Department of Education - Financial Aid Services - Dealing WIth Difficult Customers
Financial aid offices within Departments of Education often administer, and regulate student loans and grants to enable students to go to community colleges and universities.
They deal with a number of angry customer issues, since often, without financial assistance, many students simply can't afford to continue their educations, and often feel backed in a corner.
The Client SItuation
As a result of new legislation that affected social services, welfare and similar services, instigated by a desire to pare down the number of recipients receiving social assistance, the political arm of a provincial government decided to require social assistance recipients to receive job training, or participate in educational initiatives at trade schools, colleges and/or universities.
One of the side effects was to shift the contact points for these social assistance recipients away from the Department of Social Services and to the Department of Education Financial Assistance Branch.
It was clear to our client that this shift resulted in their staff having to deal with individuals who were quite different in ability, values, etc. Where before they dealt primarily with people commited to their educations, the shift meant that they were dealing with people who were participating in the educational system to obtain their "assistance" checks. Often these people were desperate, had other issues, like substance abuse and developmental difficulties, and were generally less emotionally stable than the previous clientele.
Simply put, staff was not equipped to deal with this new population, that was more volatile, more angry and frustrated, and less capable than the previous clientele. Concerns also surfaced about the potential for violence from this new client group.
As always we undertook a needs assessment process with staff, using our needs assessment form, since we were located about 1000 miles away. On the basis of the information, and in consultation with the client, we suggested a full day seminar to train ALL customer facing staff in how to deal with potentially volatile situations, with a focus on the new clientele group.
Delivery Of The Defusing Hostile Customers Seminar
In the end we delivered five full days of workshops for all the branch staff. The staff were appreciative of the work, and felt more confident and in control of angry customer situations.
The available research on frequency of violent incidents targeted towards government workers indicates fairly conclusively that there are two government occupations (non law enforcement) that are targeted by those they serve. Both health care workers and social services occupations have much higher incidence of violence from the populations they serve than other occupations within government.
In this case, the situation was even worse. Social workers receive considerable training in communication as part of their professional training. The employees in this particular Department of Education Branch had receive NO specialized training outside of how to administer the Financial Aid Policies. They were completely unequipped to deal with their new customers.
One of the additional dynamics we had to deal with was that the employees themselves were angry that they had been "thrown to the wolves" by politicans and expected to deal with a completely different client group without being provided, at least initially, with proper training. So, in part, we had to shift their focus from blaming to the process of learning the skills they needed.