The Service Truths Behind Uncommon Service


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

By G. Michael Johnson,

Director of Student Financial Aid & Scholarships,

In my previous article, I introduced two “service truths” and related concepts taken from the book, Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business, by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. When I first read this book, I was struck by how Financial Aid Offices—just like any company—can sharpen customer service practices to meet the needs of today’s “customers,” our students. I’ve since presented this concept at conferences while serving as president of WASFAA (Western Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators). This series of articles is the result of those presentations and the conversations they sparked.

A Foundation Built on Four Service Truths

To build a model of service excellence, Frei and Morriss introduce four “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.”

Earlier, I took on the first two truths and their application to Financial Aid Offices. Today, let’s talk about truths #3 and #4.

Truth #3: “It’s Not Your Employees’ Fault”

In Uncommon Service, Frei and Morriss make the obvious, but often overlooked, point that service models need to be designed for “average” employees instead of ideal, hypothetical ones. There are a few simple ways to make employees successful at customer support.

Commerce Bank’s hiring process, for instance, identifies friendly, empathetic customer service providers who can be trained in company policies and procedures more easily than they can assume new personalities. Its decision to offer fewer financial products makes training employees simpler. Another example: Southwest Airline’s decision to fly and maintain only one type of aircraft—the Boeing 737—also facilitates training and efficiency.

What are some ways that Financial Aid Offices can create systems and processes that improve your staff’s ability to provide uncommon service? While streamlining efficiencies can go a long way toward providing better service, it’s important to keep in mind how students will experience them, via:

  • Simplification — Are there ways to simplify your processes, students’ experiences with your processes, or both? For example, can you ensure that you request all of the documents students need to provide only once, early in the processing cycle?
  • Segmentation — Can you break up processing steps in something like assembly-line fashion, so different employees can do sequential parts more efficiently? Does it make sense for staff to specialize in certain topics—like verification, Satisfactory Academic Progress, or return-of-funds calculations—so those processes are done quickly?
  • Making processes intuitive — Are the steps required of students to complete processes clearly described—and in a logically presented sequence? Are they created for today’s mobile-minded, multitasking student? Would they make sense to an outsider?
  • Automating processes — Can you fully automate awarding, or are manual steps required for some student populations or some awards? Can students submit Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) appeals, information about special circumstances, and revision requests online? Or must they meet with someone first?

Truth #4: “You Must Manage Your Customers”

Frei and Morriss refer to customers as customer-operators because they are active participants in creating the kind of service experience they want. The key to creating a successful relationship between the company and its customers, the authors say, is to help customers behave in ways that align with what the company can do for them.

Starbucks is a great example of a company that manages customer expectations to enhance their own buying experience. It doesn’t take many visits before people learn how to order their drinks expeditiously: Asking for a “double-tall, nonfat, caramel latte,” rather than explaining every characteristic of the desired drink, moves the line along briskly. Zipcar creates a community of “Zipsters” whose members share common values and expectations about car sharing—which compels them to return clean cars with full gas tanks, on time, to the specified location so the next member to use that car also has a positive experience.

How can you manage students’ and parents’ behaviors and expectations? Can you make the financial aid process as easy and understandable as possible? Can you give them realistic expectations of your ability to provide services to them?

  • Simplify information — Are your communications to students written clearly and concisely? Do you use graphics, tables, or short videos to help explain complex topics? Are there opportunities for students to drill down for additional information if they need to? 
  • Simplify processes — How easy is it for students to submit documents, apply for loans, or look for work-study jobs? Do your processes feel more like barriers or opportunities? Have you tested them to see how they work?
  • Ask for their suggestions — Do you survey students to find out how they think you’re doing? Do you ask students for their ideas of how to serve them while they’re standing in your line or chatting with you?
  • Give them control — How much of your processes can students complete online, without interacting with you in person? What information do you provide online—and what information can they get only by visiting your office?

Up Next: Organizational Culture and the FA Office

After presenting these four service truths, Frei and Morriss explain that a company’s culture greatly influences its service model. In part three of this blog series, I’ll discuss organizational culture as it applies to Financial Aid Offices that seek to ensure uncommon service to students. In the meantime, I’m interested in your thoughts about the four service truths. Feel free to send your comments to

Read Part III of the Series >

The CampusLogic Approach to Exceptional Service >


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