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The Balancing Act Between Customer Service and Student Accountability

The Balancing Act Between Customer Service and Student Accountability
The relationship between an institution and its students should more closely resemble that of a personal trainer and client than that of a vendor and customer.

Are students our “customers”?

Many would strongly say so. In today’s climate, non-traditional higher education (and, increasingly, traditional higher education) is offered as a retail product: advertised heavily, priced competitively and packaged in instructional modalities and offerings that fit students’ lives and work schedules. Moreover, students are acutely aware of the relationship of price to value when it comes to financing their education — and part of the value proposition is customer service. As a result, when an applicant begins the enrollment process, he or she may expect a certain level of service: prompt return of phone calls, smiling greeters, 24-hour tech support, timely and accurate advisement and one-on-one attention.

These expectations can have an unintended negative impact when applied in an academic context. In customer mode, students ask for extra flexibility with regard to deadlines, for everything from registration and payment to handing in assignments. They dispute a grade and expect to win the day, particularly if they escalate the dispute to a dean or other manager. They ignore a call concerning absence or academic probation and argue with the consequences. They don’t heed their academic advisors, take classes that don’t fit their programs and demand not to be charged for their own errors. They may well be accommodated.

Ultimately, we create customer-monsters who expect much from the institution, but who aren’t accountable for their actions — and misuse their status to boot.

That monster is easily fed. After all, it’s more expedient to say yes to a student demand and work around the consequences than it is to say no and risk losing the student and, consequently, revenue. As an example, when the institution does not maintain hard registration deadlines (in the hope that keeping that window open will maximize the time for stragglers to re-commit), students learn quickly they can delay their decision sometimes even a week or more into the subsequent session. Or when payment plans substitute for strong collection policies, then the student learns to delay payment. This is a recipe for strategic disaster.

The first to see bad strategy materializing are typically the faculty and academic advisors who have to navigate unreasonable student demands. Asked if the student is our customer, they would disagree, rightly fearing a loss of quality and even compliance in the pursuit of customer service. They may argue that the relationship of the institution to the student should not resemble customer and vendor, but be more like that of a personal trainer and client. The trainer shows the client the way to fitness with appropriate support, but the client has to put in the workout time and effort to reach his or her goals.

Ultimately, the customer service/student accountability balance has to be accomplished between marketing and academic processes. These two operational pillars don’t have to be completely at odds. Marketing and enrollment cannot over-enable bad customer behavior and learned helplessness. Nor can inflexible academic policy cut off creative solutions for student success. The balancing act becomes a question of how much — and what — customer service serves the best interests of the students as well as the business needs of the institution.

Bristow published a follow-up piece discussing three strategies leaders can put into place to help bridge the divide between student accountability and customer service.

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