Spending more doesn’t automatically equal improved satisfaction

It is not uncommon for someone responsible for delivering services across the university to request more staffing in response to feedback that their services are not performing well. Our research shows that this simple response is not necessarily effective, and that there is no clear causal relationship between the ‘normalised’ spend on delivering a service and corresponding staff satisfaction – in fact some of the most efficiently delivered services at UniForum member universities are also the ones achieving the highest service satisfaction.

Fortunately, our findings do highlight a number of other levers that can be used to improve satisfaction with services.

A positive correlation between awareness and satisfaction

One prominent and relatively easy lever to pull on quickly is to improve the service user’s awareness of what level of service to expect. For example, in Figure 1, the proportion of users reporting they are aware of what service standard to expect for cleaning services at their university is positively correlated with the net satisfaction result for the service at their university.

Figure 1: Relationship between the university staff awareness of what level of service to expect and their satisfaction with the cleaning service provided

Further studies conducted with the UniForum member universities show that having published service standards or service level agreements does not lead to higher awareness of the level of service to expect. It appears that higher awareness of what level of service to expect is the result of two activities: first, the process of developing service standards by the team tasked with delivering these helps the service providers understand what the service is that they are delivering, and how to optimally communicate their service offering. Second, for the user, better communication during service delivery of what the service involves helps with expectation management, and creates a higher likelihood the service user will be satisfied with the service received.

Other research from the UniForum program shows that improving awareness of service levels will have significant impact on almost two thirds of the 65 services covered by Cubane’s Service Effectiveness Survey. However, other factors can also be important (for example see ‘understanding service needs of staff’), and awareness of service levels is not significant for about a third of the services. As a result, there may be multiple strategies that can be adopted to improve satisfaction with services.

Improving awareness of service standards at your university

What does this mean in practice? We have identified a few simple guidelines for quickly taking action to improve awareness:

  1. Start with the more ‘transactional’ services, where awareness matters most

    Client-facing services in IT (e.g. IT helpdesk), in the estates and facilities management functions (e.g. cleaning), and in the finance function (e.g. support for purchasing goods and services and the management of accounts payable) where services are more routine and repeatable, all provide a good place to start to generate benefits from setting and raising awareness of service standards. The less routine services where bespoke approaches are required for each service interaction, such as in student counselling or staff advice or international student marketing, are less sensitive to ‘awareness of service standards’ and therefore require a wider range of strategies to lift satisfaction levels.

  2. Focus on the services which are important to large groups of users

    Some services, such as WiFi services, building maintenance and cleaning, are important to a wider group of users than other services, and this often differs by university. Improving awareness of what service level to expect for services that are more widely important has greater leverage on overall satisfaction. A great starting point is to focus effort on these services first.

  3. Don’t get fixated on complex Service Level Agreements (SLAs)

    Detailed SLAs can be useful and necessary, for example where clear and detailed evidence of performance is required at a granular level (such as feeding into a shared services chargeback arrangement), but some universities with little or no formal implementation of SLAs also report high awareness of service standards. This is because, as noted earlier, the people providing the services communicate, through the delivery process, what service standards to expect. Awareness is the result of behaviours, communication norms, and consistent delivery rather than complex service level agreements.

  4. Differentiate between professional service staff and academics

    Our research shows that academic staff are consistently less satisfied with services than professional staff at all institutions. This is partly to do with academics having more involvement with services which require more bespoke responses with each service interaction (such as services in support of their teaching and research activities). However, it also reflects differences in what academics are looking for services to provide, and therefore requires tailoring in terms of how service standards are communicated.

  5. Basic guidance and online portals are useful, but face-to-face engagement is always key

    Simple information about the service, how it is delivered, and some high-level service commitments should be available online. This needs to be supplemented by active targeted communication of service standards through other communication channels to deliver truly increased awareness.

  6. Recognise that for some services other levers will have more impact on satisfaction levels

    Whilst driving up awareness levels both for those providing and receiving a service can often represent a lower cost ‘quick win’, sometimes a change in the design and delivery of an underperforming service also will need tackling. One of the outputs from Cubane’s Service Effectiveness survey is an understanding of user experiences with different service attributes and which of these matter most to the academic staff or the professional staff. This understanding can help direct where best to direct effort for greatest impact on satisfaction. An earlier article (see ‘understanding service needs of staff’) highlighted some of the insights coming from these results.

If you are interested in learning more about how your institution can participate in Cubane’s Service Effectiveness surveys, please contact us here for an introductory conversation.