March 5, 2019

Scaling up Support without Scaling up Staff

Advising Leaders

By Elliot Felix

How do you scale up the support services you offer without simply adding more people?

This is a question we get a lot at brightspot. Many colleges and universities are trying to attract more students, faculty, and staff and want to have the people, systems, and culture in place to support them. But most institutions have resource constraints and need to do more with less. They need to somehow scale up their support without adding staff in lockstep. In fact, the ratio of staff per student increased 7 percent from 1995 to 2015, according to the College Board. At the same time, institutions are trying to deal with other challenges as they scale. They are trying to be more nimble, responsive, and personalized to differentiate themselves.

How you answer this question varies based on your specific situation; such as what services you offer, who is using them, what their expectations are, and your resources – people, tools, budgets, etc. However, there are some good strategies that you can employ: enabling self-service, removing inefficiencies for staff, leveraging peer-to-peer support, rebalancing generalist vs. specialist support, scaling up interactions with users, using technology instead of staff for routine work, or even designing/redesigning the service offering so that it requires less support in the first place.

Enabling Self-Service
There are many situations in which tasks that providers might have completed in the past can now be done by the user themselves, often in a way that’s more convenient for them. Enabling users to complete more routine tasks can also free up time for staff to handle more complex issues. This can be via self-serve kiosks, through apps with videos and tutorials, or using searchable knowledge bases. (Often this is coupled with some on-call staff roving in a space or available via a chat window because people are often more likely to try self-service if they know “rescue support” is nearby.). While this approach is commonplace in airports, banks, and hotels, it’s now appearing in places like libraries. NC State University’s “bookBot” in the Hunt Library enables students to request a book online from anywhere and have it retrieved robotically and waiting for them with minimal staff assistance to move it from the bot’s bin behind-the-scenes to an adjacent, public shelf.

Hunt Library bookBot, NC State University

Identifying and Removing Inefficiencies
The same number of people can often provide more support – in a sustainable way – through process changes that target current points of friction or pain. For example, fast food “meals” take what was once a litany of choices and bundle them into a single number which is faster to convey, easier for both customers and staff to remember, and reduces complexity and the potential for errors. Time can also be saved behind-the-scenes by better tracking requests, complaints, and compliments so you know where the friction is. Another way to address inefficiencies for high volume face-to-face transactions is to condition or “train” your users to communicate more efficiently; for instance, next to the betting window at a racetrack, you’ll often find a “How to Bet” sign detailing the order in which to relay information: location, race number, horse number, type of bet, amount of bet. Another example: at Southern New Hampshire University, rather than having library staff refer students to the writing center when chatting with them online, they simply have the writing center staff monitor chat streams during their “office hours” so they can respond directly.

Leveraging Peer-to-Peer Support
Often the best answers to a user’s question can come from other users. By providing a way for users to help each other in peer forums, other users are getting the help that your organization would otherwise have to provide. Of course, this help doesn’t come for free as some kind of platform has to be created and the user community generally has to be actively managed; for instance, by seeding the community with knowledgeable and willing super users and by motivating people to help with badges or other reward and recognition systems. For instance, Intuit creates robust, searchable knowledge base forums for the community of users for its products like Turbotax and Quickbooks. Another great example is Grand Valley State Library’s “Knowledge Market” that offers student-to-student consultations on research, writing, and speaking which not only provides an accessible support service but also frees up library professionals to do consultative work – often outside the library – building relationships with faculty, consulting on syllabi, and teaching parts of courses.

Knowledge Market, Grand Valley State University (Credit: Stantec)

Rethinking the Balance of Generalist and Specialists
Once you are tracking the kind of help you provide (such as categorizing the different questions you get asked, by volume and frequency) you can look at the balance of what needs to be answered by generalists with broad knowledge versus a specialist with deep knowledge in certain areas. Many organizations find that basic questions and basic tasks are the vast majority of their interactions with users. So, they create generalist roles to field them along with guidelines for when and how to get a specialist involved. This is often better for everyone because customers get help faster and because specialists are not subsumed by basic tasks so they can focus on the more complex things that only they can do. One example of this is the University of Virginia’s Georges Student Center for Student Advising in which brightspot worked with UVA to design a generalist student staff role that provides a holistic view of advising to assist students with basic academic, administrative, financial, and personal support questions and refer them to specialists in these areas as needed.

Georges Student Center, University of Virginia

Scaling Up Conversations
There may be user-staff interactions that are now happening at a small scale (i.e., one-on-one) that could be scaled up to the benefit of all. Sometimes issues of tradition, privacy, or preferences of personnel make this seem impossible, but some recent examples are encouraging. The University of Virginia’s Club Red provided a way for cardiology patients to opt-in to a small group consultation that have proven more effective than one-on-one time with a physician in several ways: routine advice is stated once for the group rather than with each patient and this frees up time for longer conversations. In addition, patients benefited from hearing advice given to others and patients developed stronger relationships with the physicians. (This is featured in a Harvard Business Review article here, if you’re curious.) Another example of this is NYU’s LaGuardia Studio, a high-end facility that supports students and faculty with 3d scanning and 3d printing using complex software and equipment. As demand increased, they added group training sessions to orient users instead of only one-on-one consultations. (If you’re curious, you can read about its sister space the LaGuardia Co-op here.)

Using Technology for Routine Work
The Economist’s special report on Automation and Anxiety shows a clear trend: routine jobs will be automated, whether they are knowledge work or manual labor. So, one way to scale up a service is to invest in and deploy technologies for the routine work that can free up people to do higher-value, non-routine work that people are best at. Many universities are now using artificial intelligence to field user questions through chatbots; for instance, Strayer University worked with Google to launch “Irving” and Staffordshire University launched “Beacon” for general student support. The University of Georgia created a chatbot specifically to respond to questions from incoming students and strategically nudge them in order to reduce their “summer melt” of accepted students who end not enrolling – a fascinating story recounted in NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast. While these technologies can do things that humans can’t and can free people up to do things they are better at, it’s best to evaluate these opportunities case by case. Sometimes there is hidden value in what seems like menial work; for instance, at Zingerman’s, a Michigan restaurant whose service is so good they have a consulting and training program for other organizations, an owner still periodically goes table to table filling customer’s water glasses as it gives him a chance to connect with customers while doing so.

Redesigning the Service
In addition to the specific tactics above, you can also step back and redesign the service so that less support is required (or design it that way from the start). A simple way to think about how to redesign a service is to consider the “what, who, when, how, and where” of your service. You can change what you are delivering – perhaps it can be simplified? You can change who is providing the service and support; for instance, moving to more of a peer support or self-service model. You can change when support is provided; such as reducing, increasing, or otherwise shifting hours of operations. You can change how the service is provided; for example, you might be able to automate some initial steps before staff get involved. Finally, you can also rethink where support is provided; such as providing something remotely that might have otherwise been in-person. Like many universities, the University of Miami had a “where” problem that resulted in students sometimes having to bounce between many locations to get the academic support they needed. So, brightspot worked with them to create a learning commons that brought together services like writing help, data analysis support, subject tutoring, and creative production – now the library receives nearly as many visits as the library’s website, 889,596 vs. 969,509.

Learning Commons, University of Miami Libraries

Whether you are trying to shift your service model to respond to changes in technology, demographics, or culture or maybe do more with less since “flat is the new up” good luck putting these strategies to work as you support and delight your users!

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