Hello shoppers...


The idea of "shopping" for a college or university seems pretentious on the surface, unless you're Bill Gates or Kate Gosselin, both of whom could buy Drake. 

For the rest of the eager young minds who have to settle on renting (enrolling) for their University shopping fix, there are several degree-granting institutions to choose from - like 4,409, according to Department of Edukashun statistics. That includes two and four-year schools, public and private, for-profit and not for profit. (We'll get to Iowa State in a minute.)

There's also anything with the word "Phoenix" in it; the number of online schools, like the number of Lady Ga-Ga outfits, is unknown. Edvisors lists 220 (of the first, not the second). 

There's also "The School of Hard Knocks," which has a recruiter at every dinner table in every home in America.

"Honey, it's not that we can't afford the twenty thousand a year in tuition so you can major in International Recreational Studies...but, uhm, maybe you should consider taking a year off...you know...like your father did...starting 20 years ago..."

Going to college is expensive. Working at McDonalds is cheaper. Yet that hasn't slowed down enrollment at institutions of higher learning; over 70 percent of the kids who graduated from high school last year enrolled in college.  That's an all-time high, according to The Department of Labor.

The bottom line is that colleges, like businesses in any retail category, face a lot of competition.

So what's a powerful way any business can distinguish itself from its competitors, dear Unsecret Shopper reader? Yep: Customer Service. And who teaches customer service? Yep: The University of Phoenix. And if I did, would it be interesting to have me Secret Shop a nearby University, to see how good their customer service is?

I have no idea...but I'm willing to give it a shot. So, yep!

Thus do I step my Secret Shopper's feet onto the hallowed campus grounds of Iowa State University - the focus of today's Secret Shopper review. (Read other Secret Shopper reviews by clicking this sentence.)

Iowa State University was established in 1858. (Blame the legislature for those 7 a.m. labs, kids) Today ISU has over 27,000 students who occasionally attend classes taught by some of the 1,700 faculty members officed in over 160 buildings spread out over 500 (central campus) acres; we would describe Iowa State University as a BIIIIG box store, in retail parlance.

How does one Secret Shop it?

I avoided stepping into the typical portal that most visitors take, which is described on Iowa State's website as a stop-n-shop that includes "an enrollment presentation, a campus tour, and a residence hall tour." Yeah, yeah, I'm sure it's great, lots of smiles and glad-handling and some such.

That's for show, and rightly so.

When it comes to understanding the level of customer service offered by ISU employees (many of whom are also students) in the course of a normal day, we've got to dig deeper, to see how those employees interact with some old man wandering around campus on a rainy Tuesday morning.

My scenario (in case questioned by campus police): I'm the parent of a high school senior who is considering coming to ISU, and I'm here to find to find out more about the school.

I walked into the main offices of 13 University buildings, starting at The Memorial Union and ending at the Jacobson Athletic Building.

The level of customer service I received from ISU employees along the way will be judged according to my Five Pillars of Great Customer Service:

1. Smile: Did the employee smile at me, at the beginning and the end of our conversation?

2. Greet: Did the employee greet me with a salutation and an open-ended question?

3. Engage: Did the employee ask me extra questions - about my child, about where we lived, about why I was on campus, etc. - that help knock down walls between people who have never met?

4. Thank: Did the employee thank me at the end for visiting the campus?

5. Follow-up: Did the employee get my contact information so someone in that department could potentially follow up with me?

Think I'm asking for too much? Maybe you're not asking for enough.

Iowa State plays in a huge sandbox occupied by thousands of other institutions of higher learning that also offer ivy-covered brick buildings and TA's and toga parties and annual tuition hikes. Yours and mines money spends just as well at Shoehorn State as Iowa State - or no state at all. That's why the state of a company's customer service is soooo important: If parents are looking for a happy, engaging, nurturing place to send their kid to college and they don't get treated in a happy, engaging, nurturing way by that college's staff, why would their kid?

Remember kids, there's always McDonalds. At least they offer happy meals.

