Published on 2016/10/28

Students as Customers: The New Normal in Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Students as Customers: The New Normal in Higher Education
Delivering an exceptional customer experience is no longer a choice for institutions—students today expect a learner-centric environment that allows them to interact and engage on their own terms.

A truth continuing education leaders have known and practiced for years is starting to make its way into mainstream higher education conversations, and it’s stirring up a great deal of controversy. This truth is the idea that students want to be treated like customers, and doing so actually improves the student experience overall. Critics and traditionalists worry that the academic product will suffer from a customer service mentality, but this is a contentious and debated point. In this interview, Bea González shares her thoughts on what customer service means in the postsecondary environment and reflects on why it’s so important for today’s learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for today’s continuing and professional education leaders to have a customer service mentality when serving students?

Bea González (BG): There are a couple of reasons why it’s important for continuing and professional education leaders to have a customer service mentality.

First, our students have a lot of choices and so we have to provide value to our academic deliveries and we can provide that value by offering excellent service. The second reason is, if we’re interested in providing an excellent student experience, then we need to be concerned about customer service.

Evo: Is the customer service mentality restricted to divisions serving exclusively non-traditional students, or should it be adopted by the rest of campus?

BG: So once again, if you’re concerned about the student experience at your institution then yes, you need to focus on customer service. Leaders are interested in these things because, as we all know, millennials are changing the way we do business. They’re looking for quicker answers, they’re looking for answers in places that we never thought people would. For example, they’re looking for answers off their mobile phones and they want to be able to respond to and interact with the institution that way as well. They don’t necessarily want to meet with you face-to-face, they might want to do a chat or video call. There’s lots of ways that we now have to connect with our students in order to provide them with the level of service they’re expecting.

Evo: What are some of the roadblocks that stand in the way of institutions being able to deliver that Amazon-style customer experience to today’s learners?

BG: Two roadblocks to delivering the Amazon-style experience are culture and tradition. The other is the technology.

In continuing education, we’ve been experimenting with minimizing these roadblocks because we’ve been at the forefront of distance learning and online education. As such, we’ve adjusted the way we communicate with our students and offer other communication modalities, beyond walking to an office or picking up the phone and calling.

The other piece to this customer service conversation—and I don’t want to lose sight of it—is we’re seeing shifts in how we teach as well. We’re changing our pedagogy due to the availability of instructional technology. If you sit and talk to faculty who are engaged in bringing technology into their classroom, they’re finding that the technology has enhanced their teaching, it has enhanced student learning and it has enhanced the overall experience. That’s another area at a university and a college campus where I think continuing education was at the forefront, but we’re seeing more and more instructional technology making its way into the traditional classroom. The easiest way to discuss it is through the flipped classroom model. Here, on our campus, our faculty have an opportunity to take a course on instructional technology and they are availing themselves of that option, with phenomenal feedback.

Evo: How do you respond to claims that shifting to a customer service mindset will negatively impact the academic quality of postsecondary institutions?

BG: Let me start with this: I don’t buy it.

I have spent my career in continuing education working with non-traditional students, so the faculty I worked with my entire career are faculty that have been entrepreneurial in this respect, and they haven’t been intimidated by different modalities or delivery formats. What we’re finding now is that, because of the change in the needs of our students—particularly the millennials—they expect some of the modalities, the instructional technology and the mobility they have in their everyday lives to be reflected in their educational experience.

The key to facilitating this is the faculty, who have allowed themselves to work with different instructional technologies and to work in the online environment. They’re finding that it enhances their teaching and, if their teaching is enhanced, the student experience is enhanced.  Whether we call it customer service, excellence in teaching, or the student experience, it’s all about putting the learner at the center of operations.

Evo: What’s it going to take for CE leaders to bring this idea that you need to treat student like customers to their colleagues on the main campus?

BG: I actually think traditional-age students are going to drive this change on main campuses. They already use technology as a part of their everyday life and so we as institutional leaders and faculty both need to understand that. Faculty are introducing bits and pieces of instructional technology into their traditional course delivery, so that shift is starting to happen.

In student services for traditional-age students, some people talk about one-stop shops, but I’m starting to hear the term “no-stop shop” more and more. What does that mean? That means delivering a totally online, mobile experience that’s seamless for students.

What we need to remember is that customer service really means developing an exceptional student experience.

Evo: How would you define an excellent student experience?

BG: For us here at University College, delivering a really positive student experience means anticipating our students’ needs and working with our students where they are. Our students have diverse backgrounds, whether they have no college experience or some prior college experience, and we have to understand that they don’t necessarily know the questions they need to ask. As such, so we have to anticipate their needs and help them navigate higher education bureaucracies in a way that minimizes their stress. We have a one-stop shop and we’re moving to a no-stop shop—we’re trying to get to a point where all of our services can be done in a mobile environment.

When we’re working with a student as higher education professionals, we understand the connection between admissions, financial aid, the bursar, the registrar and academic advising, and we try to make connecting with these entities as seamless as possible for students.  If our system is working properly, any student that walks in the door with transcripts in hand and financial aid forms complete can be interviewed, reviewed, admitted and registered within three hours, if everything is working perfectly.

In continuing education, at least in my organization, we know that that the majority of our students finish their admissions process two weeks before the beginning of the semester. In order for us to facilitate their ability to enroll and matriculate, we have to make sure that we have all these pieces in place so their experience is as seamless as possible. We need to minimize any hiccups in the process and do what we call “sticky hand offs”—where we make that connection on behalf of the student when we’re handing them off to another department. We know our students are busy and have very little discretionary time, so we want to be as efficient and as respectful of them as possible by giving them solid information that isn’t going to trip them up. The worst thing is when the student gets half the information they need and then they get to the next office and they find out there’s one more piece they needed—it diminishes their experience significantly. We try to eliminate all of that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Whether you call it customer service, an exceptional student experience or excellence in teaching, the institution’s focus needs to be on putting the student in the center of operations.
  • It’s critical for institutional leaders to be able to anticipate student needs and process hiccups, and to be proactive in crafting a supportive experience that meets learners’ high expectations.
  • While many institutions talk about a one-stop shop experience for students, the ideal is a no-stop shop that allows learners to complete as much as they want online through a self-service mechanism.
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