Relationship Management: Authenticity

(Edit note: I tried to use a formatting mechanism that would make the e-mail examples stand out but in broke things for people with different browsers and for me on mobile browsers. I’ve switched it back to normal text and indented for clarity.)

I belong to the Qantas Frequent Flyer program and have a reasonable amount of status. The last time I hit ‘Gold’, they sent me a letter telling me about all of the perks if I then went to ‘Platinum’. This struck me as curious because, by doing so, they immediately reduced the reward of ‘going Gold’ (because it was now second best) and completely failed to show me that they had looked at my flying habits. To go to ‘Platinum’, I would have had to take all of the flights I just took – AGAIN. So, now, thanks to an ill-thought out letter I’m aware of two things: firstly, that Gold is for dummies and that the cool kids are Platinum, and, secondly, that the airline I’ve been flying with since the mid-90s doesn’t regard me as serious enough to track. It makes you question the relationship.

Now it’s not as if I’d actually expended any effort to go ‘Gold’, I’d just sat on a lot of Qantas planes, watched a lot of Futurama and Big Bang Theory, and accumulated points. What Qantas sent me was a message that basically said “Hey, just fly twice as often as you and, because you fly discount economy and we don’t give you that much for it, that means we want you to spend about 3 months of the year in the air. In Economy long haul.” That’s a bit irritating because, as someone who works with computers, it’s pretty easy to look at things like accrual rate, current time of the year and my flying pattern and realise that you were sending me the aviation equivalent of “Hey, you made your mortgage payment, want to buy Paris?”

There’s a lot of lip service given to the idea of relationship management and, while it’s easy to talk about, it’s hard to do. There’s a great deal of difference between sending students an e-mail if they’re not attending and trying to actually make a connection with the student. One of these can be done with a message like this:

From: Nick Falkner
To: Nick Falkner
BCC: list of students but put in to the mail message in a way that doesn’t show up.

Hey, I noticed that you haven’t been showing up in class for a while and that you also haven’t handed up a number of assignments. If you’d like to get in touch, please see me after class or send me an e-mail to organise a time.

Regards, Nick.

Now, this is, to me, disingenuous, because while it may all be true, it looks like it’s a personal message when it’s really a form letter. Hand on heart, yes, I’ve done this but, on reflection, it’s not really good enough. Yes, any attempt to get in touch with a student is better than nothing, but this has no personalisation to it. (Yes, large classes can be hard to personalise. We ran a course for 360 engineers and we had weekly assignments with a marking load of 36 hours. We had to use team marking, with me as quality control and arbiter. Because each student got the same marker each time, we managed to maintain a relationship through personalised feedback and consistency that would have been hard to manage with only one person – but, obviously, students in different blocks could have different experiences and we did have to swap in/out more than one marker.)

I spend a lot of time establishing relationships with my students but that means that I then have to spend a lot of time maintaining the relationships with my students. Even in large classes, if I’ve spoken to someone once, they expect me to remember their names! (And I certainly try to – I don’t always succeed but I’ve got better at it with practice.)

Even those students I haven’t yet managed to develop a relationship with can benefit from my attempts to try. So this is probably much closer to what I try to send. (My explanatory notes on this are also attached after two dashes — and in italics.)

From: Nick Falkner
To: Student Name — E-mail is to the student, not an anonymous list
CC: Any other lecturers in the course — This is so that the student knows that all lecturers are getting this info.

Dear Firstname, — This can be hard to know, even when you can see the full name, due to cultural issues. If you make a fair stab, most people help you out.
I was looking at the course “Underwater Knitting in Perl” and you haven’t submitted any work for assignments 2 and 3. I was wondering if you there was something that you wanted to talk about? If you have medical or compassionate extension requests for this time, then you do need to let me know, as we need to work out an alternative submission schedule if that’s appropriate. As a reminder, you do need to obtain at least 40% of the available marks in the assignment work component to pass but you can easily get back on track if you start doing the work again now.
— It’s not too late but it can be too late! You may need help! Can I help you?
If you’d like to talk to me in person, I have an office drop-in time from 2-4pm on Friday, and you can find me in office 9.99, Building 4, Third Circle, or you can call me on xxxxx if that’s easier. Obviously, e-mail is always great as that gets me wherever I am – but I don’t promise to reply immediately to e-mail sent at midnight! — How to get me! I also reserve the right to be inject humour randomly. 🙂
Are you available on Friday at 2pm? If so, please let me know.
— Easy question to answer. Last thing the student reads. Need to keep it short so it can be read quickly and easily. This may, actually, be slightly too long.

This isn’t perfect, obviously, and I’m sure I’ve broken any number of good rules by doing this but the most important thing is that the tone is very different. I’ve thought about this student and my concern appears more authentic because it is more authentic. Of course, it took me much longer to write but the chances of having a positive response are far greater. It’s also based on my knowledge of the student which, right now, is a little limited but at least I’ve dug up as much as I can. I’ve reminded them of the mechanisms that are in place to help, as an introductory step, without saying that there’s anything wrong with them and I’ve given them a reason to respond (you may put yourself at risk but it’s not too late) and a direct question (can you see me on Friday) to respond to.

 Unsurprisingly, the students who respond and stay in touch are usually the ones that I have the best relationship with – but the first e-mail and your demonstration of knowledge of the student, as well as the personalisation of the message, makes a difference. Today, I received an e-mail from someone who came to me with problems but, with some good e-mail and meetings, we got him through to a solid B – when he was on his way to an F. Here’s what he wrote:
[…] thanks for your help during the semester, without it I wouldn’t have been able to pass [the course]. I really appreciate it. I was actually a bit surprised to even manage a [B], so again cheers.
And that, I think, is all I really need to say on this.

5 Comments on “Relationship Management: Authenticity”

  1. Kriss says:

    Your text block formatting of the emails is making them wrap behind the right sidebar so most of them can’t be seen. Now, this is probably because FireFox 14 sucks balls so far, but I thought I’d mention it,.


  2. Excellent post Nick; you provide a nice reminder of what it means to be authentic. It can be a challenge in the digital age.


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