Here's my extra value menu of Secret Shopper ratings: 


  Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.     

   Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.     

   Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.     

   Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.     

   Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.  


Full disclosure: I attended Iowa State from 1984-87-ish. By "attended," I mean I was enrolled as a full-time student and attended on a part-time basis. I also grew up 10 miles from Ames, am a huge Cyclone fan and think the Iowa Hawkeye logo bears a striking resemblance to Fred Flintstone...


The real illustrative point to make via the question to ask about my alma mater is: Will Iowa State's customer service be Paul Rhoades in '09, or Jim Walden in '94? Will it make me want to Fight! Fight! Fight! for Iowa State, or just Cy?

Grab a letter jacket, put on your beanie and let's head to Campus.

Memorial Union  

I entered the cavernous University Book Store, located in the bowels of the beautiful Memorial Union at 8:35 a.m. on a rainy Tuesday morning, looking for warm employee smiles to dry me out.

Andrew didn't exactly blow-dry (what's left of) my hair, offering up an unsmiling but pleasant enough "Help you find something?"

'Round these Unsecret Shopper parts (and throughout the rest of Retailville) we refer to that as "a closed-ended question." It's not the strongest way to engage a customer; they are a customer and therefore, by definition, need help, else why would they be wandering around a store, looking helpless? Also, by asking an obvious and easy to say "no" to question, the employee has literally flipped me from being a shopper to a browser, and just reduced the odds of me spending money in their store by 50%.

Multiply that by the number of customers who walk through the door, and it will eventually have a detrimental effect on a company's sales, revenue and employee paychecks.

I approached Rita next.

"Help you find something?"

(Refer to previous rambling lecture.)

Engage your customers like you'd want to be engaged, Rita and Andrew: Greet them with a nice warm "hi" and broad smile, invite them into your store, ask them a nice open-ended question, like "What can I help you with today?" and show them that you care about their answer. Take ownership by taking care of them. They'll be happy and so will you. Trust me! :)

At the Memorial Union main desk, Cindy showed the youngsters how it's done, asking a very nice and open-ended "How can I help you?" through a slight grin, which absolutely exploded into an ear-to-ear smile when I mentioned how fun it must be to work inside such beautiful architecture.

"It's a wonderful building!"

It's even more so with you in it, Cindy. Nice job!

Just down from Cindy's desk was another one, staffed by Stewart and another gentleman who was answering someone's question. I stood at the desk staring confusedly at a Campus map and looking like I had a few of my own but Stewart didn't take the bait.

Finally I said, "Can you help me?" Stewart did, and even threw in a nice smile. Just get to me sooner, young man, and don't forget to toss in a "thank you," especially to someone who tells you they're visiting ISU for the first time.

Music Hall

I entered the building's main office where Tammy asked, without a smile and like she didn't want to,"Can I help you?"

Is this the University Book Store? It sounds like it, except with very nice singin and instrument playin and stuff.

You're working in The Music Hall, Tammy, where extraordinary works of art for the ears are created every moment of every day. Most of us would kill to be surrounded by such beautiful sounds, from such talented people. You're one of those people. So use your God-given instruments to make your own beautiful music for visitors to enjoy: smile, greet, engage and thank.

I like the sound of that. Don't you? :)

Out in the main lobby, Kris, a Composition Theory professor, walked past without saying hello, but did flash a beautiful smile. Awesome! Now don't forget to sound off like you've got a pair (of lungs) Kris!

I walked towards the exit door and opened it, watching the rain fall in (cardinal and gold) buckets. Jim, from the Theater Department did the same, one door away, but said nothing. After 3-4 minutes of silence, I turned and made a crack about the weather. Jim didn't smile or look my way but cracked back, and funnier than mine. Then his face beamed and he became verbal, greeting a young girl who was soaking wet from the showers, as she approached the door.

He was probably happy because the rain had stopped.

Carver Hall

I was immediately greeted with a closed-ended but smiling "Can I help you?" by Sandra as I entered the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities Office.

