Published on 2013/08/22

The Student Customer Service Imperative: A Short Trip into Academic Heresy

The Student Customer Service Imperative: A Short Trip into Academic Heresy
Inside the classroom, students are students. However, outside the classroom, it’s critical for institutions to treat their students as customers to ensure retention and future enrollments.

Few words are better chosen to get a rise out of faculty than the comment, “Students are customers.” In the vernacular: “Them’s fightin’ words!”

But why is that so?

I think some faculty members assume “customers” get to determine the product or service they receive. In academic circles, that implies students should get to shape the content or curriculum. Faculty rebel at this idea and I don’t blame them. In most cases, students are not qualified to determine the course content. That’s why we have educators.

However, this assumption misses the point.

Being a customer isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. My division’s approach is to say students are customers any time they are outside the classroom (we recognize that inside the classroom, they are students). As customers of the institution, they deserve good service, prompt responses and convenience in doing business. Everyone we interact with — inside or outside our institution — is a customer. We have the obligation of treating them with courtesy and responding to their needs.

The reason we all need to re-think our relationship with students is the answer to this question: “Do you shop where you don’t receive good service?”

I suspect you do not. You want good service wherever you do business.

Here are some unpleasant facts. College and university systems, websites and academic processes are often user-unfriendly, hard to navigate and generally offer terrible customer service.

Why should we expect students to do business with an institution that gives them lousy responses to phone calls (endless voicemail menus and near impossibility of reaching a live human)?

Why should we expect them to do business with an institution that makes them carry pieces of paper across campus for signatures when those functions could be conducted on web pages, or imposes unnecessary paperwork on them, or makes them wait days for answers to simple questions?

We must consider the business world in which we operate. If the website stinks, students are turned off. If common functions are not accessible online, it’s another strike against the institution.

Students can easily go elsewhere. They don’t have to attend your campus as there are hundreds of other institutions for them to choose from. Many of them will cheerfully grant students credit for the classes they took at your school in order to make that student their paying customer for the rest of their academic career.

Maybe you think your institution is so special you can ignore this. But the growth of for-profit institutions (which you may scorn) should tell you your competitors are breathing down the neck of Old State U. You’re not just competing with the other campus across town or across the state; you’re competing with every online institution and degree program. If your business processes don’t treat students like customers, they’ll vote with their feet.

It’s not hard for students to find alternatives. A Google search for a fairly unusual degree — a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics through distance education — generated about 1,320,000 results. A search for “online MBA” generated about 114,000,000 results. Every one of those institutions would like to generate income from your student. Many of them will work hard to take students away from you.

One of my previous bosses (now a college president) needed to earn a PhD degree. He selected a degree program which required him to board a plane and fly to Washington, DC from Colorado and back once a month throughout the entire degree program.

Why did he go to that much trouble and expense? Customer service! When he called to make some final checks on the program, a human being took the call, gave him great customer service, answered his questions and made sure he got in contact with other people as needed. He decided that was the kind of place from which he wanted to earn his degree. Sure, the curriculum was what he wanted, but customer service put him into their program.

In today’s world, every course and degree is competing with every other offering in both the physical and online marketplaces. If we treat students like second-class citizens, they will go elsewhere. It’s that simple.

Students deserve customer service. They deserve communication from faculty, websites that work, intuitive web and class interfaces and business processes that provide convenience and fast service. Anything less is not acceptable in today’s world, and that’s a lesson the academy is learning slowly and painfully.

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Readers Comments

Rebecca Cruser 2013/08/22 at 7:38 am

“Being a customer isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement. Institutions need to adopt a customer service mentality and acknowledge that, yes, students will choose an institution based on how they’re treated at it, not on the world-class curriculum or famous faculty offered. Institutions that still think this way stand to lose in the new higher education market, where for-profit providers openly pitch the ‘user experience’ as their selling point — and with great success.

Madison Riley 2013/08/22 at 11:54 am

It’s fascinating how quickly things can change. It used to be the institutions that focused on customer service were seen as cutting edge, and were able to use this focus to set themselves apart in the industry. Now, institutions are expected to offer a positive consumer experience each time they interact with students. Schools are rushing to Amazon-ize their online offerings, and enrolling in courses has become as easy as buying a sweater online. I wonder what the next phase of this student-as-consumer mentality will offer.

Chuck Schwartz 2013/08/23 at 7:23 am

I agree there’s a need for institutions to improve their customer service. At the same time, I caution against allowing this to detract from the attention schools should place on curriculum and the educational experience. I’ll point to the example of a fad I’ve started noticing among institutions: providing all new students with iPads for “learning.” I’m highly doubtful of the quality of education students are receiving in these institutions. In fact, some of the institutions offering the iPads perform poorly in terms of completion rates. While an iPad may seem trendy and unique, at first, students will eventually grow tired of these types of gimmicks that camouflage a lack of sound curriculum and teaching. Institutions need to continue to focus on their educational mission, which is still the main purpose for their existence.

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