The Impact of Online Shopping on Higher Education
Learn to implement eCommerce best practices and create a positive learning experience.
Some adult learners have high expectations for instant gratification, flexible policies when it comes to deadlines and refunds, 24/7 service, and personalization. Others are simply happy to have a space where they can grab dinner between work and class. These expectations can’t always be explained away as generational differences. Rather, you need to understand your students’ expectations, and you need to want to understand your students’ expectations.
As continuing education becomes increasingly commodified, leaders must understand that program offerings are only part of creating a competitive advantage. If you’re not able to compete on price, you better be able to compete on service. How are your students interacting with you? Are they walking into your building because they want to, or is it because your enrollment operations are paper-based and they have no other choice? Are you requiring students to fill out the same information repeatedly because their data is sitting in one system that doesn’t “talk” to another system? How long is it taking them to get a transcript?
What companies like Amazon and Uber get right is they start with human-centered design. This is where higher education frequently gets it wrong, especially with adult continuing education students who are typically forced to conform to operational workflows built to serve traditional-age, campus-based students: “Sorry, we close at 5:00 p.m.” “Oh, you’re going to need to come in and sign a form.” “The person who takes care of that is at lunch. They should be back in about an hour.”
Amazon and Uber start with their desired customer experience. From there, they look at the processes and workflows needed to deliver that experience. Finally, they select the technology (or technologies) that will facilitate the processes required to deliver a seamless service experience. In the majority of cases, however, higher education does the opposite. Institutions pick technology systems, revise their internal processes to fit the limitations of those systems, then require students to follow the processes. The student experience becomes a casualty of the decision, not the driver of the decision.
Four Key Characteristics of the Shopping Experience Provided by eCommerce Leaders:
Can you imagine your Amazon Alexa saying, “Registration opens this morning for next semester. Would you like me to register you for your next classes and order your textbooks?” Imagine Alexa knowing which classes to register you for based on your degree/certificate path and the courses you’ve previously completed, then paying for them with your credit card on file–all without having to drive to the Registrar’s Office or log in to the campus website.
Amazon’s transactional and shopping cart experiences are also a plus. Their design of the purchase process is clean and intuitive, with multiple visual cues to let you know how many items are in your cart. Items stay in your cart even if you end the shopping session without completing a purchase. There’s a “Save for Later” option and a tracker that tells you whether the price of items in your cart (or on your list) has increased or decreased since you added them. Opt-in notifications also can be sent with cart reminders. The whole process is easy—perhaps too easy, as evidenced by my monthly credit card statements!
On the rare occasions when I have had to contact Amazon about an issue, the service agents I worked with were clearly empowered to make decisions regarding my issues. In some cases that meant not charging me for a digital download; in others, it meant sending me another item at no cost. These decisions did not have to be escalated. I did not have to talk to four people in order to reach a resolution. It was clear that my loyalty as a customer was worth more to them than arguing over a $1.99 MP3 or a $50 insulated tumbler. Additionally, there was someone available to assist me regardless of when I reached out—early morning, evenings, weekends, etc. My interactions took five or ten minutes at most, and I could get on with the rest of my day.
Reviews are another powerful part of the Amazon shopping experience. Customers are more likely to trust the experiences of other customers over the sales pitch from the company. In my experience, higher education approaches the notion of public-facing reviews with resistance. The fact is, we don’t have to like that students use social media and Yelp to air their grievances, but we do have to accept that we live and work in a hive-mind culture. It is critical to have a plan in place for addressing this feedback transparently. About ten years ago, I was working with my former department on developing the first social media strategy for Penn State World Campus. As part of this process, we researched peer and competitor social platforms to see how they were handling negative feedback. It was an eye-opening experience. One of the largest for-profit providers at the time had months-old unanswered complaints sitting publicly on their Facebook page. It was not a good look for the institution, but it was an important lesson for us and set the bar for how we wanted to embrace concerns and complaints and build a CQI feedback loop back into the organization.
Delivering the Amazon Experience in the Postsecondary Environment
I can hear some of my continuing education colleagues saying, “There’s no place for customer service in higher education” and/or “If we had Amazon’s budget, we could do all of these things, too!”
The notion of students as customers is anathema to many ears, for sure, but I encourage my colleagues to embrace it in the context of continuing education. Adult learners are shopping education providers like never before, especially with the rise of for-profit institutions. The days of an adult learner persisting to graduation at one institution are being replaced with adult learners who swirl from school to school until they’re finished. Articulation agreements make it easy for learners to transfer credits and supplement their education. The rising costs of education necessitate “credit shopping” and the ability to complete general education requirements at lower-cost community colleges before moving to another school for degree completion. Adult learners are becoming savvier than ever at what they perceive as “getting their money’s worth.” Continuing education institutions that don’t at least lean in to this changing tide will find themselves on the outside looking in. Even the powerhouse brands in the CE marketplace know they can no longer rest on name alone. The times they are a-changin’.