When I explained that my son was contemplating attending ISU and I was checking out the place for the first time, Sandra became as animated as a "Clone Marching Band Drum Line: She pointed out nearby buildings and suggested areas around Campus to visit. It would have been a nice touch (and quite reasonable) to ask me for my name when I asked you for yours, and don't forget the thank you, Sandra! Otherwise, nice job!

Enrollment Services Center/Admissions

I went into the bathroom first, not really looking for someone to smile, greet, engage and thank me.

As I walked out and began the trip upstairs to the Admissions Office, I felt a slight breeze - then realized I'd left the Unsecret Shopper door ajar. As I closed and secured it, I was reminded that I always encourage employees to smile and laugh; there are limits, however.

At the Admissions desk, Janet said "hi" with a smile-less joy-less expression that was bordering on American Gothic. Yikes, Janet! You're the point person for Admissions, where young people come to be admitted into ISU; that means you're on the front lines, as one of the first faces those fresh faces see, that's associated with the University. Am I (W)right?

You've GOT to give those poor kids more hope than that.

Janet did do a nice job of explaining which direction the Library was from where I stood, as well as other buildings.

When I asked Janet if she had some admissions information that I could take with me, she pointed behind me and said, "There are some pamphlets behind you. Is that what you mean?"

If they're Admissions pamphlets, yes. If they're Colonoscopy: What You Need To Know pamphlets, no.

Pearson Hall

I walked into the Graduate College Office, where Linda made me feel right at home, greeting me with a nice smile and even nicer "Hi!"

We talked about the possibility of my son enrolling in Graduate School (a chip off the ole' blockhead). Linda handed me information and encouraged me to visit ISU's website for more, never allowing her beautiful smile to rest more than a few seconds before turning it back on. She missed asking me for my name once I'd asked for hers but did thank me as I left. Way to go, Linda!

It would get even better, and from an unexpected source.

As I left Linda's office and walked down the hallway, a strapping young man wearing an ISU-logoed t-shirt shirt, approached. He made eye contact with me, held it, smiled and said a very warm "hi" as he scooted by.

Whoa! Who WAS that logo'd man?

I quickly turned on my heels and caught up with him, asking him what was probably the strangest series of questions he'd ever heard in his life.

"What's your name?"


"Why did you say hi to me?"

"I don't know. Because I wanted to?"

"Do you know that you're the first ISU student in the hour I've been walking around campus that has smiled at me, let alone said 'hi'?"

"Wow. Really? That's pretty amazing."

"Why are you so friendly?"

"I guess I just am. Isn't everybody?"

Sure. Let's go with that.

Bo is from Parkersburg, is majoring in history and wants to teach it someday.

You won't have to wait that long, dude. You're already teaching your peers (and those older) that it's okay, for no reason at all, to engage a complete stranger, and turn him into a friend, and a fan.

I'm so glad I now know Bo. Because Bo knows happy. :)

Beardshear Hall  

I approached a huge, beautifully designed display area called The Student Answer Center, located in the middle of the main entryway.

There were piles of pamphlets from one end of the long semi-circular desk to the other, designed to fulfill the display's stated mandate.

The only objects on display that weren't made of paper were Carrie and Matt, who sat at the far left and right ends of the display. Carrie read a book; Matt stared into a computer screen. They appeared to be staffing the display, since they were technically part of it. They were there - and I'm guessing now - to answer passerby's questions that stumped the pamphlets.

I thought I had one: Why are both of you ignoring me, in stereo? 

After pacing back and forth perusing pamphlets and not being engaged for five painful minutes, I looked at Carrie, who read another sixty seconds before looking up - hesitantly - from her book.

"Hi," she wanly offered.

Yet after I engaged her, telling her I was lost, Carrie's face lit up like an angel's, and she was exceedingly kind and helpful.

