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Return of the secret shopper

The Gazette’s intrepid investigator probes the customer service skills of universities

Applying for a postgraduate course can be a daunting task even for recent graduates, let alone people who have not been in the university system for a while. University websites are often difficult to navigate, and prospective students may find themselves in the position of having to go through various sections and sub-sections in order to find the answers they are looking for. Even for a generation of digital natives the answers can be difficult to dig out.

The Gazette looked into how easy it is for a digital native whose mother tongue is not English to obtain information about distance learning English language masters in the UK, US and Australia. We asked our secret shopper, herself a European postgrad, to find out. Using our latest masters listing (EL Gazette June 2013) she looked at the websites of fifteen universities offering MAs in ELT-related fields, thirteen in the UK, one Australian, and one from the US.

We also asked her to look at three specific questions drawn from our latest good MAs guide (January 2013). Since it was clear that some students expect teaching practice to be a part of the programmes – though this is rare in British universities – the first question was, is teaching practice included? She was also asked to find out how feedback would be offered, and whether the course would be better suited for primary or secondary teaching. If she couldn’t find the answer to her questions on the website she was asked to try emailing.

Out of the total of fifteen universities, only two – the Institute of Education (part of the University of London) and the University of Sunderland – had clear answers to all the questions on their websites. Most of the websites were clear and easy to use, but almost a quarter featured videos (sometimes instead of plain text). Most of these were testimonial-type clips, something digital natives tend to take with a pinch of salt. Our secret shopper was not particularly keen on the videos (she felt it was much easier to miss important information when skipping through a clip, rather than text), and appreciated those institutions which also provided a written transcript with their videos. One of the sites, however, included a ‘tour of our virtual learning environment’, which our digital native found particularly useful.

The secret shopper then emailed, or tried to email, all thirteen of the universities which did not provide web answers to her questions. She appreciated the speed with which universities replied to her enquiries, most of them within two or three days. The record for a response was 33 minutes from Nile, with Central Lancashire not far behind at 45 minutes. Amazingly, both actually answered all the questions.

In general our non-native speaker was impressed by the speed of response, the accuracy with which the questions were answered and the friendliness – with the award for the friendliest response going to Dr Juup Stelma, programme director at Manchester, who managed to be prompt, to the point and helpful.

A couple of universities sent automated replies, making it clear how long she would have to wait for someone to deal with her email, followed by a more personal reply. Of these, Anglia Ruskin’s representative was particularly articulate and to the point: all of our questions were answered in a helpful manner. A course director for the University of Lancaster was similarly concise and explicit, as was the representative from Macquarie University. Some of her favourite answers included a speedy but LOUD reply written in capital letters, as well as what she would call ‘service with a smile’ - a programme director who included a smiley face icon in his otherwise prompt and accurate response.

Some of the other replies she received included links to relevant pages, while others said they would include the links but forgot to do so, or focused on one of our questions in particular – usually the teaching practice one. Two replies misspelled our secret shopper’s name – something non-native speakers might be used to but still find annoying. One university did not reply at all.

The Leeds Met website proved the most difficult to navigate. The page describing the course was helpful but any attempt to find an email address to send queries to, or another part of the site which might answer her questions, seemed to lead to ‘Experience’, a page ‘designed to make it easier … to get the information you need about Leeds Metropolitan University’. To get the experience, though, you seem to be required to register with them, after which you should be able to order a prospectus, book open days and campus tours, receive updates and reminders, and ask your own questions. Our digital native was cynical about registering for anything and could not understand why she needed to hand over her email and personal information in order to send an email asking a question. She was also equally wary of universities asking her to log in with Facebook – why would you want postgraduate tutors to see pictures of you at parties and in other possibly compromising situations before you have been accepted on the course?

What can we learn from this? It is clear that, just as prospective students try to impress universities through cover letters and references, educational institutions are also becoming more aware of the importance of their customer service. However, from a digital native’s perspective, a website with text (or at least a video transcript) and a prompt, accurate response from an academic is far more persuasive than any amount of e-marketing magic. This may be especially true of postgraduates, like our digital native, for whom the invitation to ‘come to my fun university’ may meet with the response, ‘Been there, done that, got the hangover – now it’s time to get serious.’

With tuition fees skyrocketing over recent years, students are increasingly discerning about where their money goes. A speedy and accurate reply may well be a first step towards an investment of £9,000 – or even more for those outside the EU. Although the standing of the university remains a key factor, the communication between higher education providers and their students may well end up tipping the scale.

Universities that responded to our enquiry before we went to press were: Anglia Ruskin University, Aston University, Lancaster University, Leeds Metropolitan University, University of Birmingham, University of Manchester, University of Nottingham, University of Southampton, University of Central Lancashire in the UK, and Macquarie University in Australia. Thanks to the Institute of Education (University of London) and the University of Sunderland, whose websites had clear answers to all our questions.

Picture courtesy of Clemens v. Vogelsang