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Research Report

Engage shared services customers in the conversation around service expectations and ongoing performance

October 23, 2019

A growing number of higher education leaders, on the hunt for greater efficiency and savings in their administrative service delivery, are considering the viability of shared services for their campuses. Within recent memory, several shared services implementations have sparked well-documented campus upheavals—giving other institutions pause about consolidating administrative work.

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This resource is part of the Ease the Transition to Shared Services with a Plan for Change Management Hurdles Roadmap. Access the Roadmap for stepwise guidance with additional tools and research.

Solution: Two-way service level conversations
Service-level agreements, governance boards, and communication protocols ensure that shared services units are responsive to client needs. Over time, shared services leaders use performance data to demonstrate that the consolidated organization is delivering high-quality services in alignment with customer expectations.

Customer service fears at the heart of resistance

Consider the history of shared services at the University of Michigan. The announcement in 2013 of a large-scale effort to move 275 staff out of academic units into a single shared services center sparked widespread faculty outcry. An open letter placed concerns over service quality at the center of faculty objections. They described shared services as “inherently flawed because its focus is on reducing administrative costs without taking into account the concurrent reduction in faculty and staff productivity, collaborative academic culture, and the unique needs of heterogeneous academic units.”

Customer-Focused Change Management Critical to Shared Services at the University of Michigan

Listening Tour

Formal feedback sessions with staff and faculty allay concerns about impact on transitioning staff and lead to creation of a shared service customer council.

Phased Rollout

Only 18 academic unit staff transitioned at first, minimizing organizational and faculty impacts. Remaining staff moved in late 2015.

Lean Redux

Transactional activities brought into SSC undergo a process review; staff trained in Lean to ensure commitment to continuous improvement.


Increase in the University of Michigan's customer service center favorability rating from 2014-2018
Increase in the University of Michigan’s customer service center favorability rating from 2014-2018

After a two-year strategic pause, a new leadership team at the University of Michigan revived the conversation about shared services. This time, they devoted particular attention to addressing service quality concerns. Shared services leaders conducted a listening tour among staff and faculty to understand their concerns. A shared services customer council was created to facilitate faculty and staff participation in the center’s governance. Shared services leaders also introduced a comprehensive customer service initiative known as Ridiculously Awesome Customer Service. The initiative trains all shared services staff to prioritize customer experience and service quality and equips them with continuous improvement habits to deploy in their daily work.

The University of Michigan also introduced Partnership Agreements with its client units. These agreements articulate roles and responsibilities for all participants across each business process; they also set collectively agreed-upon targets for timeliness and accuracy, with monthly reports of metrics. Collectively, this attention to customer service has led to an increase in the center’s favorability rating from 25% of campus in 2014 to 86% in 2018.

Hallmarks of shared services customer engagement

The history of shared services at the University of Michigan and other campuses attests to the importance of engaging customers in setting service expectations. Institutions have succeeded in facilitating these conversations through several venues:

Facilitate conversations through several venues

Faculty representatives, department chairs, and associate administrative deans meet monthly to provide guidance to shared services teams. The goal is to discuss customer concerns and develop recommendations for improving procedures, practices, and overall organizational structure. These boards help to assure some level of oversight for faculty-facing workflows.

Shared services administrators distribute electronic client satisfaction surveys with Likert-scale questions and open-ended responses to client units and staff. Questions typically address service quality and efficiency, staff interactions and knowledge, and procedural clarity and effectiveness. Shared services leaders aggregate the data by division and function and then use the results to chart improvement plans, where necessary.

Shared services leaders articulate a clear process for customers and other stakeholders to report concerns about shared services (e.g., discrepancies, confusing procedures, timeliness). At some campuses, shared services leaders meet monthly or quarterly with representatives of customer units to share updates and gather feedback.

Spotlight on service-level agreements

In addition to the examples above, service-level agreements (SLAs) are an effective tool in mitigating concerns about shared services priorities and expectations. SLAs articulate the service and performance expectations required from both the shared services provider and the customer. They increase transparency, foster communication, and provide mechanisms of accountability for both the service provider and customer. Institutions that have deployed SLAs report they have led to greater customer satisfaction, as customers equipped with clear expectations about shared services speed and accuracy are far less likely to be frustrated.

Since SLAs represent mutual accountability between the shared services center and customer units, representatives of both groups should be involved in their development. Stakeholders involved in SLA creation often include the shared services director and functional area leaders, implementation team members, deans and unit representatives, and decentralized administrative staff. SLAs are typically developed after or in conjunction with the creation of KPIs, which play an important role in SLA design.

EAB has developed a resource to aid in the development and deployment of SLAs with the following components:

  • A step-by-step overview of the process for creating an SLA
  • An annotated SLA components list, with examples
  • A simplified checklist that can be referenced while drafting an SLA

Building a service culture into the organizational structure

To ensure that high-quality service is an essential part of the shared services experience, some campuses have hardwired this expectation into their organizational models.

Consider the structure of the University of Louisville’s shared services center, called Business Operations. When founded, Louisville leaders dedicated five of the center’s 23 staff members to service-facing roles.  These staff interact with customers through a “one stop shop” service desk.

This model benefits both staff and customers. Functional specialists who might not be energized about customer interaction can focus on maximizing efficiency of behind-the-scenes work. Meanwhile, the customer service representatives can work with clients to find solutions to unique problems. Notably, this model did not “cost” the university more in terms of additional staff. Business Operations simply specialized and separated customer-facing and transaction-processing steps to achieve an ideal outcome. Consider building these roles into a shared services model to ensure that customer service remains at the center of the initiative. 

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