Engage with your beautiful smile and joy and nurturing spirit at the beginning, Carrie, and you'll never have to give an answer, because people will forget what their question was. :)

There was no question as to what happened next, as I headed towards the exits: another passerby smiled and said "hi."

She turned out to be Sherri, who has worked for ISU for 25 years, the last 17 in the Lab of Mechanics.

When I told her she was the first ISU employee I'd come upon who had smiled and greeted me for no reason at all, other than because she'd felt like it, Sherri was rightfully shocked.

You should have seen what I saw at American, darlin. 

Instead, you, dear blog reader, get to see what I saw at ISU...

Upstairs was the office of Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy (pronounced "Greg."). It was time to bask in the glow of what would certainly be an uber-level of high-end customer service befitting the office of the leader of one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the country.

Nancy, the receptionist at the front desk, said ambivalently and without a smile, "Can I help you?"

Yes. Is this DMACC, Boone Campus?

If I'd been a fat-cat alum and not some fat-headed Secret Shopper, I probably would have torn up the $100,000 endowment check I'd brought to give to Greg, and walked out. In that office, more than any other University office, a visitor, especially a middle-aged man who looks less like a student and more like a parent and/or a contributor has to be glad-handled by the people on the front lines. Period.

Because you never know if the next guy/girl through the door is your school's Cash Cow in shining udder ointment.

Robert Parks Library

Greg, at the Circulation Desk, offered up a nondescript "hi" that wouldn't be likely to get your circulation going. He did do a nice job of explaining how to reserve a meeting room, and what the hours are.

Yes you work in a Library, Greg, where "Quiet, Please" signs line the walls and books written by dead people fill the shelves. But even Shakespeare and Joyce and Socrates and Salinger and whoever wrote the script for the last episode of Newhart probably smiled, and perhaps even guffawed while they wrote. They'd probably be honored to have you, the overseer of their writings, occasionally do the same. 

Snedecor Hall  

Statistics Department. I wasn't expecting a walk down Bourbon Street in New Orleans in January, and Jeanette didn't disappoint, greeting me with an unsmiling and not terribly pleasant "hello."

I asked her where Beardshear Hall was located. (I'd just come from there but actually couldn't remember how to get back.) Jeanette stood up, helpfully pointed out the window in the direction of BH and described the sidewalk to take, and to keep an eye out for the building's unique architecture.

Cool beans.

After she was finished, I said, "My son is thinking about enrolling here in the second semester, and I'm here just checking out the campus."


Then: "Well, to get to Beardshear Hall you just walk down this sidewalk, and..."

Maybe I'll enroll him at The University of New Orleans.

Davidson Hall

Sylvia greeted me with a slight smile and a "hi" as I entered the main office where she worked.

I asked her if I could get some info on the Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering program, which is housed in that building.

"Everything is on our website," Sylvia responded.

I paused - then said, hopefully, "I'm here with my son from out of state, and he's thinking about enrolling. We're sort of wandering around campus."

Sylvia handed me a card.

"Here's the website."

Wow. And I didn't bring you anything!

Here are a few other things Sylvia could have done:

1. Offer to let me use a computer

2. Offer to let me talk to an instructor

3. Offer me something other than their website, just to see if I am paying attention

Again, the people who work in the main offices inside these buildings are working on the front lines of Iowa State University: that means they're representin'. They're engaging parents with smart kids and money and hopes and dreams that they can help give their children a better start and brighter future than they had.

That means there's a lot riding on what you say and how you say it, Sylvia. So there's gotta be more to it than a website. Otherwise, you're Phoenix U.

The Armory/Army ROTC Building

I introduced myself to Major Adam Giroux, ISU's Army ROTC Enrollment Officer, who welcomed me into his office on totally short notice, then proceeded to do a fine job of engaging me and selling Iowa State's ROTC program.

He asked some nice questions about my son. (The kid's 6-4 and can bench-press a Yugo - guess the apple didn't fall very far from the tree.) Adam obviously listened to my answers, offering responses and explanations that demonstrated he was very plugged in. I was particularly impressed when Adam pointed out their program's high national rank and emphasis on enrollees focusing on grades their freshman and sophomore years.

