Build a virtual one stop students love
It's all about student-centered services.
- A strong virtual one stop helps reduce foot traffic to student services and keeps students informed
- Virtual one stops can provide the personalized, consumer-grade online service experiences students expect
- Developing a virtual one stop is a chance to streamline and integrate systems
For many institutions, building an advanced one stop student service center (or renovating an existing campus building) is an expensive project that can take years to plan, fund, and build. And while having a modern one stop is increasingly valuable to students and institutions—in terms of both streamlining campus operations and also supporting the changing needs of all kinds of students—having a great virtual one stop is arguably even more important.
Prospective and enrolled students want to find the service they need online before dealing with the hassle of an in-person errand. For any institution looking for the opportunity to update archaic systems, improve or consolidate student services, and implement new functions and features to keep students informed, the virtual one stop can be a way to modernize without spending anywhere near the amount of resources required to build a new facility. Plus, if a new or renovated facility is in the plan, resources spent on a virtual one stop help lay the groundwork for the physical operation and offer teams a head start on developing new processes, roles, and integrations necessary for providing improved services.
And what’s the big goal of the virtual one stop? To meet the current and future needs of all students at the institution.
It’s all about student-centered services—providing the best possible services and resources that help save students time and reduce the campus office runaround. Plus, the more students can sort out basic information services or transactions online, safely and securely, the more time staff—such as advisors or records administrators—have to focus on higher-value activities.
So, exactly what challenges are solved by a virtual one stop?
While this question will be answered differently by every institution, there are a number of challenges shared by most institutions. The following is a list of common issues drawn from my recent work with institutions working to build or modernize their own one stop student service centers, all of which acknowledge the need for a robust online presence.
If the following challenges are solved or reduced by virtual one stop service, traffic and long lines for in-demand services can be reduced; students will be better informed of deadlines, causing less frustration around bill payment or registration; and happier students can focus more on the challenges they actually signed up for: learning experiences.
Simplify work for existing staff. Lean staffing is a pain point for any institution tasked with improving, expanding, or innovating their services—you can’t always hire more bodies, which with today’s technology is hardly the easiest or most affordable solution anyways. Providing at least partial services online—automating or converting to self-service what you can, simplifying what you can’t—helps remove some of the staff burden without taking on the current staffing model. Departments are keeping up with the status quo but are not able to innovate or consider new initiatives.
Process improvement. Inefficient processes are causing staff and student frustrations, and students in particular will be quick to call these out. Such processes are often concentrated in advising and registration areas, but also bubble up in financial aid or student records. Here, it’s important to develop processes that help reduce wait times, shorten the time it takes to get students the information they need, improve transparency, and allows students to feel like they’re more in control of how things get done.
Better, more timely information for students. Orientation for new students is a ripe space for providing service online. It’s a crucial time for students to receive both information they know they need along with information they may need. This same space is where students can be shown what resources and services are available online. When it comes to financial aid and bill payment, course registration, or student records, timely and clear alerts and transparent processes are essential.
There’s a key point here, where virtual one stops hold one of their greatest benefits: the fewer webpages and offices students have to visit to find what they need, the better. The fewer emails, texts, and phone calls it takes to find an answer, the better. It shouldn’t take four interactions to have an advising question answered, and students shouldn’t have to submit their personal data six times during their first year to access services across campus. Virtual services must supplement as much of the student experience as possible, and at the very least intuitively guide students to the people, places, and information they need, when they need it.
Now, it’s also worth noting that it’s best to offer multiple ways to get information or service on a virtual platform. Today’s students want chat options, they want their personal data to enable personalized interactions online, they want accessible how-to guides, and they want alerts. They don’t want a flood of emails or texts, and they want just enough data exchanged in order to make the system experience personalized and useful to them. They also don’t want face-to-face interactions to go away entirely—and they’ll be the first to tell you if a critical service has been rendered “impersonal” or frustratingly robotic—they just don’t want the runaround.
Leverage the tech you have to build the virtual system you need
When building a virtual one stop, you may not have to purchase new technology. In fact, it’s an opportunity to examine all the systems used by each office and discover which ones are even necessary. One department may already be using software that can work for the other departments.
Don’t assume you need to purchase new software. Meet with your IT team to see what’s possible with the software already in place. For most institutions, the virtual one stop is not a very expensive endeavor, but it can still be a challenge in terms of time and staff resources. The virtual one stop website has to be designed, information systems have to be integrated, and staff need to be trained to use and support the new system.
The development of a virtual one stop is a chance to use your systems to their best effect, or to find a single software solution that gives you the chance to replace multiple applications and programs. CRM solutions and modern ERP technology, backed by intuitively-designed web portals are a way to integrate systems and departments, modernize data governance at your institution, gain the functionality you need now, and set up the campus for future innovations like data analytics.
Virtual one stops have what students need
Key features of a successful virtual one stop include easy-to-find information and front-and-center alerts for key campus deadlines. That sounds simple, but some virtual one stops struggle to help students by featuring information which is difficult to locate and large text blocks that can be difficult to read. Effective virtual spaces contain the following elements:
1. Front page alerts. Display your campus timelines that prominently display upcoming due dates, typically in a list or block form rather than a calendar, which can be difficult for some students to hunt through.
Tip: Design alerts to display function-specific detail. Add depth to timelines by enabling students to access more detailed timelines based on a specific service, such as Academic, Billing and Due Dates, Enrollment, or Exam Dates.
2. Clear navigation. Drop-down menus should communicate action items in student-centric language (e.g. “Your Classes, Your Money, Your Degree, Your Profile”), and search bars should include suggestive copy and prompts like “what can we help you find?”
Tip: Keep drop-down lists limited to under seven items.
3. Access to essential functions. Don’t clutter the virtual one stop with every service under the sun. And while it’s up to the school to determine what the essential services are, generally, you’ll have: Financial aid, academics (registration, scheduling, withdrawal, degree tracking), transcript requests, and bill payment.
Tip: Virtual one stops that expand will most likely include advising services, helping students connect with them and learn what support is offered.
4. Onboarding information. This can be a key area to help students accomplish objectives remotely or make the most of an onsite visit. Several institutions feature how-to guides on a variety of subjects, and it’s important to include some info “for parents/guests”.
Tip: Build a “Know Before You Go” section with tasks lists that help students complete steps or produce all required documents before they visit any onsite office known to have more complicated processes.
When designing a virtual one stop, it’s important to think about virtual architecture in many of the ways an architect would think about the physical one stop space. If your campus has instructional designers on staff, they make great partners for savvy UX design. Designing to convey open, inviting, helpful environments goes a long way—these effects matter with virtual spaces just as much as physical spaces.
A major piece of the modern campus experience
Virtual one stops are developed to allow students to conduct the same interactions virtually that they can in person, when possible. Like any existing service or office on campus, there should be a mechanism for feedback from students (who should also have input on the design).
Students should be directed to virtual services when it makes sense—but it should be remembered the point of the one stop is not to shoo students away from face-to-face interactions; it’s just to help them with the business of being a college student, to help them succeed with fewer roadblocks along the way.
In this sense, development of the virtual one stop is paramount. It’s a key piece of the modernization puzzle, and also a key part of institutional strategies for making the most of student data and personalizing the student experience in meaningful ways.
For a how-to on getting a one stop project started at your institution, check out my previous blog, How to implement a modern one stop student service center.