Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Customer is Really...... What is Customer Service in College Really?

Which of the following is true?

  1. The customer is always right. True  False 

  1. If there is a question, referto number 1. True  False

It has been an inviolable adage found in most customer service books, that both number 1 and number two are correct. The customer is always right. It is therefore our role to all we can to please the customer; to make her feel we accept that she and her business are number 1 to the store or institution by fulfilling every wish if at all possible. To go the extra mile to make the customer happy. To indulge, pamper, spoil and if necessary, to even pander to each whim to assure the customer is satisfied and will come back. This has been the concept that has been central to Business 101 and been hung on posters and fliers in backrooms across the country almost since it was reportedly created in 1908 by French hotel owner César Ritz (1850-1918) when he stated 'Le client n'a jamais tort' - 'The customer is never wrong.” The current, more American usage was established by the Marshall Fields store in Chicago and then popularized by Harry Gordon Selfridge who left Fields to create London’s Selfridge’s department store in 1909.

It is this time honored concept that is so strongly at odds with many people on college campuses. Influential segments of the college community believe this idea that the customer is right imposes a construct of business on a very non-commercial institution – academia. A basic bastard of business which has money as its goal forced upon intellectual institutions with our ideals of intellectual pursuit and learning, in that order. Obviously not just a mismatch but an attempt to undermine the very nature of the academic environment and “corporatize the academy” as one faculty member told me prior to a workshop he refused to attend. Colleges and universities are not about money and revenue after all.

In fact, money corrupts the purity of the intellectual community, except when it comes to my office or department’s budget perhaps. Or my salary, benefit cost or equipment. But then the money is only needed to be able to provide education or services to others to make the institution stronger to be better able to meet its mission. And after all, we do not have customers. Students are not customers. They are….students. So I don’t pick 1 or 2.

But students do pay for an education so they must be customers and we should listen to business to make sure the revenue comes in. After all, without money coming in how are we to fund your budget, pay for salary and benefit increases and all the other things we need to meet the mission. So we need to consider that number 1 may have some merit. Perhaps we need an ad hoc committee to study…….

Lord save us all from even one more committee! Let’s just realize that in typical academic mode, the positions are all or nothing postures that are both wrong, and yet still right.

Consider that if you checked number 1 as correct, number 2 necessarily follows as acceptable. But if you chose number one as true. You are wrong to begin with. The customer is not always right. Yet, that does not make the faculty member who derided customer service as illegitimate in higher education right. Not at all for he is also wrong. Very palpably wrong at that. And in this case, your wrong and his wrong do not make the customer right.

The reality is that the customer is often wrong. Particularly in higher education. Just think of your last quiz. I am sure you found many students were wrong in many of their answers or guesses. That is the nature of a quiz or a test after all. Though we would hope that the customer would be always right and prove that he or she really understood the lectures, the readings and the assignments, such is not the reality of most classes and schools. Students, our customers, are often wrong. (Actually so is the term customer for our students but that will be discussed in another section).

The reality is that students are wrong by very their very nature as students. They come to college to learn what they do not know; to become more correct in their knowledge and abilities. They are in school to replace erroneous or uninformed notions with information and learning. In fact, if they already knew, if they had the skills prior to coming into school, they would not have to enroll. They would not become students, our clients and customers.

1 comment:

daniel said...

hi, Neal, how are you?

That's a great thought-provoking article.

I think the customer is always right unless:

1. they're not within your range of 'customers we want'

eg. you sell harpoons. someone comes to you saying "i need to buy a box of gobstoppers - can you go out & get me that?". they're not right, they're just not your customer! don't waste time fulfilling someone else's strategy.

2. you don't want them to be your customer any longer (I think I first read this written by Seth Godin)

eg. you sell harpoons. your customer comes to you saying "these high-end harpoons are great, but i need you to slash your profit margins & start using plastics instead of metals". they /were/ your customer, but they're asking you to spend a lot of time & money & to shift your business. is it worth keeping them as a customer?


Thanks again for a nice article.

daniel