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Although specifically about the application of the "everything speaks" approach to a university, this article contains relevant lessons for any company that interacts with its customers.

What does Mickey Mouse have to do with higher education?

Several of us from St. Edward's University found ourselves pondering that unusual question five years ago as we filed into a classroom at the Disney Institute. We came to Orlando, with a tinge of skepticism, to attend a business seminar on applying the Disney model of customer service to colleges and universities.

Before the trip, some of the administrators on our team questioned the suitability of Disney marketing strategies for the higher education setting. We quietly wondered, "Could the magical kingdom of juvenile entertainment have anything to offer the hallowed halls of higher education?" However, during the seminar, attended by representatives of several colleges and universities, even the most critical eyes began to see the relevance to higher education of Disney's central message: "Everything speaks."

That means everything on campus—from the smile on the receptionist's face and the bright flowers lining the walkway to the cleanliness of cafeteria utensils and the maze of phone loops—says something about your institution. In other words, like any business, a college or university has a unique cast, setting, and process, each of which sends influential messages—positive or negative, intended or unintended.

  1. Cast—Your employees and volunteers, including everyone from the workers dishing up delights in the cafeteria to the switchboard operator, professors, and president. While faculty members form the heart of an institution, don't underestimate the significance of your staff.

    Receptionists, groundskeepers and others in supportive roles are often the first people with whom prospective students interact, and poor initial contacts with prospective students result in institutions losing an average of 12 percent of enrollment, says Neal A. Raisman, founder and president of the New York customer-service consulting and research group AcademicMAPS.

  2. Setting—The sensory experience of your entire campus environment. Examples include the admissions office, signage, classroom amenities, dormitory bathrooms and school spirit.

  3. Process—The various procedures and systems in place to help participants navigate and achieve their goals, such as applying for a campus job, requesting course schedules, or registering for classes.

As you can see, these three elements exist at colleges and universities whether employees are aware of them or not. Of course, institutions of higher education will want to strive for awareness, for it is the messages sent by cast, setting, and process that form people's perceptions. These dimensions make a critical impression on students, prospective students, donors, alumni, parents, vendors, job candidates, and others in contact with the institution.

Orlando customer service consultant and former Disney Institute seminar leader Teri Yanovitch recalls the first time she prepared a customer service workshop at Disney to address higher-education representatives, as opposed to her usual corporate crowd. The main differentiating factor she had to take into account is that many of a school's "customers" live at the "business," she says, and that means such institutions have a greater range of time and details to consider. Students are not simply stopping in to buy widgets. Thus, the "everything speaks" philosophy is perhaps even more critical in higher education than in other businesses.

Neal Raisman of AcademicMAPS agrees. He wrote the book Embrace the Oxymoron: Customer Service in Higher Education and worked for many years as a faculty member and college president in New York.

He argues that today's high school graduates think more symbolically than the current generation of academics. The electronic age has molded the minds of younger generations to see the world more in images than in words, he says. While a faculty member might pass a campus building and see only mortar and bricks, a student would likely ask, "What does that building say about me?" So it's important to look through the lens of the younger generation, Raisman says.

Though the principles behind "everything speaks" may be fairly new to colleges and universities, marketing experts and successful businesses have long recognized the importance of an organization's environment.

In 1992, Arizona State University Professor of Marketing Mary Jo Bitner introduced the term "servicescape" to describe the physical surroundings that shape a customer's impression of an organization.

Starbucks Coffee gets the idea and seems to know that when customers visit, they come for more than coffee. They crave an experience accentuated by pleasant music, comfortable chairs, and an overall warm and cozy setting. Likewise, prospective students weigh a number of factors beyond the obvious when selecting a college or university.

Organizations that decide to become major brands know better than to leave customer perceptions to chance. They take deliberate steps to ensure the details convey their central message. Your team will want to do the same. Here's how:

  • Weave the "everything speaks" philosophy into your ongoing routine as opposed to making it a one-time project.

  • Decide on your desired message and how that supports your institution's primary goal.

  • Consider forming a task force to conduct an initial analysis:

    • Walk around campus and take notes.
    • List everything students and others see or contact.
    • Think about what each element of your cast, setting and process says.
    • Pretend for a day to be students and walk a mile in their shoes.
    • Conduct secret shopping of your customer contact points.
    • Review every piece of marketing and communications literature disseminated by your school.
    • Shop your competition and compare the experience.

