Thursday, February 22, 2007

Customer Service, Colleges and Nordstrom

Customer service in academia is a very different animal than retail and commercial service. For one, the buying patterns are very different. At Nordstrom for example, the service focuses on a unique one-time purchase and hoped-for future purchases for those in a particular social bracket. The purchase is a one time event.

Let’s say I go to Nordstrom (for me, the Rack) one day to buy a shirt, maybe a tie to go with it. These are limited and specific material objectives I can obtain and achieve in this one event. I buy them and leave, not to think of a purchase again until a particular need arises. The service focuses on that one purchase.

Disneyworld the same. One vacation a year. Not so college. Purchases are made very day, every class.

Too often we think that the decision to enroll is the one and only buying decision of our students. Not so. Not at all. That is just the first of many, many purchases on their way to graduation or attrition.

In college, our customers are in a constant buying/purchasing pattern. They are making a decision on your product every day and most every hour/class. Every day, students get up and decide whether or not to go to school and go to classes. They decide whether or not to go/purchase each and every class depending on a number of service-based factors and ROI’s, “is this worth my time, does the faculty member give a damn, is it part of my major, can I blow it of and still get a good grade, do I just feel like it today?”. These decisions ultimately lead to retention or attrition with steps in between of course. We buy a shirt once every so often. College is an every day purchase. And one might successfully argue that it is more important then a shirt.

This is very different than a unique purchase in retail which is a self-contained event in all cases with a simple temporal and commercial conclusion. Retaining a customer in retail is much easier than in education. When I buy a shirt, I walk out with it I can even wear it right away if I want. It’s material.

An education? Can’t wear it. Can’t carry it. Can’t touch it. It’s more like love. We all need it. We all crave it but it can be hard to define, pint down or sometimes even know it is happening. It takes faith, trust. And that is often the basis of retention because all one can get from an education is trust that I have learned something, I can get a job with it and I have a piece of embossed card stock with signatures that says education took place. Retaining a student is much tougher than getting someone back in a store.

You can’t even get rid of an obviously poor service provider in college while in a store, if they don’t perform according to store requests for service and at least a smile, one can fire them. Try firing a faculty member because he or she treats students like crap. And teaches with total indifference to the customers’ needs and learning style. Have fun in the grievances and court. Unless of course the faculty member is an adjunct. Then we will let him or her finish the term, teaching horridly, pissing off students and increasing attrition. Don’t need the hassles, grievances, lawyer calls and legal suits to follow. Better to provide horrendous service to our customers. Or a clerk who growls when she has to help students. Can’t just let him go. Need at least a long period of progressive discipline before one can even contemplate dismissal. And if he is in a union… Rather different than most stores or a resort.

There is quite a bit more too. Poor service in a store just makes the customer leave and go elsewhere. Unless of course he needs the particular item that you sell. Then he’ll grit and bear it to buy it.

Education? Can get composition, math, psych, etc. etc. most anywhere. Bad service in a school may well make the student leave creating bad debt you have to collect or write off. There is a direct correlation between service levels and WTP (willingness to pay). Could go on but I hope you get my point that what we can learn from commercial entities needs to be taken with a grain of kosher salt.

You may also want to get a copy of my book Embrace the Oxymoron: Customer Service in Higher Education.It is still the best selling book on the topic for the past five years. Yes, I admit crass commercialism here but there are times I will sell, but only as part of the background to my, uhhhh research............

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