Defining Customer Service in Cooperative Extension


Is the term “customer service” relevant to Cooperative Extension?

The term customer service is often associated with a department, or a task that you excel at or fail at.  In most businesses, and in both the private and public sector, generally speaking, customer service is getting someone to the right solution in the easiest way.  Consultants you hire can help you train staff, find bottlenecks in your systems, assess your response time, and help you develop patterns for not just meeting people’s needs, but exceeding their expectations.   If we were to hire consultants for Cooperative Extension local programming, what would they find? When someone asks you at the local or county level “how are you doing in customer service”, you might have the tendency to reply about the number of staff you have assigned to customer service, or the amount of requests answered, or even the speed at which you relay information back to the consumer.  These are all good answers.  Yet, often times we don’t (or haven’t been able) to apply some of those concepts to program development and deployment. We put those issues as a staffing issue.

In my own work, I’ve often found that when I analyze my programs, I don’t really have a strategy for customer service outside showing up on time, making sure sign-in goes smoothly, providing a good meal, getting the presentation to work well, and creating an excellent pre/post survey.  I was recently challenged to put some thought into what a model of customer service from a Cooperative Extension standpoint of programming might entail.  The focus was to go beyond the measure of “excellent” on my surveys and to move to “exceeded” as a standard.  I found this more difficult than I would expect because the answers were not necessarily in the tactics of customer service, but in the process of creating a program that focused on the outcome of exceptional customer support.  This exceptional support also needed to take into account that there were ways in which I could (and let’s face it “should”) utilize relevant technologies to provide the exceptional support I was looking for.

The hard part for me was to move outside my classical Cooperative Extension program development training that I had received over the years, mostly informally from working with others and from participating in programming over the years.  I have learned the value of good slide sets, of voice inflection, of quality handouts, of appropriate meals and breaks.  I learned the pitfalls of monotonous speakers, of planning during periods of unpredictable weather or facilities.  I learned all the tactics to ensure a smooth running program.  However, while this was a measure of customer service, it was limited mostly to the single event, and not the long-term satisfaction of my consumer.  So while I excelled at individual events (my survey’s said so!), I had put little planning into the long-term – and even more important – customer relationship I wanted to build.

What am I doing differently for customer service?

This year I revamped my goals for considering if my programming met the standard of today’s consumer.    I took into account some of the things that consumers today do:

  1. More in-depth research pre-event: consumers have information at their fingertips, expect them to come prepared to meetings.
  2. Expectations of follow up: consumers are used to having a mechanism to follow-up, if there is a place to comment, call, or write, consumers are taking advantage of that
  3. Education continuum: consumers tend to seek longer term engagement in education and to be moved form knowledge base to knowledge base.

Not every program effort I undertake requires in-depth processing for developing a customer service component.  Some programs are just inspired by
a single emergent need, and not part of my 3-5 year program goals.  However, some of my core programming in most-likely very much in need of a change to a model that supports true exceptional customer service that should be the hallmark of base programming.  For those programs, the impact of customer service needed to be integrated much better into my programming.  Its difficult to admit, but customer service was a final outcome focus mostly captured through survey instead of a planned part of my programming (not including the technical aspects of giving a program).

54620323Taking into a account what I as a consumer would like to see in things I invest my time and energy into, I developed a straw man for what good customer service might look like when applied to educational programming that is common in Cooperative Extension.  My goal this year is to put that into action and see the results it yields for my programming goals.  My goals are simple – reach as many people possible.  That simple goal challenges me to seriously consider the new model of engagement that I’ll need to achieve that single goal.


Traditionally, pre-event consists of media releases, flyers, and scheduling.  I want my audiences to come prepared, and there are many things that I can do to support activities that give me time to really concentrate on moving the measure of engagement that I want to have at an event.  Looking back on events in the past, I have not done a good job pre-event (outside press releases) in advertising an event.  Large programs should be online more visibly, and provide more information than a flyer does.

