How to Uncover Uncommon Service in the FinAid Office

Uncommon Service in the Financial Aid Office:
A Model of Service Excellence—Part I

By G. Michael Johnson,

Director of Student Financial Aid & Scholarships,

When I first read Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business, by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, I was struck by how creative, yet pragmatic, their ideas were. While most of the book’s examples are from for-profit companies, it seemed to me that their ideas might also be applicable to higher education administration—and specifically to Financial Aid Offices. So, I put together a presentation that was part-book-report, part-brainstorming session—and gave it at several conferences while serving as president of WASFAA (Western Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators). This series of articles draws on that presentation, and the discussions it generated, to suggest ways that we might provide “uncommon service” to our students.

First, some truths…

The Four Truths of Uncommon Service

Frei and Morriss introduce four essential ideas they call “service truths:”

  1. “You Can’t Be Good at Everything.”
  2. “Someone Has to Pay for It.”
  3. “It’s Not Your Employees’ Fault.”
  4. “You Must Manage Your Customers.”

I’ll deconstruct the first two service truths in this article to show how they apply in the business world—and how we can adapt them to a financial aid service model. My second article follows up with the remaining two truths and their application to your world, with a third piece about how financial aid professionals can manage change to better serve your “customers.”

Truth #1: “You Can’t Be Good at Everything”

What the authors describe as “being bad in the service of good” might overstate the concept, but it gets your attention. The idea is that you should find out what your customers value most and least. Then, armed with those insights, you deploy your time and resources strategically to underperform in the areas that customers value least—and exceed expectations in the areas they value most.

This approach works best when you can create a niche that separates you from competitors, as Commerce Bank did. Based on customer-centric research, Commerce turned traditional banking on its head. It kept branches open well beyond normal “bankers’ hours,” so customers could come in on the way to and from work or on weekends. It chose to be “bad,” by offering fewer products—and higher interest rates—than its competitors. This model was wildly successful and attracted customers who needed an updated banking experience.

Consider this: In what areas can you choose to underperform in your FA Office to create a better service experience? The easy answer is that you have to be as good as possible at everything. But that leaves few options for improvement within time, staffing, and budget constraints. Consider these possibilities:

  • Scale of assistance — If you’re trying to answer complex questions that require experienced staff to take time away from reviewing files and making awards, can you scale back initial service expectations and limit those interactions largely to collecting documents and answering general questions? Also, does the full-service model result in your providing more inaccurate information than you would like? If so, would scaling back help solve that problem?
  • Contact hours — Are you open early and late so students can see you when it’s convenient for them? If so, does that compromise your ability to do the behind-the-scenes processing in a timely fashion? Could you have more limited in-person contact times—like only staffing the front counter from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., for example—and explain to students why doing so enables you to provide better service?
  • Disbursement schedule — Do you disburse aid 10 days before the term starts, so students can buy their books early? If so, does that result in a significant number of enrollment-related revisions? Could you arrange to help with book purchases, waive late fees, and disburse aid closer to the end of the add-drop period?
  • Regulatory compliance — Can you improve your reputation as a student-centered service provider by reducing your compliance of onerous statutes and regulations? Of course not! Some things just are what they are.

Truth #2: “Someone Has to Pay for It”

To make your improved service model sustainable, you have to find a way to fund it. Frei and Morriss suggest that you can: a) charge more; b) find a way to reduce costs while still improving service; or c) get your customers to do some of the work.

If you charge more, the authors say, you’ll need to find ways to make additional charges more “palatable” for customers. Commerce Bank did this by paying lower interest to increase operating capital—so customers wouldn’t experience any extra charges.

Reducing costs while improving service can be tricky. But when done well, it can have impressive results. Progressive Insurance did it by sending damage assessors to accident sites who not only offered timely emotional support but often wrote immediate claim checks. Progressive paid for this service with the money it saved through the resultant reductions in legal claims and fraud attempts. Intuit—the company that brings you QuickBooks, TurboTax, and other software products—did it by assigning call center shifts to employees who created the actual software products. Those employees not only provided better service than nontechnical employees, they saved the company money by improving products based on customers’ experiences.

Getting your customers to do some of the work is an easier way to reduce costs. Customers are happy to oblige when doing something themselves is more convenient and quicker—like going through a salad bar, using an ATM, or shopping online. Frei and Morriss point out that if self-service provides a significantly better experience than full service, customers will even pay more for it.

Now, ask yourself: How can Financial Aid Offices manage the cost of providing uncommon service? Schools incur costs for the services we provide. Even though many of those costs don’t hit our budgets directly, they are part of the overall cost to educate our students. Some ideas for managing FinAid Office cost include:

  • Staff time — How can you be sure that staff members are using their time effectively? Are they cross-trained—so service gaps aren’t left when someone is absent? Do logistics and schedules optimize the use of office resources such as computers, printers, and copy machines? Are breaks scheduled that are seamlessly covered by other staff members?
  • Staff satisfaction — How is office morale? Are your staff members generally happy with their jobs? Or are there problems that you need to address so that PTO is maximized and staff turnover is minimized? 
  • Effective communication — Do staff members feel adequately informed about policies and procedures that affect their ability to do their jobs—especially when those policies and procedures change? Or, do they have to spend time researching on their own? Do you provide information to your staff members that enables them to provide consistent information to students?
  • Selfservice — How much information can students access online? Can they submit documents electronically? Can they track their progress? Do you have a Frequently Asked Questions area on your website?

Up Next: Uncommon Service Truths #3 and #4

In my next installment of this blog series, I’ll tackle truths #3 and #4: “It’s Not Your Employee’s Fault,” and “You Must Manage Your Customers.” I’m also interested in your thoughts on the above two service truths. Feel free to send your comments to

Read Part II of the Series >

The CampusLogic Approach to Exceptional Service >


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