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Learning From the CX Giants: Journey Toward a More Customer-Centric University

Student centricity is a non-negotiable component of a positive student experience. Learn what you can from your competitors, but make sure to include your target audience in the process. Their validation is critical to a higher ed institution’s success. 

As university staff, we like to imagine our institution among the illustrious ranks of customer experience (CX) leaders—your Hiltons, Zappos, and Disneys, organizations famous for providing relentless support and a quality experience every step along the customer’s path.

But it took these giants more than imagination to get there. The world’s CX leaders became leaders because they deliberately embedded customer experience practices into every process. The reason why is simple: if they don’t, a competitor’s site is just a click away. 

But what happens when it’s not so easy to jump ship and go with a competitor? Consider banks. Switching banks can be time-consuming and frustrating, so customers often opt to stick with the one they have even if they would prefer to go. A study by Bain & Company reported that “Many consumers—about 29% globally on average—said they would switch their primary bank if it were easy to do so” (Toit & Burns, 2016). 

Similarly, university students have made a commitment that takes more than a few clicks to undo. They certainly can switch to another school, but it’s not as easy as looking up another retailer’s website when the first one lets you down—and the financial investment is much more significant. Students may be willing to endure a poor experience if they feel that the burden of transferring to a different institution is greater than the challenges associated with staying. Students who are several terms into their degree may have built up enough loyalty toward the university that they are willing to overlook a poor experience. Does this mean that universities can get away with deprioritizing customer experience? 

I would argue that organizations whose customers have to jump over some hurdles to leave have an even greater responsibility to ensure quality customer experience. We want our students to stay with our institution because it brings them the most value, not because switching is too inconvenient. Achieving this is a complex task, but we can follow the example set by customer experience leaders and deliberately embed experience throughout our processes.

So, how do we go about becoming a more customer-centric university? Simply put, by putting the customer back into customer experience. Some academics may balk at the term “customer” in the context of higher education, but for the purposes of this article, customer refers to our students and stands as a reminder that we are here to serve them—not the other way around. 

Getting started: know your audience

Customer experience begins with understanding the people who consume your product, whether that’s an industry-leading e-commerce site or a college-level online course. Before designing anything else, ask yourself: who is my target audience? What does their average day look like, in and out of the virtual classroom? What are their priorities, goals, fears? What other things are vying for their attention? Why are they enrolling in this course? Through this line of questioning, we broaden our perspective and view students as human beings with full lives in which our university plays but a small part. 

Asking yourself these questions is easy, but there is no customer centricity if you don’t involve the customer. Next, it’s time to arrange interviews and talk to your target audience. Get to know them, understand why and how they are using your course. Hear directly from the source. Surveys have their time and place, but they can’t come close to the richness and depth of human interaction. Interviewing is a bountiful source of data you can use to create personasjourney maps, and user flows to support your development process. Bring these pieces back to your audience—do they see themselves in these? Are there gaps? What questions do they have? Use this data, your knowledge of your audience, as the foundation for your customer experience. Assumptions are poisonous, and learning is the antidote.

Solve the right problem, solve the problem right

When we begin with a deep understanding of our target audience, we increase our chances of solving the right problems while diluting HIPPO-led decision-making (that is, letting the highest-paid person’s opinion direct the team’s design focus). As we begin to sort through our research and identify themes, the next temptation we must resist is jumping straight to solutions. Instead, lay the groundwork for productive solutioning: identify themes from your interviews and research, prioritize the issues, then fearlessly explore a wide variety of potential solutions. From these ideas, a quality few will emerge, and you’ll be better positioned to develop solutions based on real customer needs, not stakeholder opinions.

As you enter the solutions phase, avoid designing in a vacuum. Get feedback from students on everything, from half-formed ideas to early sketches, to finely tuned prototypes. Receive feedback with a neutral researcher state of mind. Openness to feedback at every stage of the process will help you avoid becoming too attached to your own design ideas, creating fertile ground for the best version to thrive.

Feedback is essential, but to go a step further, why not invite students to co-design with you? Engage them in card sorts and tree tests, which help decide how content should be labeled and organized to match their mental models. Or organize a co-design workshop, in which participants create storyboards, collages, their ideal solution to a relevant problem, and more. Inviting your customers into your design process doesn’t mean that participants become the designers and make your expertise redundant. Instead, think of them as the subject matter experts on their own experience. Use their creations as source material to design a highly effective product that integrates your expertise with their goals, mental models, and preferences. 

Gather feedback—and use it

You’ve come this far in a process steeped in customer centricity, so don’t stop there! After you’ve thoughtfully and collaboratively created a product that solves real problems, serves the needs of your target audience, and helps them meet their goals, you have an opportunity to test your product and gather more feedback. If you haven’t done so already, this is a great time to conduct usability testing with members of your target audience. Invite them to try out your product by giving them key tasks to complete, and observe any moments of confusion, hesitation, and success.

A more quantitative, though often time-consuming, approach is piloting your product. With an eye toward learning and iteration, piloting entails launching a new or redesigned version of a product to a subset of customers, gathering data and feedback, and making adjustments. A/B testing provides an added layer: you’ll compare the new design to the old and see which one performs better against chosen metrics, such as student success, persistence, or satisfaction.

All of these methods should influence the design. Research should always inform improvements. It’s not a box to be checked but a call to action. The more you can learn and iterate before launch, the better. The time and effort you spend will pay dividends in the form of reduced frustration and support tickets and better customer experience.

A culture of continuous CX improvement

You’ve created your customer-centric product, but the work is never done. This process is a cycle: research findings may call for more research, early feedback may necessitate a return to the drawing board, usability tests may uncover problems that require new design iterations to solve. The more you include your target audience in your process, the fewer missteps you’ll make and the less backtracking you’ll need to do to arrive at the final version. 

But even the final version shouldn’t be set in stone. After launch, monitor customer experience data, gather feedback, talk to your support staff, and evaluate both your own product and those of competitors to unearth potential ideas on which to consult your target audience. The methods mentioned in this article merely scratch the surface, and there are many different approaches to increasing customer centricity in your development processes—many of them speedy and cost-effective. Always strive to improve.

This is a culture of a continuous customer experience improvement. In this culture, customer experience is the lifeblood of your development process, not an afterthought. Everyone must take part in building a product or service that begins and ends with meeting customer needs and expectations. 

This culture doesn’t appear overnight. You may not be able to immediately incorporate as much customer involvement and feedback as you might want in your process, whether due to lack of time, budget, or buy-in. That’s ok—do what you can. Any customer involvement is better than none. A great customer experience starts with the desire to do better for the customer, and if you have that, you’re on your way. 

Corporations and universities are complex beasts, and it takes more than customer centricity to prevail. However, customer centricity is increasingly becoming non-negotiable,  separating the successful institutions from the failed. While corporations have many priorities that rightfully aren’t included on most university roadmaps, we would do well to learn from the customer experience leaders in how they leverage customer voice, data, and feedback toward continuous improvement. Most of us have a long way to go on our journey to true customer centricity, but even a single step forward brings us closer to the destination—as long as we invite our customers to join us.


Toit, G., & Burns, M. (2016, November). Customer loyalty in RETAIL Banking: Global EDITION 2016. Retrieved February 11, 2021, from

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