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Delivering a Personalized Experience by Seeing Students as Customers

Seeing a student as a customer means you’re seeing them for who they are—people with motivations and goals who want the best education that will help them throughout their careers. 

As major eCommerce giants leverage personalization, higher ed needs to adopt this mentality and begin seeing their students as customers. It’s an area of opportunity for them to better understand who their audience is and what their needs are. In this interview, Kristin Bilodeau discusses the value in seeing your students as customers, personalizing the student experience and developing stronger partnerships to make this possible. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for a modern higher ed institution to see and think of their students as customers?

Kristin Bilodeau (KB): The biggest area of opportunity that we have in this industry is for students to not feel like a number but like they are valued. That they matter and that their education is not just something they are getting because someone told them to but because it’s something they want. Those are the most successful students that we see. Those are the students who persist with their educational journey beyond an associate, bachelor’s or even graduate degree. 

Seeing a student as a customer is seeing them for who they truly are. You are not just a student of SNHU; you are a person, and you have goals and motivation that is going to push you toward achieving them.

Evo: Why is this a mentality that we’ve struggled so much to adopt in the post-secondary space?

KB: Truthfully, there’s a lot of history in the higher education industry, and in many instances, you’ll see campuses going online. Those campuses may not have a mindset or faculty that sees value in an online environment and platform for the modern learner. That truly is one of the largest opportunities. The people who are leading the charge for these online students have to believe in the product they’re delivering.

If you don’t believe in that, then you’re not going to get anywhere. You might get students, but those students won’t stay. They won’t be happy or productive. It’s the history behind the industry that we have to get out of, and we have to remember that times change. We are going into the Gen Z world, and we have to adapt. 

Evo: How do they make sure that the institution is designed to address learner expectations that generally only adult students had in the past?

KB: Right now, for students, it’s all about resolution. It’s all about that one point of contact to resolve their problems or questions. You look at the Amazons of the world, and those companies have really created this environment of quick resolution, easy access to needs and predictive modeling. There are so many aspects to what some of these larger companies do that the consumer expects.

That isn’t any different in the higher education realm, but this industry is slow to adapt, and that really is the opportunity. Even still, if we look at students’ communication preferences now, they don’t want a phone call, but that is often the primary way of connecting with students because the industry has been slow to adapt. Students today want more text and chat options. Most companies have text and chat, but most educational institutions still do not have the functionality for an intuitive text or chat experience. We can’t continue to do what we’ve always done—times are changing, and we really need to make a change along with them.

Evo: Is there a desire to personalize learner experiences and a lack of functionality to do that effectively, or is it just a broad distaste for that level of customization to the experience?

KB: It may be a combination of both. Do we have technology out there that can give us everything we want, at the price point we want, and the needs that we have without major customization and development? Not likely. 

There are definitely some technological standards among universities today, but in my experience, it’s difficult at times to get what you actually need out of technology to create that more personalized and individualized experience

At SNHU, our environment and culture that shape our intuitive abilities. There’s room to experiment and grow, and that’s what we do. My day is not filled with meeting with team members who work with our students. More often than not, my day is filled with project work related to technology or problem-solving how we can work better or differently with stakeholders across our university. Part of those conversations are getting the buy-in and the willingness to see something differently for the first time.

Evo: How do you begin that work of ensuring that this level of customer mindedness is adopted or at least accepted by every level of the institution?

KB: It comes down to communication and relationship building. When you say it like that, at the highest level, it sounds simple. If you have to communicate a message to someone that truly doesn’t believe in it, it is probably one of the most complex conversations that you will get into. You have to justify what you’re saying and why, and often, it really comes down to pieces of data that show what consumers and students want.

Hopefully most institutions are now collecting voice-of-customer data, like net promoter scores, which will provide the customer perspective. 

It really does come down to the relationship and the communication. I say relationship because if you live and breathe in one department, you want to see this student-minded, student-centric view meld into another department. Seeing this happen is going to take someone else believing and trusting in you and your own belief in the shift needed to happen. No one’s going to believe you if they don’t know you. No one’s going to listen to you if they don’t trust you. Relationship building is probably the primary role that I play within our university—networking, and the ability to get to know folks in different departments. Then they have five other people who they talk to that trust them, who believe them and who share your vision. 

Evo: What are some of the characteristics of this truly meaningful, customer-centric, student experience?

KB: Honestly, it comes down to knowing who you’re talking to. Probably anybody that works in this industry now knows the importance of hearing your students and really getting to the root of their motivation. As a customer, when you reach out to a university or college, you want to be heard. You want phone calls when you want them. You want texts when you want them. If you want to chat, you better have access to a chat option, and with all these channels, you want almost instant responses.

The ideal student experience is getting them what they want when they want it. That’s why you have to be very intentional about how you set up your departments, so technology and people work together to provide that experience.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about crafting this student-first, customer-centric approach to delivering a modern student experience?

KB: The point is that the customer matters, and what they say is gold. As an institution, if you focus on that and can help them believe in what they have and what they want to do, you will be valuable to them. That is what will get them in the door, and that’s what will get them to stay.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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