run with a January start date, and the content of the course I was enquiring about, e.g. would it cover a particular aspect of the subject.
In many cases, after negotiating the phone system and being bounced from person to person, I left a message with a request for a call back. In over 75% of those cases I still await the call back.
In several cases this recently I’ve been told that everyone is in enrolment sessions and will be unlikely to call back for a few days. And yet those same providers are running late enrolment marketing campaigns. Is this joined up thinking? Is this quality?
Quality starts with treating the prospective customer with a quality service i.e. one that is fit for the customers’ purposes.
Quality isn’t About What is Best for the Provider
Quality is about the degree of excellence of something. But that definition can be misconstrued or even corrupted to suit the provider. It shouldn’t be about excellence for the provider, it should be about excellence for the customer.
So thinking about this time of year, a provider might have what they determine as an excellent enrolment process. Everything follows a process that suits the college systems and staff availability and staff don’t get stressed. But is that quality as perceived by the prospective student that has had to queue to go through the system. In an age where most people shop online should we expect a prospective student for a professional course, say an AAT course, to queue in line to pay their fees? Should we not allow them to pay online, either at the enrolment event or from their office or home?
In fact what is the physical enrolment event all about?
Providers have run these in traditional mode for years. But most of it can be done online if we wish. Only quite minor elements need to be done manually or even face to face. Clearly if a student needs to show an original document such as a passport then this cannot be done online. But this is an exception and doesn’t change the concept of being able to deliver online enrolment.
And should you wonder, I’m not against face to face for advice and guidance, because people buy from people and value personal contact. I advocate face to face in these circumstances. And I’ll be delighted to hear from any reader that offers IAG over Skype or Zoom as an alternative to face to face. But we should question how many people relish the queues or actually having to attend at specified times to enrol? What efforts are you making to make the process customer centric? How are you cutting queues? How are you going online with this very basic “purchase” process that so many other organisational types have largely automated?
Quality is Not Just About Customers
So far I’ve focused on customers. But quality is all-embracing and reaches far beyond this one group. So let’s think about the way we apply quality in terms of our suppliers.
Providers are going through hard times and FDs are naturally keeping the purse strings tight. The providers that many suppliers refer to as quality providers pay their bills promptly. Payment is made within 14 days of receipt of invoice.
But there are a handful of providers that have bad reputations amongst suppliers, because they do not pay promptly. These providers argue that they haven’t received the invoice, that it takes 3-4 weeks to process an invoice and that BACS payments take 5-7 days due to the tardiness of the banks. Some of these providers take up to 120 days to pay their suppliers, and only then after being chased for payment on multiple occasions. Can we honestly say these providers make the quality grade by any measure?
So delighted as I am when providers are feted for their quality achievements this can sound hollow to customers and suppliers that have an experience that does not represent quality. For years FE has focused on quality in terms of teaching and learning, and that is to be celebrated. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that quality reaches part of the business that Ofsted and QAA never reach.
Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for the last decade has worked with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US