WGU Recognized for Innovation by Major Magazine

Those involved in higher education are well aware of Western Governors University, and the school's unique approach to educating the Hoosier workforce. At a time when online schools face scrutiny from some, WGU is recognized as credible and a leader in its field. Fast Company magazine recently took note, and ranked the university 28th on its list of Most Innovative Companies for "showing public schools another way to do business."

Full college degrees in months! It sounds like an email scam, but it's a new philosophy in higher ed being driven by… the government? In 2012, the online, not-for-profit institution, founded by 19 U.S. governors, became the nation's leading provider of master's degrees (and the fourth largest of bachelor's) in math education. The low-cost, self-paced WGU focuses on skills that lead to better jobs in teaching, health care, IT, and business. "We measure learning, not time," says Bob Mendenhall, the school's chancellor. Students (average age: 37) pace themselves through material designed with input from corporate board members (such as AT&T) and with help from mentors. Starting in 2010, the governors of Indiana, Washington, and Texas each endorsed virtual branches integrated with (and financially independent of) their public universities–boosting WGU's enrollment to 40,000. And while public university tuition was rising by about 5% a year, WGU's has held steady at $6,000 since 2008. It keeps the fees so low through technological efficiencies, such as replacing in-person test centers with virtual ones. And it obsessively tracks metrics like this one: 95% of employers say WGU grads are as good as or better than those from anywhere else.

WGU's chancellor also blogged about the honor, and in other WGU news, the school just announced a new business outreach program in Indiana.

Customer Service as Important as Ever

I was at a marketing conference a couple years ago when a presenter asserted that a company’s top marketers are really its customer service people. I found that to be one of these really simple, yet complicated concepts. We are lucky to have a great customer service team in place here at the Chamber, and they are often the face of our organizations both via phone and at our conferences. Fast Company delved into this notion in a recent interview with Thor Muller of San Francisco-based Get Satisfaction:

1. Re-humanizing consumer interactions

For Muller, it is simply not enough that companies use their tools. "We really want people to change their whole approach to what it means to talk to customers," he explained. "For a long time, maybe a hundred years, we’ve been gradually squeezing the humanity out of our interactions; scripting it, automating it, scaling it." Instead of asking people to take a number, "Companies now have to revolve themselves around individuals." Muller noted, adding that in doing so, "we’re making the world a better place, certainly more human!"

2. Elevating the conversation from transactions to aspirations

While traditional customer service is often about addressing transactional issues like resetting passwords, Muller believes that community-driven customer support can go much further. "Customer communities at their best are really tapping people’s deeper goals, their deeper desires," explained Muller. This requires companies to, "rise above writing help documentation and be more of a good cocktail party host." Muller links this change with the new staff post of Community Manager who is part therapist, part help desk and part cruise director.

3. Reducing the costs of the traditional help desk

For years, companies have sought to drive down support costs with automation and the ironic goal of minimizing human interaction with their call centers. Part of the reason Get Satisfaction has grown so quickly is that it flips this notion on its head, increasing human interaction but decreasing costs by making support more peer-to-peer driven. Noted Muller, "we’ve seen with our communities at scale typically reduce the number of [service] tickets that go to [call center] agents by 75% or so." Muller referred me to case histories for Mint.com and Yola, both of which reduced "repetitive support by two thirds."

4. Extending support beyond your website to Facebook

While most companies recognize the need to engage consumers on social media, only the savviest have begun to offer customer support on platforms like Facebook. For these enlightened marketers, Get Satisfaction offers a Facebook application in two distinct versions, "one for enterprises who have a lot more demand for customization/controls and one for everybody else," noted Muller. Having a support tab on Facebook gives fans one more reason to "Like" a brand and get the information and support required to encourage and enable over-the-top evangelism.

5. Turning customer support into searchable content

Given the fundamental importance of search to customer acquisition, finding ways to improve organic search results (SEO) is a top priority for most businesses. That said, few have recognized that content generated via customer communities can do just that. Explained Muller, "somebody asks how they can use a particular camera to take better pictures, that is then indexed by Google and then next person who searches finds that conversation. Get Satisfaction] is taking something that used to be a cost center, customer service, and turning it into lead generation."

6. Listening builds trust in and of itself

Dell famously solicited customer ideas and ended up producing a Linux based laptop that no one bought. This kind of listening and responding is not the ultimate intent of Get Satisfaction. While community members are encouraged to offer ideas, Muller does not advocate, "design by committee" or conclude that the customer is always right. "Even if [a brand doesn’t] build what I want them to build or do what I want them to do, I may be less likely to change to another product because I feel close to them," explained Muller.

