Though debate still rages around whether or not to treat students like customers inside the walls of the academy, most learners have already made up their minds. With the majority of today’s students designated as non-traditional learners, their expectations line up more closely to those of a consumer making a major purchase. That’s not to say they’re looking to “buy a degree”—simply that they want to be regarded as customers and treated with the respect that comes with that title. In this interview, Diane Johnson reflects on some of the factors that have led to this shift and shares a few ways that college and university leaders can ensure their institutions are meeting the needs of today’s students.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why does the customer experience stand out more for non-traditional students than for 18- to 22-year-olds, fresh out of high school?
Diane Johnson (DJ): Non-traditional students are usually adults who have some life experience and are dealing with day-to-day life challenges. To balance their work and life responsibilities they must prioritize how they use their time and resources.
They view college through the lens of a consumer who is buying service. For them, schooling is one of many services they use. Non-traditional students will make choices about what services are the best option for their time and money. Therefore, exceptional customer service practices are essential for universities to be competitive with this large segment of the market.
A traditional 18- to 22-year-old student seeking a college experience typically is immersed in that campus-based life experience. Attending classes and earning credit is just one part of their entire experience so institutions might be able to get away with weaker customer service in some areas if there are strong draws in others. Another factor is that 18- to 22-year-olds who go to college right out of high school don’t yet recognize the power they have as a consumer. They often have someone else paying the bill and they are acculturated to be a bit dependent at this stage. They have been the student who submits to the will of the teacher or school system. They tend to be more accustomed to putting up with poor customer service in schools because they don’t have many choices during that time.
Though young students may be inexperienced and unaware of their position as a consumer, universities of integrity should provide an excellent customer experience for all students.
Evo: How have advances in the eCommerce space impacted the expectations of non-traditional students when it comes to their postsecondary customer experience?
DJ: Advances in the eCommerce space have increased the expectation of high levels of autonomy to be able to manage the fiscal and academic transactions associated with their schooling. Non-traditional students expect their schools to offer a one-stop technology-hosted self-service space. They expect easy to find and use eCommerce options for application processing, tuition and fee payment, course registration, learning environments, library services, and transcript purchases. Students also expect to be able to rent or buy reasonably priced digital texts and resources instead of buying expensive printed text books.
Non-traditional students expect these options to be available through online school bookstore interfaces or to have the option of acquiring through Amazon, Chegg, and similar sites. There is also an expectation of the ability to use cloud-based tools such as Microsoft 365, Dropbox, and other technology-hosted tools whether they must purchase them independently or they are included in their fees.
Evo: When we’re talking about customer service in the postsecondary context, what are we talking about?
DJ: Customer service in the postsecondary context refers to the philosophies, practices and tools employed when interacting with students, potential students and alumni. It refers to the way that institutions view and treat the individuals they serve.
Good customer service includes integrity in the quality of program offerings. It includes timeliness in responding to student inquiries and issues. Good customer service ensures that all students are treated with respect and genuine regard. It includes the tone that is used when speaking to a student. Customer service includes anticipating user experience issues that could create barriers for student success or convenience and eliminating those. Customer service includes eliminating wasteful or inefficient practices that drive up costs and diminish the student experience. Customer service means that representatives of an institution always conduct themselves in a professional and respectable manner.
Evo: How do you respond to critics who worry that focusing on customer service outside the classroom would negatively impact the academic quality of an institution?
DJ: Academic quality and customer service must go hand in hand. If it doesn’t, the institution should re-examine its policies and practices.
When an institution is genuinely committed to the academic quality that comes from sound research activities and academic programs, it must value the students who make it all possible through their tuition dollars. To ignore the material contributions of students is to demonstrate a form of arrogant disregard that is unbecoming of an institution of higher learning.
Taking good care of students as the paying customers they are will foster the continued flow of tuition now and in the future when they become alumni. Further, when schools value students as customers deserving of exceptional customer service, they will strive to ensure that the academic and research products they offer to customers is of the highest quality.