People working in higher education, whether in the classroom, research lab, dance studio, library, and various business support offices or even maintaining buildings and grounds, are all involved in customer service. Many resist seeing students as customers; however, students pay for something and legitimately expect something in return. That exchange makes students customers and the university a business—a unique business, serving unique customers in pursuit of unique aspirations, but a business all the same.
COVID-19 will drive institutions that subscribe to this pair of principles into a thriving future.
Dreams are pursued and money is changing hands—tax dollars and personal investments—families even sell homes in support of students and their aspirations. Students are some combination of client, disciple, patient, counselee, ward, protégé or customer and are paying for a service. Many work diligently at a job while also earning a degree.
Elite private institutions and some public flagships may provide whatever they want, however they want, at any cost they want to charge, and the students will enroll, at least for a season. A seductive nameplate has great value. The university I work for has a $170 million annual budget, and students who live on campus and study full-time pay about $20,000 a year to enroll. That’s a business with customers. Our leadership works diligently to operate the University in a business-like manner to meet the needs of students (customers), whether a student wants to study nursing or engineering, philosophy or 19th-century British literature, live on campus or off, attend full- or part-time.
A recent Forbes study looked at companies that have the best customer service utilizing the American Customer Service Index (ACSI). Number one on the list is Chick-fil-A. They endeavor to know what their customers want and how to deliver it to them in an effective way. Evidently, a good business model.
Visit a Chick-fil-A then visit any of the various offices and classrooms that serve students. Compare the experiences. Ask if there is a significant difference and if and why that difference exists. Someone wanting a chicken sandwich is treated with dignity, respect and deference. Somebody attending class, wanting to process a loan application, or paying tuition and fees is occasionally treated as a bother by people in bureaucracies set up to protect someone from something. This is rarely the case at WT; however, it can happen anywhere. State laws, complex operating procedures and a safety net of federally subsidized loans allow bureaucracies to bloat and become impervious to serving the needs of individuals. The served fall by the wayside.
All of these distinctions are made more difficult to recognize in online education, emphasized by the circumstances of COVID-19. Universities that pay attention to students and their needs on a one-at-a-time basis as valued clients will thrive. The marketplace relentlessly chisels away at the differences between customer service and just doing a job. If the work of the university, from mowing the grass to teaching or conducting scholarly work in service to students, is not seen as the primary mission, the marketplace, both digital and face-to-face, will transform the institution into a ghost town.
Amazon was ranked fourth on the Forbes list. The ACSI commentary quoted in the Forbes article noted, “The world’s largest Internet retailer has mastered a combination of value, satisfaction, and delivery efficiency that consumers love.” ACSI goes on to say that customers want “Infinite variety on one site without having to search multiple brands and companies online.” The best universities provide educational services one person at a time to a nearly infinite variety of students. Nothing new here.
If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it should teach us that in a service industry—and higher education is a service industry with particular business models and particular views of customers and service to them—student service matters. By the way, that does not mean students earn an “A” for showing up. Both student and organization are well served when an “F” is assigned because it was earned.
Universities must inform students over and over again that our work is not to give them what they want, which admittedly is the work of every enterprise that made the Forbes top 20 list, but what they need to help them become something they are not. No two customers are the same. And, simultaneously, no two have exactly the same aspirations.
When educational service is provided well, it has great value to customers.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.