7. Integrating customer conversations with your CRM system

Many sophisticated marketers, especially in B2B, rely on well-honed CRM systems to track leads through the funnel. Get Satisfaction allows these companies to take this one step further by connecting the social web with workflow systems, trouble tickets and project management tools. Explained Muller, "Knowing who a customer is, what their buying history is, and what they care about is important to servicing them well." Suddenly a customer complaint becomes "actionable within an organization," given the CRM integration concluded Muller.

8. Measuring C-Sat on both a qualitative and quantitative basis

While some pundits strive to simplify customer satisfaction to one basic metric like Net Promoter, this may not be the ideal approach for your particular business. Having witnessed thousands of customer comments and complaints, Muller encourages clients to take a "more holistic approach" and "measure satisfaction in various ways." Having developed something called a Satisfactometer, that explained Muller, "might be something fun like an emoticon and other times might be something more structured and numeric," Get Satisfaction is delivering both sides of the measurement equation.

Leadership Lessons from “Mad Men”

Even if you’re not a top-level executive who once stole a deceased man’s identity to build a new life for yourself, you can likely relate to at least one character in "Mad Men" or at least the hit show’s fictional advertising firm. As this season wrapped up, Fast Company gleaned some leadership lessons from the program’s key characters. Here’s an example:

Roger Sterling, Jr. – Sr. Partner, Head of Accounts

The best that can be said of Roger’s work this year is that he managed to avoid having a third heart attack. It wasn’t entirely his fault that the company lost Lucky Strike, which accounted for more than two-thirds of its billings. But Roger committed a grave leadership sin when he decided to keep the bad news to himself, let the other partners learn about it via the Mad Ave grapevine — then lied about flying down to Raleigh to patch things up.

Roger has been distracted and petulant, focused more on his memoirs and his disastrous affair with Joan than the account which was, so far as we can tell, his sole responsibility. Let’s not even mention the racist outburst that nearly scuppered the company’s chance at the Honda account. Had he not been so entitled, he might have seen that American Tobacco was bound to consolidate its accounts over at BBDO someday. The most damning judgment on Roger came from his old partner Bert: “You didn’t take yourself seriously, so neither did they.”

LESSON: No matter how bad the news is, share it with your fellow leaders. They can handle it better than you alone.

For-Profit Universities Working for Better Reputation

Fast Company magazine recently addressed the topic of for-profit, or "market driven," colleges. In the piece they reveal the journey of Michael Clifford, chair of Significant Federation, a private equity firm and principal investor in six higher-education companies, and the challenges and stigmas associated with these types of programs:

Today, for-profit colleges enroll 9% of all students, many of them in online programs. It’s safe to assume they’ll soon have many more. President Obama has called for America to have the world’s highest percentage of college graduates by 2020, and for-profits are the only sector significantly expanding enrollment — up 17% since the start of the recession in 2008. Emerging from its scandal-plagued "diploma mill" rep (see "Not Quite Ready for the Honor Roll," page 54), the industry consolidated in the past decade under a handful of publicly traded names, including Kaplan (part of The Washington Post Co.), DeVry, and the University of Phoenix, which with 420,000 students is the largest university in North America. These companies, which depend on tuition revenues backed by federal student grants and loans, have been strong performers for stockholders.

Clifford likes to take over the accreditation of a struggling bricks-and-mortar institution, sometimes just days before it runs out of cash. "We’re a SWAT team," he says. "We love fixing schools." Full-time professors with PhDs and seasoned administrators run the home campus as a "learning lab," developing and testing curricula and texts for the much larger online programs. As a bonus, the brand maintains all the trappings of a traditional university — sports, dance line, pep band, community service, and in Grand Canyon’s case, a Christian mission. Clifford, whose personal charitable efforts include a soup kitchen and housing for 600 ex-gang members in L.A., says that Grand Canyon online students who have never set foot on the Phoenix campus log on to the Web site and check the status of the basketball team, or watch the live stream of Sunday chapel.

While private colleges have taken huge hits to their endowments, and public universities weather historic cutbacks, for-profits like Clifford’s keep costs down with innovative use of technology, publish metrics like job placements, and are open to any high-school graduate. They target under-served markets like first-generation students and working adults with convenience and a customer-service ethic. Tuition and fees, which tend to be higher than public institutions’ for on-campus programs, are comparable for online — $687.50 per credit for undergrads on campus at Grand Canyon and $415 for online, for example, compared to $476 for the public University of Arizona.

But questions about quality linger. Despite the traditional campus trappings, Clifford’s schools tend to have a vocational focus, such as health-care administration (L.A. College); only Grand Canyon and Crichton College have any liberal-arts programs.

Since there are no generally accepted measurements of learning in traditional higher education, the proxy for the value of a diploma on the job market is prestige. Rankings like those of U.S. News & World Report depend on reputation; spending per student, including spending on research; and selectivity — a measure of inputs, not outputs. On all these measures, for-profits come up short.

