What does customer service mean in higher ed?

customer servicePart of the problem with the idea of customer service in higher education may be lack of agreement on who the customer is and what service looks like. Here are some definitions that might help.

Who is a Customer?  A  customer can be defined as “someone who receives goods or services and has the ability to choose between different products and suppliers” (BusinessDictionary.com).  In today’s competitive higher education environment, the element of choice is becoming more critical than ever. A friend of mine used to say “we may not have customers, but whoever they are, online schools are stealing them!”

While students are clearly choosing to receive our services and could be defined as customers, we have many other potential customers. Creating a list can become overwhelming. One colleague posted this on a project management syllabus: “All students” or “Minnesota taxpayers” is not a customer group! What she meant is that we need to define our customers in enough detail that we can identify services they need. For example,

  • Faculty who teach face-to-face courses on our campus
  • Parents of incoming freshmen students
  • Potential donors to a new building program
  • Students who are returning to higher education for a different degree or certificate
  • “Traditional” students just graduating from H.S.
  • Students who want to complete a degree or program they started previously and left
  • Retirees who are learning new skills
  • International students

What is Customer Service?  Academic Impressions published a 2012 report, Improving Customer Service in Higher Education. It proposed that customer service in higher education is less about behaviors such as friendliness and more about responsiveness. Here are some examples:

  • Enrollment Services projects that identify and reduce bottlenecks. One campus asked its leadership team to walk through the steps required to enroll and register. They identified several places where instructions were not clear, and where even campus staff members did not agree about the correct process. Streamlining the process produced better results for students, advisors, and staff.
  • Academic Support Services projects that coordinate service across multiple administrative areas, remove barriers, and make services transparent. For example, the first point of student contact at one university was a one-on-one meeting with an advisor. By directing new students to a central office that explained campus resources and connected them with the appropriate staff, the school was able to ensure they received the services they needed.  Another school focused on ways to make it easier for students to ask for the help they needed.
  • Academic policies and procedures can produce barriers to positive student experience. For example, requiring students to file paperwork in person during office hours could be a significant barrier to students who work full time and attend school online or in the evening. The student experience could be improved by allowing them to file the paperwork electronically.

What do you think of when you think about customer service in higher education?

Dee Anne Bonebright






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