Tuesday, April 22, 2008

An Apple A Day......

While reading an article on Apple- Evil Genius: How Apple Got Everything Right By Doing Everything Wrong by Leander Kahney in the April 2008 WIRED, I came across the following statement.

…the tech business itself more and more resembles an old-line consumer industry. When hardware and software makers were focused on winning business clients, price and interoperability were more important than the user experience. But now that consumers make up the most profitable market segment, usability and design have become priorities. Customers expect a reliable and intuitive experience — just like they do with any other consumer product….. giving customers what they want before they know they want it…. And in a consumer-focused tech industry, the products are what matter.

Education is an old-line consumer industry. I know that will really irritate some folks. But higher education is like Apple in many ways. We are sales oriented vertically integrated businesses that wish to control every aspect of the educational product and the consumer’s access to the product. In fact, if Apple’s strength is in total vertical control, we make Steve Jobs look like an everyone is equal, open access, keep it free Googlite.

We demand total control over our product – graduation. From the design and creation of the parts (courses) to deciding which parts will be sold when and where and by who to determining what the operating system will have or not (majors) as well as when and where the who can buy them (admissions). Even Steve Jobs who is reputed to be a total control person will sell Apple products to whoever wants them. Not one Apple customer has to prove he or she is capable of or good enough to be permitted to buy an IPhone before the buyer is allowed in the store.

Maybe we are really the evil geniuses not Apple. By the way, that phrase – evil genius – was meant to be a back handed compliment to Apple. I use it in a similar way and more so about the professors and staff whose intelligence blinds them to the fact that we do have clients/students who depend on our products. Not for entertainment like an I pod but for their very lives and futures.

I can hear it now. HEY!!!! We aren’t an industry. We are an educational institution not a business. Products? We do not create products. And what is more, we do not care about our clients. Most of them do not deserve to even be here.

Well three out of four is not a bad average except that it is three out of four wrong statements. The only one that seems to be correct is We don’t care about consumers. Left out and I will prove it to you every day and every way. But perhaps I am being too harsh. Perhaps there are some schools that do care about the students and their experience. At least until they enroll.

I did say we are sales industries. We sell the customer on buying our product (enrollment) Once the sale is completed the customer is most usually on his of her own. We may provide a quick into user sheet (orientation) but not much after that. Once the product is out of the box, it is yours and no refunds!

We do not intuit there real needs as does Apple. We do not figure out how to help our customers gain their fullest use of our products. We just sell it to them, often in a beta testing stage and then turn them loose to try and figure it out all out. Sort of like using Microsoft VISTA.

What we do not do is to intuit the real needs and desires of our clients. Not the momentary needs, the real needs like what knowledge and skills graduates will need to succeed in life at college and then in society, culture and most significantly, career. We do not identify the real needs the students will have. What we do is give them what we think we need or really what we want to give them as long as it does not upset any of us.

Oh don’t give me the usual stuff about how the core curriculum is designed to assure that they are well-rounded students. Well-rounded is the job of the overly starchy food in the cafeterias. But I shouldn’t criticize cafeterias since at least some of them have actually determined how students eat, when they do so, and what they need for nutritious and good tasting food. Businesses like Aramark have made intuiting student eating needs a priority to not simply make students pleased but healthier.

Core curricula are like auctions with those with the most campus capital able to bid up to get what they want in there. There is little rhyme or reason to most every core except what campus politics dictates. Requirements are slipped in to make sure that a department has students taking their classes or to maximize the revenue from some required classes. Most core curricula have become smorgasbords from which students pick.

In his very important book Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education David L Kirp discusses what happened when some universities changed their budgeting models to let departments keep more on its per student revenue. Departments created required core courses to bring in students and money. At the University of Southern California for example

At the beginning of each semester, as students signed up for courses, campus units paraded their wares with the fervor of discount merchandise. Full page ads in the Daily Trojan touted courses such as the drama course class that required no reading (“Tired of reading Shakespeare. Kill off your [general education] requirement, sit back, eat popcorn and watch it performed….(p.116)

It seems appropriate that the ad was in the Daily Trojan because students were certainly getting screwed. This was not customer service in any way. It was not quality education. It was just an example of how the core requirements that are supposed to form the core of student learning and preparation for life is not about student learning. Outrageous perhaps but an example of what does go on in putting together a core at most colleges.

And I repeat, the above was not customer or client service that focused on meeting the needs of the primary customers, students. The above and many other core inclusions or courses are in there to meet the needs or desires of the secondary customers, the college community. Sure, the course at USC was portrayed as giving them what they want but it in no way was based on what the students really wanted. It was based on what some faculty or administrators thought would pander to the base instincts of students. They violated Good Academic Customer Service Principle 13 (click here for a copy).

Do not cheapen the product and call it customer service.

No cheap grades. No pandering.

Colleges do not intuit or anticipate what students will really need later in life as users of the primary college product called education. They do not design core requirements or much else based on how the consumers will need to use the product. They fail in a very important aspect of real customer service – designing the product for how it will be used.

If there is a group that does a better job of intuiting needs it is community colleges and career colleges. They work more with the final end users of the educational product – employers – to design some of the courses. They do just as weak a job for the most part in the core requirement areas as do universities but they generally limit the damage but not have as extensive core requirements.

If we are to provide real customer service we must intuit the real needs. These are based primarily on why a customer buys a product or a client pays for service. Students go to college or university to become something; to get a job, a career. Just we like we did. Our something was a career in academia. We need to intuit based on this reality rather than bargaining and pandering in areas such as core requirements.

Apple is successful because it does just that. How will this be used? How do we make it work simply and efficiently? How do we make it so people will be able to get full use and value from it? In return, Apple is very successful. And though many in academia would appropriately find the Apple way undesirable and I am not necessarily recommending the Steve Jobs Way as a model for college, the intuiting aspect of Apple’s success is something we all should all use.

Yes college is not an IPod but wouldn’t it be nice if we functioned as smoothly and met customer needs as well as it does?

By the way, if you are not yet reading WIRED, you should to better understand your students.

AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention and research training and solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits; workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. AcademicMAPS prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. www.GreatServiceMatters.com413.219.6939 info@GreatServiceMatters.com

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