Two college students walking down a flight of stairs

Establish Trust to Build Long-Lasting Relationships with Students

The remedy to the retention problem may be seeding trust and cultivating strong relationships among potential and current students.

Competition continues to increase in the education market. Students have nearly endless choices when it comes to higher education: public university or private school, online programs or in-person courses, local offerings, or distant campuses; all of these options make an already difficult decision even more complicated. 

As a result of the ever-increasing competition, higher education institutions are finding different ways to stand out in a crowded market. One of their primary focuses in recent years has been student success and retention. According to research conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, 91% of surveyed campus stakeholders say they are “somewhat” or “very” concerned about declining student retention. 

Retention is a problem that lacks a turnkey or “miracle” fix; however, one potential remedy may be seeding trust and cultivating strong relationships among potential and current students. In doing so, institutions may have an opportunity to improve a variety of university outcomes, including retention.

The connection between experience, trust, and retention

While the practices for engaging a student in an online program are different than those for an on-campus student, the importance of establishing trust is the same. Higher education provides a service, and as an intangible product, students base their purchase decision on the promise of the service before they’ve experienced it. As such, it’s essential to align potential enrollees’ expectations with reality. After all, when students enroll in their programs, they inevitably assess the gap between what the university promised and their lived experience. If a university advertises 24/7 support, then they must provide exactly that to maintain student trust. 

Establishing trust with students is critical to building long-lasting relationships. Students who trust their institutions are more likely to recommend their services to others, positively impacting brand reputation and new student enrollments. Word of mouth is especially critical in driving or deterring new customers; according to a 2016 study, roughly 85% of surveyed students said they “agree” or “definitely agree” that their perception of a school would be influenced by the opinions of former students. 

Moreover, students who trust their institutions may be more likely to follow required and recommended actions by the institution, such as following policies, completing tasks, and meeting deadlines. Responding to requests is helpful to the university, as students are often asked to meet specific deadlines such as applying for financial aid, submitting their assignments, completing registration, or attending class. Trust also improves a student's confidence in decision-making in the educational process, which is essential in scenarios where the student is deciding to continue their education. Finally, satisfied students are more likely to demonstrate loyalty once they graduate and become alums who stay engaged with the university. 

With increased competition in the global market, customers of service providers have more options and continuously analyze the cost and benefit of staying with one provider or switching to another. Therefore, the university must constantly work to ensure the benefits of attendance outweigh the costs. To that end, institutions will need to recontextualize their perspectives on students to be customer-centric.

Establishing trust begins with viewing students as customers

Understanding the role of the student as a customer is essential to staying competitive in the higher education sector — and recognition of that identity is fundamental to providing loyalty-inspiring experiences. While online degree programs introduced an innovative approach to education nearly two decades ago, there's still debate on the role of the student in higher education. 

Applying customer-centric strategies still needs to be widely accepted among university staff and leaders. Some institution leaders may still oppose viewing students as customers because they believe the idea that 'the customer is always right' will adversely affect the education process and academic integrity. However, the 'customer is always right' is an outdated idea coined in the early 1900s; it is no longer globally recognized. 

When students are treated as customers by their higher education institutions, they receive customer service that increases satisfaction and retention. Trust can be strengthened or weakened through any student-institution interaction; universities that effectively gather feedback and user data can develop more personalized experiences based on student needs, such as proactive outreach and risk mitigation strategies and classroom experiences that enhance learning outcomes or resources based on their needs.

Conversely, student trust can be harmed when issues arising as part of the normal operating rhythm are challenging to resolve. A university can also erode trust in the student by demonstrating opportunistic behavior such as false advertising, hidden costs, unfulfilled promises, or unsatisfactory services. To gain and maintain trust, providing effective and consistent communication is paramount. A university gains trust when information is easily accessible, timely, accurate, and tailored to the individual student's journey. 

One strategy to establish trust is to use technology to provide self-service options, which improves student convenience, control, and security. Complaint management systems provide an illustration of this idea: students are less likely to be frustrated with more minor or unavoidable issues, such as routine maintenance, because they trust that the problem will be addressed and communicated appropriately. When students are satisfied with how complaints are handled, they trust that future issues will be resolved by the university amicably. 

It’s worth noting that trust ultimately leads to commitment; students are committed to a university when they find that staying is more beneficial than leaving. If the university provides benefits not found elsewhere, such as competitive services, support, and tools, students may be more likely to enroll — and, if the university makes an effort to cultivate a sense of community, students tend to remain. 

Students who have a sense of pride in their school are less likely to leave and more likely to remain active as alums. According to a national research report conducted by the enrollment and education management consultancy Ruffalo Noel Levitz, students who feel satisfied with their educational experience are statistically more likely to give back to their institutions as alumni. The takeaway is clear: to drive better institutional outcomes and higher retention, universities must prioritize experience and build trust among their students.

How technology can help build trust between the institution and the student

As competition in higher education increases and consumer expectations evolve in the digital age, student retention will continue to become a critical factor in maintaining financial stability. While there is no shortage of retention programs, ideas, and campaigns, the winning strategy is the one that involves changes to the internal organizational infrastructure and culture that supports an end-to-end student-customer-centric relationship. A single person, department, or idea does not create a holistic experience that effectively improves customer experience. 

By leveraging Salesforce Student Success Hub and Marketing Cloud Services, higher education institutions strengthen their reputation in a crowded market by transforming the student experience to improve retention, brand reputation, and long-lasting relationships beyond graduation. However, there is still an opportunity for higher education institutions to be the category leader in the student experience — and becoming a frontrunner starts with creating an internal infrastructure that positions student-customers front and center.  

If you’re interested in learning more about how Salesforce can help your institution establish mutually beneficial, long-lasting relationships with students, contact us today!

About the Author

Shirin Khosravian

Senior Director of Education (Retention & Student Success), Gerent

Shirin Khosravian, DBA, is a data-driven strategy and innovation leader with over 16 years of experience in higher education transformation. As a heartfelt believer in the value of collaborative improvement, Shirin excels in forging constructive partnerships and empowering organizations to drive growth through people-process-systems strategies and solutions. During transformation initiatives, she leverages her extensive marketing, technical, customer experience, and analytical skills to develop creative, high-value solutions for clients.

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