Published on 2012/01/30
Students First, Customers Second
While students are learners first and customers second, it is still important to deliver good customer service. Photo by SMSGT Munnaf Joarder.

Customer service in higher education should not be a contradictory idea. As an educator, I cringe as I write that. As an administrator, it makes sense.

Students are Customers

Regardless of how you or I or anyone else feels about it, the fact is students are customers. They are, however, first and foremost, students. Academic integrity should not be compromised to provide students with high quality customer service, and it doesn’t have to.

I’ve been a student, full-time campus faculty, part-time online faculty, and an administrator for predominantly online and predominantly traditional campuses. I’ve experienced and been a part of it all, so I’ve seen what customer service can look like for different groups of people.

The idea that “students are customers” is often viewed negatively, but this idea doesn’t really become a problem unless faculty and administrators compromise standards—whether ethical, moral, or academic—to please students.

Giving students extensions on assignments, allowing make-up work or exams (when faculty don’t normally do this), and bumping up a student’s grades are not examples of good customer service. They make students happy, but they compromise the faculty, the institution, and the student’s education.

My colleagues and I have had students literally demanding “A”s in class. One former colleague received an email from a student who was consistently earning less-than-stellar grades; the student indicated that she expected an “A” in the course because she was paying for her education. The student viewed herself as a customer who was paying for an “A”—anything less simply wouldn’t do. My colleague, thankfully, responded the student would earn her grade, whatever it may be.

For part-time faculty and faculty without tenure, it can become increasingly difficult to tell students their grades must be earned, not bought, because student satisfaction on course evaluations may be a strong indicator of whether they are re-hired for the next semester. This can lead to grade inflation—and the graduating of students who don’t know their discipline as well as they should.

I’ve also worked with students who expect university policies be overlooked to solve their problems, course offering schedules be modified to fit their life schedules, and grades be changed because “they worked hard in the class.” Meeting such demands is not good customer service. In the long-run, it’s bad customer service. We teach our students that if they complain enough or yell loud enough, they’ll always get their way. Part of providing an education today, I think, includes teaching virtues like honor and responsibility.

That means our customers, the students, don’t always get their way.

Practical Ways to Provide Good Customer Service

So what does it mean to provide good customer service to students?

For faculty, it could be taking an extra 10-15 minutes to help a student who needs it, regardless of when office hours are, if the issue can’t wait and the professor has time; referring students to appropriate academic resources on campus; and mentoring students interested in the faculty’s discipline.

For administrators, it could be creating processes and systems that are user-friendly, providing information to students in a timely manner, and responding to student questions and concerns.

Good Customer Service in Action

Currently, I work for a college that employs students whose primary job is to serve students almost as a concierge service. The knowledge and responsibilities of these student employees are such that other students know if they have any questions about what’s happening on campus; where the nearest hospital, restaurant, or grocery store is; or what department can handle certain types of issues, there’s a one-stop concierge service on campus to help meet their needs. This is good customer service, and the students feel like they matter.

This same college prides itself on a rigorous curriculum with caring, yet demanding faculty. Earning an “A” is hard to do. Faculty, however, make time to meet with students before, during, and after office hours. They lead discussion groups around scholarly readings – outside of class time. They mentor students. They work with students in ways that make a difference in the student experience. This is good customer service, and the students feel like they matter.

Faculty and administrators need to find the fine line between giving students everything they demand to avoid confrontation or unhappy students and refusing to acknowledge students’ needs. When this happens, college and universities can provide high quality customer service while maintaining the institution’s academic integrity.

Remember: They’re students first, customers second.

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