So what do you think? A new, unique opportunity? Or a dreg upon the education sector?

CEO: What Poker Taught Me About Non-Profits

Nancy Lublin, CEO of Do Something, wrote an interesting piece recently for Fast Company magazine about what she learned years ago in poker rooms, and how it’s helped her run a not-for-profit:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em … Every poker hand is like a fund-raising pitch. Your first bet needs to be high enough to garner respect from the other players, but not so high that you scare them all away. It also can’t be so low that you make them think you’re desperate. And that first bet has less to do with your cards than with who’s at the table, where you’re seated (are you the first to bet? the last?), your reputation, and chutzpah. I’ve heard foundations say they ignore requests for under $100,000, but a first-time ask for $5 million won’t get a second look either. Every entrepreneur knows that chasing early funding is similar: What can you request with a straight face and still get a "yes"?

Know when to fold ’em … You should fold about 80% of the hands you’re dealt. That’s hard to do — you get itchy to play or you’re tempted to see if you can string something together. Dress for Success was once asked to provide suits for women seeking restraining orders in court. We wanted to help. We had the inventory. But our purpose was to support women looking for work. Our board debated it passionately and decided that we shouldn’t muddy our mission by getting involved in something complex that we didn’t fully understand. That slope would have been too slippery — we wanted to say yes, but we had to say no.

Know when to walk away. And know when to run. Sometimes you suffer a bad beat and you have to move on. In the office context, this is especially relevant to personnel. Firing an employee is never fun, especially if you hired the person. It’s like starting out with a nice pair in the hole. You’re starting strong, but it never gets better. The best thing is to just cut your losses quickly. If that new employee turns out to be a loser, better to fail fast.

This has been the hardest lesson for me: I fall in love with cards, and I fall in love with potential in employees. Do Something, my current not-for-profit, once hired a successful tech entrepreneur to be our CTO. He took a huge pay cut, which made us feel lucky to have him. He wanted to redesign our site. This was a bad use of our time and resources, but he kept arguing for it. I’d be crazy to ditch the genius, right? Wrong. He didn’t understand our priorities or our agenda. Delaying a decision to cut bait is expensive and affects your head. We finally let the guy go.

You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the deal is done. Don’t gloat. Even when you win a gigantic pot, you don’t want your benefactor to feel cheated — or stupid — because you want to play with her again. And counting your chips is distracting. Every second spent examining your own stack is a second you’re not using to suss out others’ cards and nerves. In the not-for-profit context, droning on about how much money you’ve brought in doesn’t help bring in more. Plus, it’s off-topic. Your goal is to build a more effective organization and reach your group’s goals, right? So communicate your strategy for change, not how much change you’ve got.

Get ReTweeted Like a Champion

Fast Company magazine recently publicized some very interesting findings from viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella, who examined what types of Tweets are most likely to be retweeted. This is incredibly useful for businesses who are looking to get out the word about what they offer — and for bored college students who think everyone should know they are eating Zingers while watching the World Series of Poker: 

If I wanted (to) make sure this post did not go viral–according to the standards put forth by Hubspot viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella in "The Science of Retweeting"– I could promote it on Twitter by posting something like this:

"was bored watchin the game on tv and saw this thing about RTs…made me lol after i had really bad stomach cramps"

Note the lack of punctuation, the use of of slang and abbreviations, the limited vocabulary, and the awkward overshare–all traits that Zarrella can now definititively say would turn Twitter users off. How? Because the avid Twitter-er and author of the upcoming The Social Media Marketing Book spent nine months analyzing roughly 5 million tweets and 40 million retweets (which are usually symbolized with an "RT" on Twitter). He noted when they were posted, which words they used, whether or not they included links, and more. Then, he says, he compared the two groups to get the first "real window" into how ideas spread from person to person: "Retweets may seem like a small idea…but many of the lessons [they teach us] will be applicable to viral ideas in other mediums."

The full report is 22 pages, and won’t be available until tomorrow. But Zarrella offered me a sneak peak–via Twitter, no less. Below, his nine most effective ways to get retweeted on Twitter:

1. Link Up (But Don’t Use TinyURLs)
In Zarrella’s sample, links were three times more prevalent in RTs than normal tweets (19% to 57%), suggesting that their mere prescence could help buoy your bon mots. (Not sure whether that holds true for sporadic use of French terms.) But choose your URL shortener carefully: Newer, shorter services, such as bit.ly, ow.ly, and is.gd, were much likelier to get retweeted than older, longer services, such as TinyURL. Ouch…

Zarrella also discovered that asking people to "Please Retweet" actually works, and he came upon something that I’ve noticed based on our Hootsuite tracking, which is that Tweeters are much less active in the morning. The most RTs tend to come between 3 pm and 6 pm.

For the full report, read it here.