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The Customer Is Always Right: Seeing Higher Ed as a Business

Many fears around seeing the student as a customer pervade in higher education. However, seeing the student as a customer allows an institution to better appreciate their decision to study with them and reward that decision with high-quality offerings.

Why we fear thinking of our work as a business and how to overcome it to deliver for our students.

No one likes the word customer. Ask a healthcare administrator if patients are customers. Ask a hotelier if guests are customers. Ask a performing arts manager if patrons are customers. You’ll likely get gasps and blood pressure spikes all around. Education administrators are in good company. What is behind this aversion? Fear. If this resonates with you, the chances are you and your team are doing the right things but occasionally letting the fear get in your way. It’s time to let go of the fear and move forward.

Fear #1: The Customer Is Always Right.

Admit it: This phrase has been used as a warning or a weapon at some point in your higher ed experience. This fear comes from a valid place. Once the student begins their educational journey, it’s their job to make mistakes, to try and fail and try again until they learn. It is the instructor’s job to grade, guide and redirect. Students will be wrong many times along the way. The last thing we want is to feel pressured to lower standards within that process to make the customer happy, so we ignore the very real consumer process that brought the student to our doors. The issue with this fear is that we focus solely on the student’s learning experience and don’t acknowledge that the process that brought them to the classroom requires many consumer decisions. Location, delivery mode, tuition, fees, amenities, services and many other factors inform a student’s decision, and only the student can determine if the mix is right for them.

How We Fight the Fear: Control

In higher education, we love to create policies and procedures to cover any contingency. Wouldn’t it be easier if the students followed their program plans? If we perfect the student journey, then we can advertise the experience, and students will be satisfied. This urge to provide one path and make it perfect may be natural, but ignores that students are—not customers, wait for it—human! They are varied, complicated, wonderfully human, with their own circumstances, goals and dreams.

How We Overcome the Fear: Customization

If we are careful not to exert control over the student journey, we can allow each student to customize their path based on their personal goals and increase customer satisfaction. The customer is always right in that their goals are their own and we cannot assign them. Remember the surprise of MOOCs, where completion rates were much lower than student satisfaction scores? We would do well to pay attention to how our offering is filling the need of those who have chosen to consume it. As a Gen Xer who loved choose-your-own-adventure stories, I recommend providing as much variety as possible and allowing students to show us the best paths to achieve their goals.

Fear #2: Talking About Money

Many of our institutions are proudly nonprofit. That status gives rise to an assumption that revenue is not important or that, if we talk about revenue, we are somehow sidelining or cheapening the institution’s mission. This attitude is damaging to the institution and disrespectful to students. All nonprofit organizations seek to bring in more revenue than their expenses. Profit is reinvested in the institution rather than distributed to shareholders, but we are uncomfortable admitting it.

How We Fight the Fear: Ignoring the Issue

Universities are under intense scrutiny by our elected officials and the media. Is a college degree worth the cost? What is the true cost of attendance? As much as we value education, we must admit there is a reason for skepticism. We likely haven’t done a good job of explaining how our finances are structured. Many faculty members and staff have no idea how tuition and fees are set. The customers in this case are not only students but parents, employers and government agencies. They all want to know their money is being well spent.

How We Overcome the Fear: Transparency

Having open discussions about the budget is healthy and can focus our intentions when reinvesting any profits into areas that will support the institution long-term. Admitting the importance of revenue can remind us of our responsibility to keep costs low and allocate our funds wisely. Being as transparent as possible with our students about how costs are set shows respect for the decision they are making. It is not an invitation for students or other stakeholders to make or even influence those decisions, but it lets them know we are serious in our efforts to be efficient and effective in providing high-quality experiences. I recognize there is complexity in this issue—probably more than most people are willing to wade through—but we can do a better job.

Fear #3: Chasing the Competition

I’m as much of a fan of benchmarking as the next person, but I’ve had enough of the dire warnings about big corporations creating their own training programs or the many institutions that will close in the next five years. I enjoyed the thought explored in Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game: We don’t play this education game to win; we play to keep playing. If we’re serious about the concept of lifelong learning, we understand that there are plenty of students to go around. And if we are delivering on our promises, they’ll keep coming back for more.

How We Fight the Fear: Bells and Whistles

Isn’t it nice to have flashy, fun experiences to advertise to prospective students? If we have a great dining hall, why not add food trucks on Fridays? How about a farmer’s market? Wouldn’t that be fun?  There is no end to it. Choose any service or area of campus: We can add and expand in every direction. However, that’s a misguided and expensive philosophy.

How We Overcome the Fear: Authenticity

Getting caught up in competition—and trying to win—takes our eyes off the goal. It is important to curate a safe, enjoyable experience for our students, both in person and online. It is critical to remove barriers, both real and perceived. But we need to be selective and intentional in what services and programs we choose to offer. The real way to beat the competition is to be true to your mission and your brand. Let every aspect of the customer process and student journey lead seamlessly to the learning experience and the ultimate achievement of the students’ goals. That’s why we’re here.

Take a deep breath with me. Stop trying to control everything. That’s a fool’s errand. Know your institution and know your students. Be upfront about the challenges and costs. Overcome your fears. Your students will thank you.

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