  • If you find too much to handle at once, start by addressing the most critical areas first. At St. Edward's we took it one bite at a time by closing each senior staff meeting with a tour of one particular place on campus. In reviewing the lobby of the admissions office, for example, we found it clean and pleasant but lacking qualities distinctive of St. Edward's University. To remedy this, we installed a wall display showcasing photos, student profiles, and key messages consistent with our recruitment materials. That was to complement the basics of having a friendly receptionist, comfortable couches and cool beverages to accommodate visitors waiting for campus tours.

  • Through a survey or other means, research what matters most to students and the factors they consider in selecting a school. Use the results to make decisions about which changes to make first.

  • Get employees on board with the effort and use cross-departmental collaboration to identify and implement improvements. Don't forget to reward positive change. St. Edward's University's employee incentive program commends employees for their creative, effective and collaborative projects and requires little time or money.

So when you're ready to embrace change and give your school the distinction it deserves, get off the merry-go-round and quit Mickey-Mousing around. It's time to take a walk, seek the truth and let it guide you.

Information Please! Turning Employees Into Brand Ambassadors

College and university administrators simply can't be everywhere at all times to ensure that the right things are said and done. We need help from the troops in promoting the institution's brand, and that requires keeping employees well informed. Thus, cast is perhaps the most critical dimension of the "everything speaks" model.

Effective internal communication ensures consistency in the institution's message and empowers employees with information they need to become brand ambassadors and help achieve goals. Furthermore, it enhances the sense of community on campus and conveys an atmosphere of openness that tells employees they are part of the institutional family and deserve to be kept apprised of "family matters."

At St. Edward's University, we developed several communications tactics to keep our people in the loop and show them they are vital to our university's mission.

  • Daily e-newsletter to faculty and staff. A few years ago, our marketing office surveyed employees, and they let us know they were receiving too many university emails and suffering from inbox bloat. We responded by forming a daily e-newsletter, called Horizon. It allows us to compile various broadcast emails into one package and keep employees posted on university and work-related news.

  • The President's Meeting. To celebrate who we are, each semester St. Edward's University calls a campus-wide meeting. Its pep rally spirit draws record crowds. Staff, faculty members, and student representatives gather to hear a report from the president, meet new employees, learn the latest university news, and preview new initiatives, such as advertising campaigns.

  • Digitally printed employee newsletter. Readership plummeted when we switched our monthly, photocopied employee newsletter, Hilltopics, to an Acrobat PDF file posted online each month. We soon revived it as a full-color, four-page newsletter published each fall and spring to coincide with the President's Meeting. It is our vehicle to report on the university's progress in reaching strategic goals, and digital printing keeps it affordable.

  • Communications campaign. To keep students, faculty and staff apprised of progress with St. Edward's University's master plan, we launched a "Change is Good" communications campaign. Construction signs, a once-a-semester newsletter, and special events are used to explain projects reaching completion. Each medium features our mascot wearing a hardhat and giving a thumbs up to the phrase "Change is Good."

  • Monthly invitation-only meetings with the president. When our president announced plans to double enrollment and add several new buildings, some members of our university community worried it would negatively impact our small, close-knit, personalized offerings.

    To reassure people that St. Edward's would remain true to its heritage, we launched "Conversations with the President," a monthly opportunity for the president to meet with small groups of employees to explain strategic priorities and each employee's role in them. Every benefits-eligible staff member is invited at least once a year. Valuable information also flows in the other direction.

    By attending the meetings, our marketing staff learns what's on the minds of employees and gets story leads and other ideas.

  • Repeating good news. Accomplishments should not be shared once and forgotten. Get the most mileage out of your school's good news by repeating it in a variety of channels, including newsletters, letters, Web sites, the local press, and other media. And devise creative ways to make sure it reaches your target audiences.

  • Home-addressed letters and cards. Customer service guru Neal A. Raisman offers another tip: Mail informational letters from the president to the homes of faculty and staff. The same personalized touch can be achieved by sending handwritten cards to the homes of exceptional employees, he says, adding, "It's amazing how that changes people's attitude and makes them feel valued."

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Paige Booth is vice-president of marketing at St. Edward's University (, Austin, Texas, where she leads a team that functions as an internal marketing agency.