  1. Online – in addition to listing the time and date of an event, get into the details of the event that make it relevant:
    • if are there existing resources I recommend to my consumers, list and link to those resources (in this day and age I should be able to find credible information from my agency or agency partners on the topic)
    • did I give a relationship between the program I am having and WHY its meaningful to participate?  How did I tie my program back to something relevant and tangible to a consumer?  What reason would people have to care enough to spend time?
  2. Social media – I don’t really need to repeat the hundreds of statistics on why this is important, but I might need to change my methods
    • don’t stick to the details only of the event, pre-seed my event by engaging people online with asking questions, giving facts and information, and engaging conversations before events
      • Twitter – tweet out facts about the nature of my program “did you know XXX acres of XXX are produced annually”  “XXX accounts for 23% of doctor visits”  “children are more able to XXX by age XXX”
      • Facebook – share resources related to my event (your own fact sheets, existing webinars, resources) in the weeks that you advertise and lead up to your event.  Get people interested.
    • ask my current audience for feedback on their knowledge of my topic.  People don’t always know they are interested in a topic until they make a connection
    • useful reminders – everyone has a busy schedule, help remind them of my upcoming event (or create an event easily shared online)
  3. Email – email doesn’t just have to be an attachment, give relevant information in an email just like I would online
    • include links to reference materials I think are important

Efficiency During an Event

There are a few common things I do during an event that I could do better.  Most of those things center around the resources I provide to the audience.  Some technology advances can help me better distribute my materials.  The key is that I’ll need to have my final copies ready in advance. Yikes!

  1. Slide sets – how am I going to make my slides available if people want them?  Decide before (this is going to really challenge me!) the event and during event make sure I include a slide about HOW to access the slides so people don’t take copious notes if they don’t have to
    • post my slides on my website in PDF format
    • make slides available more widely by using which is online sharing for slides.  It allows me to add notes too
  2. Handouts – are my handouts posted online or do I plan to email them back out to participants?

Post-Event Customer Service

My  post-event strategies center around forming the long-term relationship I want with my clients because the subject matter I’m concentrating on is most likely a series of engagement activities that benefit my consumers if they are supported in a more organized manner.  As a consumer, when I leave an event, there is a high likelihood that I need to ponder more on what I just learned.  All the good questions seem to make their way to the top after I’ve left the building.  The amount of email and calls after any event are a good indicator that it’s the norm that we all need time to process information.  This is an ordinary business practice too.  What services do you provide post-event?

  1. Pinterest – for me this is a great way to create a space to store online existing documents, my slides, video’s, papers, and resources that I use not only to prepare for my topic but also the long-term “folder” that I continue to build.  As one of the largest social networks, and now search engines, it pays for me to invest time building a board on a specific topic.  A sample of my own Pinterest experimenting can be found at my eXAmyEHays Pinterest boards where I tried to mimic my desk library of resources.
  2. Social communities – for some topics I may want to start online communities and use those to connect with my users.  I need to learn about my user preferences and might find that a Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google community might be a good way for me to connect with my consumer and reach NEW consumers
  3. Blog – having a blog is a great way to share a timely engagement opportunity and lets me talk about my event both pre and post event.  I can add in links to resources, follow-up, and allow people to ask questions.  Many of us have blog capabilities on our county and state sites but don’t think about using them often.  They are a great way to create content in article form (for example, THIS article).
  4. Post-event Q and A – what will I give as a way to have my consumer follow up with me?  Most of the time its email, and some consumers take advantage of that.  Is there a better way?  Perhaps the ways in #2 and #3 meet this need.  I like the idea of having an open forum for Q&A so that others can take advantage of reading answers and questions already given.

And in the End

My opinion as a consumer and also as a consumer of Cooperative Extension programming (I myself attend events for my own personal gain) is that we have a number of both new technologies and also new techniques that can help us build a better customer-service model for our own programs.  I believe that as an agency, we have a bigger potential to do better in this areas.  We have always had the need to be exceptional in this area, but I think we might need to step-up our game in adopting some common business strategies in this time of a heavily driven consumer market.

What are your thoughts and strategies about Cooperative Extension and the customer-service model?

About Amy E. Hays

Program Specialist - Emerging Technologies. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Currently working for the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources (IRNR ) I specialize in learning how online learners....well, learn! I use that to help build programs for the public in the area of natural resource conservation and management.
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