To be clear, “students as customers” does not mean that the customer is always right. We are still educational institutions, of course, and we have policies and processes in place to protect academic integrity, student privacy, and governing financial regulations. To my mind, “students as customers” means we don’t force them through arbitrary processes that are intentionally complex. A now-retired colleague once said to me that he buried a policy on the website so that students couldn’t find it because it was a policy written in their favor.
This is where I hope, dear reader, you are saying, “Huh?”
“Students as customers” means having staff available to answer phones and meet with students over the lunch hour. It means improving process inefficiencies. It means asking students what they need. It means showing students that you have a genuine investment in them, just as they have made a (literal) investment in you. Outside of the classroom, students can and should be your partners.
Regarding Amazon’s budget, I recognize that it is not feasible for most continuing education institutions to develop an Alexa or enter into a pricey partnership with a third party to overhaul the entire student experience. Many institutions are fighting to stay afloat and/or operating with a staff of five or six people juggling multiple roles and responsibilities.
What is possible is to take the time to identify the things that are in your control:
It is unlikely that Amazon’s 24/7/365 support is necessary for most continuing education institutions, but there are basic steps that CE offices of any size can implement. For example, structuring schedules so that the office is staffed over the lunch hour for phone calls and walk-in traffic, and rotating schedules so that each employee takes a turn staying until 6:00 p.m. instead of 5:00 p.m. to accommodate adult learners leaving work.
How are your students experiencing your frontline service? How do they need to experience it? It isn’t always necessary to pour money into hiring third-party consultants to discover this for you. Depending on the size of your staff, pull a few focus groups together, buy some pizza, and listen to what your students are saying. Don’t explain, justify, or defend … just listen. What patterns arise in their feedback? Additionally, have your family members and friends mystery shop for you. Ask them to call and pretend to be a prospective student. Ask them to visit the building and see if anyone speaks to them in the hallways. How welcoming is your space to someone who finally gathered enough courage to stop by for program information after 30 years outside of a classroom? Institute service satisfaction surveys. These can be once a quarter/semester, or they can be after every interaction. Be mindful about asking outcomes-based questions—other than whether the staff was friendly, is the student now better able to help themselves moving forward as a result of that interaction? Are they more confident? Utilize the results of this information-gathering process to create a student experience map for your institution. Identify the vulnerabilities and begin developing workflows and processes that make things better, both for your students and your bottom line.
If your institution continues to require that students submit forms, can the forms be completed, signed, and securely submitted to your offices electronically? How about through mobile devices?
In my opinion, this is the most important investment your institution can make to improve the enrollment experience—and, again, the user design and experience strategy should be driven by your experience map. Ultimately, you want a site robust enough to interface seamlessly with your Student Information System and curriculum-management system so that students can select and complete their “purchase” intuitively and securely. In 2018, students shouldn’t have to manually enter course numbers and prices into an online enrollment form. Technology accelerators are sophisticated enough now to make the back-end system handoffs invisible to students. Follow the lead of Amazon and other online retailers by developing a shopping cart that incorporates visual cues. If students abandon their carts without making a purchase, ensure your design requirements include automated reminders with calls to action.
Additionally, more than 50 percent of today’s web traffic comes from mobile devices. To have any credibility as a business or organization in these times of tech dominance and service demand, your website must reflect responsive design and development. Students should be able to do business with you in a way that is technology agnostic—this includes via text message, which is an emerging trend in high-touch student service.
It does not require a lot of money to develop a solid social media strategy for continuing education. Reviews posted to Yelp, Facebook, etc., require almost immediate responses—with gratitude for the feedback. If staff capacity is limited or staff skills are better invested elsewhere, consider work-study students, interns, etc. Even if you are not able to give the student what they want, a transparent response is not only important for the reviewer but also for the other students watching to see what you do. For responses that dance close to the boundaries of FERPA, a public response stating that you’re reaching out privately is beneficial.
Setting the Tone for the Student Experience from Registration
Admittedly I’m biased, but the enrollment experience—the entire service experience—is critical. If the reality of your students’ experience isn’t matching the promise you made in your recruitment materials, it damages the credibility of your institution and its brand.
The rapid deployment of technologies that allow for immediate consumption of goods has flipped the script for consumers, including adult learners shopping for continuing education. Higher education no longer has the upper hand in the relationship with adult learners. If a student doesn’t receive a response to an emailed question, or if they repeatedly click “Enroll Now” on your website and are met with a blank screen, it damages the credibility of your institution and its brand.
Adult learners may shop around, but when they’re ready to buy, your institution needs to be ready. If you’re not, another institution will be.
Learn to implement eCommerce best practices and create a positive learning experience.
Author Perspective: Administrator