He patiently took me through a power-point program, printed it off for me, flashed a very nice smile a few times towards the end then shook my hand and thanked me for stopping in.

There was one omission that Adam will pop himself in the head with the butt of an M-16 over: He never introduced himself, or used my name during the conversation. Also, you could have gotten my contact info and done a nice follow-up; just a little more polish, soldier. :)

As for everything else, you did the ISU Army ROTC program proud, Adam. Great job!


Design Building

Mona didn't look up from her computer as I entered the Department of Landscape Architecture Office. She continued to not look up as she "greeted" me with a milk toast "hi."

That's a poorly designed salutation, Mona, and no way to build rapport with visitors to your beautiful building. People in retail (and you're one of them, Mona) do a tremendous disservice to the customers they are given a mandate (and a paycheck) to serve when they rattle off a knee-jerk salutation they obviously didn't mean, while focusing on some left-brain task. It's one of the biggest customer service mistakes, and one of my biggest pet-peeves.

I know you can do better, Mona. You've just got to want to.

Nicole did, and showed it in the office next door. She looked up from her work, made great eye contact, smiled, greeted, engaged, did a tremendous job of helping me and thanked me at the end.

Awesome job, Nicole!

Jacobson Athletic Building

I thought I was standing inside the general Athletic Department office, but Garrett, sitting behind the Football Program desk, patiently explained, without a smile, that I was a few yards short of a touchdown.

As I walked out, Garrett said, "Have a nice day."

He was the only employee to do so the entire day. Nice extra point!

Across the hall I explained to Beth, who sat behind the Athletic Marketing Department desk, that my high school-aged son was interested in an athletics/marketing major combo.

She repeatedly used the Phoenix University (or PU) response: "All of that is online."

Well that may be, but I'm offline, and in front of you.

She grabbed a business card for another employee who works in that department and told me to call her. That works. 

What needed to work harder was Beth. She didn't smile, didn't ask for my name and didn't offer her own. You're in the marketing department, Beth. Glad-handling visitors should be SOP, unless you want them to STOP coming, especially newbies like me who can inject new blood and new money into the University. Isn't the possibility and the power of that, something to be happy about, something worth smiling about?

Plus, the most successful idea to ever come out of your marketing department also has the biggest smile on campus....


Why don't you join him? :)




For all the hundreds of classes and thousands of class hours taught at Iowa State University, my guess is that there are few if any courses dedicated to the science and art of customer service.

It is strangely ironic that we build institutions of higher learning to teach young people how to think for themselves, without helping them learn how to feel for others - empathy, the core of great customer service. For that particular skill, we trust that they already have it, or will discover it on their own. We turn them loose, prove ourselves wrong later on then convince ourselves that it could not have been taught in the first place.

Yet there are some who do learn it along the way, on their own.

I saw several examples of it, in the form of good, even great customer service delivered by several Iowa State University employees and students, including Cindy, Sandra, Linda, Sherri, Bo, Adam and Nicole. They followed many of the Pillars of Great Customer Service (probably without knowing it) by smiling, greeting, engaging and thanking; simple things, things that can seem insignificant, yet things that, when repeated over and over, have a tremendous impact on the joy and fulfillment of those who are lucky enough to receive them.

They are all wonderful ambassadors for ISU.

For the other employees profiled in this review, and for the majority of all the people employed by Iowa State (or anywhere else), a strong customer service training program would have a profound, positive impact on the parents and students they serve, as well as on their own productivity, job satisfaction and sense of professional and personal fulfillment.

Could it be done at ISU? Why not. A University with the resources to resurrect a moribund football program certainly has the ability to train its employees to smile, greet, engage and thank.  

That sounds like a winning game plan to me.

PS...ISU 34, Northern Illinois, 10. GO 'CLONES!



Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.      


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Phone: 515-480-4190    


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