The Interview UK
The University of Salford
Director of School Operations and Student Experience and Support

Nicole Holt

In Higher Education (HE), it can be uncomfortable to think of students as customers. However, there is a great deal of overlap between students and customers when providing support and ensuring their experience at university is positive.

GoodCourse sat down with Nicole Holt, Director of School Operations and Student Experience and Support at the University of Salford (USAL), about how she transferred her experiences in retail customer service into building a welcoming environment for students.

Nicole’s Journey

GoodCourse: What brought you to student experience and support?

I came here from the private retail sector about a decade ago. I worked in a customer service role in retail–mobile phones, which had been quite a big industry. I was curious when I saw a customer service role advertised at a university. I’d never considered that before, but I was eager to bring transferable skills from a typical customer service environment to one that felt more unusual at the time.

GoodCourse: Can you tell me what it looked like when you started, because I know there’s some debate as to whether we can call students ‘customers’?

I think the role was in the embryonic stages of development when I arrived. I was asked to introduce people at the university to this concept. Terms such as ‘customer’ and ‘commercial’ in this environment can be challenging, so I always remind people, ‘Student first, customer second’. The example we use here is it’s like a gym membership: we support and enable the student’s performance to the best of our ability, but ultimately it’s about what they put into that experience overall. 

I clarify that school tuition is likely the most they’ll ever spend on anything unless they’re incredibly fortunate. So it’s important to feel supported and as if that money has been spent wisely. We’ve made excellent headway here. I think people have grown more comfortable using the word ‘customer’ to a certain extent in the right context. 

GoodCourse: In a lot of our interviews, leaders have told us how they’ve changed the way they deliver services in reaction to students’ needs. What has that looked like for you?

I think that, like a lot of other places, we’ve seen a massive shift in terms of how students contact us about queries. We used to see a lot of footfall. Ever since the pandemic, that has gone down drastically, and they want to be able to get in touch with us promptly in different ways. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do in that regard, and our students are benchmarking us against that experience they’ve just had at ASOS, such as being able to contact customer service via WhatsApp. So we’ve been having that conversation internally about the appropriateness of that for more academic-based channels, to foster that immersive sense of belonging. We’re monitoring and have data across all channels, so more people are prepared to deal with inquiries over the phone. And more staff want to work from home, which is great because it goes hand-in-hand with greater flexibility. So we’re able to do more, be open more, and offer more channels in a way that actually suits our workforce.

GoodCourse: What is your approach to supporting students to create that sense of belonging?

We’ve learned a few things from the pandemic. Having had to shift how we handle things, engaging people in different ways through different channels that were put in place out of necessity, we learned that people have more of an appetite for this accessibility than we even expected. 

We don’t really see that for lectures, however. Most students want that experience on campus, and we’ve seen and responded to that. Now only a small percentage of classes are online. And recently, we’ve seen some of the biggest footfall we’ve probably ever had at welcome events this year. It’s really clear that students are voting with their feet, saying, ‘For me, my experience is about being with other people and making friends’. And I don’t think you can ever replace that one-to-one interaction. People want more of that with their professors and academic tutors. 

When it comes to the role my team provides, however, they mainly want us to be invisible. We can add value in lots of really important ways. I don’t want to undervalue the role my team plays, but from a student perspective, they just want us to be easy to access and provide the answers they need. They’ll only comment on what we do if it is bad. We essentially need to hide the wiring and make sure we aren’t putting up bureaucratic barriers to helping them.

3 Quick-fire Questions

GoodCourse: What is your most important piece of advice for anyone coming into HE now?

Be prepared to be disruptive, ask the right questions, and challenge the status quo while also being mindful of the political ecosystems surrounding you. You have to learn to find that sweet spot.

GoodCourse: Who would you say you admire the most in HE or the DEI space?

Honestly, I couldn’t really pin that down to anybody. Someone who inspired me recently around equality and diversity just recently was Greta Thunberg on Twitter with Andrew Tate. It really helped engage people with the topic in a different way. Really interesting dynamics around how all that happened… and it’s still a very active situation!

GoodCourse: What is the most important book you’ve read?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. As someone who is full of energy but can sometimes neglect time management and making sure the smaller, more detailed tasks get done, his sections on time management really resonated with me. It’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my career.

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