Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Academic Not Retail Customer Service

Colleges and universities are quite unique professional service providers that do not respond well to retail customer service notions. And they should not. Retail customer service is about providing veneers of service at the point of sale for a tangible product. In fact, retail customer service is all about the brief point of sale moment which runs from “may I help you” to “cash or charge and come again” and handing the customer a purchased item. And even if the piece of clothing a clerk helped a customer buy is the wrong size, the consequence of that poor service is not significant. The item can usually be returned or a badly cooked meal sent back for another and the employees.

Even  the combined retail-service situations of a restaurant or a vacation is a limited, time bound occurrence even if it may have more than one encounter. A customer comes to a restaurant for a meal or to a hotel for a limited stay. The customer may encounter more than one point of sale/service provider; for example, a maĆ®tre d, waiter and busboy or bellhop and front desk personnel and perhaps even a person in a cartoon character outfit but these interactions are very limited both in time and singularity of experience even if a person may come to the hotel again in the future. And none of the encounters will have a lifetime effect on the customer.

The academic community is also significantly different than a store. To being with, most members of the college do not even accept the idea that students are customers. Inevitably, while working with a school, we will be told that “Students are not customers.”

That statement came out loud and clear while working with a publically-assisted university that was experiencing an average 52% attrition rate each year for six years. Fifty-two percent!!! Each year the university was losing 52% of its student body which meant that it was losing over $6 million a year. Not good any time but in the current downturn in the economy and the underfunding of colleges and universities losing that much revenue could be a financial disaster. While I was discussing academic customer service, I referred to students as customers. A faculty member jumped to his feet and yelled out the statement. “Students are not customers.” There was some applause.

“Okay. If they are not customers or clients of the college, what are they?” I asked.

The professor thought for a moment and retorted that “they are students.”

“Ahhh. Then students are students?” That brought my philosophy courses into play. “Isn’t that an absolute tautology? Defining a term by the term? If so, isn’t that also a logical error that does not define what students are. “So I asked for a better definition.

“Students are people who come to the university to learn from us.”

“Okay. Are there any conditions placed on them to be able to do so?”

“Yes. We must be accepted to the university first.”

“Do they then get to come here for free?”

“Paying does not make them customers. Their tuition does not even pay for half of the actual costs.”
“Just because they may not pay all the cost does not take away the fact that they are spending money for something, for services, even if they don’t pay for all of it. They…”

“They pay some money to gain an education. They are here to learn from us. That makes them students not customers” another audience member chimed in.

“So your contention is they are paying for an education and that is the definition of a student not a customer? But isn’t that the definition of a customer someone who pays for goods or services”

“Purpose controls the interaction not the exchange of dollars. It is the why of their coming to college; not the how. Since they come to college to learn, they are students not customers.”

“So if they come to learn they are students?”

“But is that really why they come to college? To learn?  Do they come to college to learn as an end in itself? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that’s why you went to college either. Sure, for you learning was a part of it but I think there was another reason too.”

“That’s ridiculous. I came to college to study literature because I love literature and not for any other reason.”

“No. That’s not wholly true and you know it. Sure you came to study lit, be an English major just like I did. But you could have done that anywhere without having to do it in a classroom. Nothing stopped you from reading all you wanted outside of college. But you went to college because you wanted to not just study literature; you wanted to get a job so you could do so. You came to college to become a faculty member and that’s a job. You went to college to get a job.”

“The goal of becoming a faculty member was secondary. I do that just so I can have time to study literature. If I didn’t have to teach, I would be even happier.”

“Let’s not go there because you can only say that because you have as job and likely because you’re tenured. If you didn’t have a job you wouldn’t have the time or luxury to say you don’t even want one. “

“That’s insulting.”

“Perhaps and if it is I apologize but it is true. Just ask an adjunct or unemployed PhD looking for a job. They’ll tell you that it is about getting a position, a salary. That’s what they are after. I mean haven’t we all heard “I went to college for ten years and I can’t get a job.” Not, “I went to college for ten years and thrilled I have all the time I want to just enjoy what I learned. Thank goodness I did not get those degrees so I could try to get a teaching position.”

