Customer Service in the Higher Education Context: Finally Putting Students FirstElisabeth Rees Johnstone | Executive Director of Continuing Education and Professional Learning at OISE, University of Toronto
In 2014, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, global industry and government leaders from all sectors declared that we are in the Age of the Customer.
The Age of the Customer concept effectively states that consumers are more empowered than ever before because, through the advances of technology, they can access information and services via digital channels and in real time. A consumer’s ability to access information has resulted in a sea change in our global marketplace. Informed consumers are quick to research and also share their opinions online. As a result of this access to, and real-time sharing of information, organizations (whether private, public, big or small) are having to change how they interact with current and potential customers in order to not only build a brand but sustain it as well.
In the Age of the Customer, organizations are responding by changing all aspects of how they work and interact with current and prospective customers:
Marketing teams have had to adjust how they attract and engage with more informed consumers and how they move from mass-market “push” messaging to a more personalized approach; they have had to re-evaluate their content marketing strategies as consumers have an expectation that they will be not only be informed, but educated as well.
Communications teams are navigating multiple communication channels as consumers readily contact an organization by email, phone, live chat on a website and through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Sales teams are having to work in lock step with their information technology departments to gather data (and better data) about their customer in order to build prospects, nurture connections and secure customer retention targets.
Service teams, those on the front lines, are required to respond to consumer communications quickly and they must be even more informed and highly knowledgeable about products and services because informed customers are calling or texting already armed with information.
As all sectors and organizations both embrace and grapple with this shift, why would we consider our education sector to be immune? The students-as-customers debate is guaranteed to stir and rattle a passionate dialogue. When I have referred to students as customers—or used the terms interchangeably when describing our learners who pay fees to attend our programs every semester—there will undoubtedly be a colleague who corrects and advises that students are not customers. I am often cautioned that the student-as-customer philosophy promotes the overindulgence of a group who will expect higher grades for little effort, who will be readily wooed by slick advertising, who will force education institutions to focus on growth for growth’s sake, which will erode quality and the very essence of our role and commitment as educators.
However, the student-as-customer philosophy is not about treating education and students as products or cash cows, and it is not about easy grades, or following the “customer is always right” slogan by changing policies to meet unrealistic expectations. It is about a paradigm shift to customer centricity.
In education, I believe we are navigating the Age of the Customer through our active promotion and commitment to great teaching practice in the classroom—whether that classroom is on campus or online. We accept that great teaching is centered around learners and we are responding, like all other sectors, to the great digital tsunami that is shaping and shifting our relationships with our learners. We are moving from institution-centric practices to learner-centric ones to meet the needs of learners and respond to the shift in market dynamics.
While we readily accept the notion of learner centricity for the classroom, we need to move beyond the classroom and consider how we might carry this learner-centric philosophy to our education operations. In the Age of the Customer, transforming the customer experience is a critical market imperative for all organizations and this is true for education as well. To be truly learner/customer-centric is to have every colleague on our teams committed to the customer experience, and in my view, that’s being committed to the success of that learner. This requires weaving a culture of service into the ethos of the organization and empowering teams to both anticipate and react to learner needs at all touchpoints in their learning journey with our organization—from the time they are inquiring about a learning solution to the time they receive recognition for successful completion of their learning and beyond. To achieve this also requires a commitment to actively participating in a digital environment.
In the next couple of years, organizations that don’t adapt and adopt digital practices will look increasingly out of date and out of touch. In leading a continuing education division, I am witnessing that digital skills are in high demand as is the need for digitally fluent, savvy leadership across all sectors. We have a responsibility to develop these skills in others, as well as ourselves.
Customer experience and customer centricity are often deemed subjective topics, but the long-term financial benefits and brand capital is well documented and unmistakable. At OISE Continuing and Professional Learning, we have started with this guiding statement:
Engage the world’s educators and empower one another to create environments where learning thrives
We are evolving and developing our operations, our programming and our talent around this commitment. By making this a part of our everyday, we are committed to creating a customer-centric continuing education division.
The students-as-customers conversation is on a par with the concept of learning online—there are still folks out there who question whether online learning should be happening. Digital engagement is not about technology; it is about customer experience and leadership. Just as technology has become ubiquitous, so too has customer experience, and to not recognize this is simply perilous.
Author Perspective: Administrator