Published on 2012/02/01

Customer Service In Higher Education

I have a question: Why is it that Higher Education and specifically Higher Education in Universities and not Further Education Colleges continually fail to acknowledge that students are customers.

I am an educational professional, with my last senior position being as an Assistant Principal at a Further Education College. I am also a student studying on a Masters at a University in the East of England.

Higher Education Institutions (HEI) have many faces, but they are institutions, many steeped in hundreds of years of history and tradition, with those who work in them, administrators, managers and academics coming through the very same academic system, with the same experiences of poor levels of ā€œCustomer Serviceā€, which is then becomes a social norm within those very institutions.

There are HEIā€™s who have too many student applications and others who have too few. For those HEIā€™s who have an outstanding reputation and are over-subscribed there is an arrogance that promotes poor customer service.


Well, because the students who want to study there are grateful for their place at the HEI of their choice and are unlikely to challenge poor customer service. They are relived that they got a place and there is, allegedly, the risk of academic or other reprisals.

Irrespective of the reasons, HEI and for that matter many other institutions still provide poor levels of customer service.

I once purchased a small secondhand car from BMW. From the start of the process (the initial email) through the purchase and aftersales, service and repair, I could only describe the level of customer service as excellent. The attention to detail, the fact that there were interested in the ā€œCustomer Journeyā€ and not just whilst selling the product or service, they go beyond what is expected, they care about what there customers think.


Well, I believe (and itā€™s not rocket science) they want their customers to buy more BMW products and services. Conversely, in a HEI, how many successful students will come back and do a second or third degree?

We now come onto the issue of internal customer service and the culture within HEIs. Like most organizations, few people recognize their peers, or peer departments, as ā€œInternal customersā€ who also have expectations in respect to levels of customer service. If an organization like a HEI fails to recognize that they have internal customers, what hope is there for us external customers, who by implication are also reliant on those internal customer supply chains and the associated expectations of ā€œreasonableā€ customer serviceā€¦ whatever that means?

So my last point, Business Strategy. I would suggest that most successful businesses are successful for a number of reasons: leadership, business strategy, marketing, financial control and ā€œcustomer serviceā€.

Strategy is about the future, marketing is strategy made real. Customers respond to marketing, but only when there is something in it for them, what I am now taking about is quality, cost and delivery of the product or service. If you donā€™t know what your customer wants, how can you satisfy or exceed their needs?

Who are the customers of HEIs? Are they students, the parents of students, employers? This is basic marketing stuff, yet HEIs appear not to engage with the activity of doing in-depth market researchā€¦ why? Who knows, maybe we come back to arrogance, or is it more about leadership and change management.

Compulsory, post-compulsory, further and higher education in the UK is under significant financial pressure and increased pressure from private enterprise. They need to do more with less money, they need to get better results, they need customersā€”and good quality customers at that. If they donā€™t get them, then they will not be around for much longer.

So my conclusion in all of this is that, poor customer service in HEIs has to be laid at the feet of those who are responsible for strategic leadership. These people are also responsible for identifying the need for change and then make sure that change happens and that the changes implement deliver the commercial outturns need in respect to the quality, cost and delivery of the product or service.

If HEIs looked at their growth strategies, and asked for the information which supports their growth aspirations, how many would be able to pull out the folder with the associated research and analysis in respect of their customersā€™ needs, wants and expectations?

I hypothesize not many.

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Readers Comments

Michelle Schofield 2012/02/14 at 3:43 pm

I agree with Tom, Education institutions have always had the “knowledge” as their golden cow. Now that knowledge is available to everyone and prolific, the skills that all education institutions need to develop are customer service and delivery-with-the-“Wow”-factor skills.

Institutions that do focus on these areas and who look after their staff and train them, will be the institutions of tomorrow, sustainable and with quality. The whole concept of “university” is currently being challenged with generations of entrepreneurs who do not have a degree being born, and graduate without jobs.

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