And the truth is that you went to college as did all of us including me to become something. For us it was a faculty member and we did this not just once but three times to get the BA, MA and PhD in our case. And when you were in school, you took courses because you had to not because you wanted to learn some of that required stuff. And while you were a student, you grumbled too as do our current students about the costs and whether or not you were getting your money’s worth or were just wasting time with a third year of Spanish, a calculus or humanities course perhaps. You thought you’d be better off if you could take more courses in your major.

We chose grad school by where we had the best chance to study with someone well known so we could invest our time and money to learn and get a job. But if that prof was at Podunck U we would have found someone else because people do not get jobs from Podunck. Not good ones at least. Because grad school needs to pay off. Needs to give us a good return on our investment like a tenure-track position in a good school.

Is there anyone here who isn't identifying with any of this? Who didn’t care whether or not college led to a job? And before you jump up and claim ME, know that my follow-up question is “Okay, then will you give up your job and all that comes with it so you can just go and study and learn for the love of it? And if you say yes, I will have a resignation letter for you to sign and we’ll hand it in together so you can live your dream.” 

Dramatic grumbling from some followed. Those who agreed with me did not move for they knew that academic vengeance can be quite painful.

I continued. “And that is a consumerist attitude. I pay this to gain that. The pay may be money, time, hoop jumping or whatever but it is an exchange of value for a potential value in the case of college. And people who engage in that consumer action are customers and clients no matter if you call them students or something else.

We did it. Others before us did it and our current students do it and that makes them customers of our services. The only ones who did not have to do it were the ones wealthy enough to be able to not worry about a job or an income and I am not seeing many of them here. 

So let’s just accept the reality and do all we can to treat our customer appropriately. That doesn’t mean pander to them at all either. It means helping them to their goals such as learning and training they will need to graduate get a job, become a productive person and citizen. That’s finally what they pay us for after all. That’s why they submit to the required courses. Because they have to as a vocational necessity and because they may prepare them to succeed better in career and life. 

And if along the way, they like us, gain a good, disciplined broad education – so much the better for them. They also want respect, recognition and to feel valued and that is also what every customer wants in every service or business.”

If this article makes sense to you
you will want to get my new book
The Power of Retention
: More Customer Service for Higher Education
by clicking here

N.Raisman & Associates is the leader in increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through workshops,research training and customer service solutions such as campus service audits to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them
We increase your success


413.219.6939 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              413.219.6939      end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Neal is a pleasure to work with – his depth of knowledge and engaging, approachable style creates a strong connection with attendees. He goes beyond the typical, “show up, talk, and leave” experience that some professional speakers use. He “walks the talk” with his passion for customer service. We exchanged multiple emails prior to the event, with his focus being on meeting our needs, understanding our organization and creating a customized presentation. Neal also attended and actively participated in our evening-before team-building event, forging positive relationships with attendees – truly getting to know them. Personable, knowledgeable, down-to-earth and inspiring…. " Jean Wolfe, Training Manager, Davenport University

“We had hoped we’d improve our retention by 3% but with the help of Dr. Raisman, we increased it by 5%. Rachel Albert, Provost, University of Maine-Farmington

“Thank you so much for the wonderful workshop at Lincoln Technical Institute. It served to re-center ideas in a great way. I perceived it to be a morale booster, breath of fresh air, and a burst of passion.” Shelly S, Faculty Member, Lincoln Technical Institute

“Neal led a retreat that initiated customer service and retention as a real focus for us and gave us a clear plan. Then he followed up with presentations and workshops that kicked us all into high gear. We recommend with no reservations; just success.” Susan Mesheau, Executive Director U First: Integrated Recruitment & Retention University of New Brunswick, Canada

1 comment:

Rebecca Koch said...

I'm delighted to have discovered Dr. Raisman's work. This is just the expertise we've needed to guide our efforts to create a service-based culture at our university and to help articulate the relationship between higher education and customer service. Thank you!