Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Student as Customer

Mark Huddleston, President of the University of New Hampshire gave a speech to the University recently. In it he said “The first thing we should not do is
yield to pressures to commodify higher education, turn students into customers and drive relentlessly to lower unit costs of production.” That raised a simple question in my mind. Why not see students as customers? What is the reason not to?

It seems to be a common sentiment on too many campuses that we cannot treat students as customers. This belief is probably due to a basic misunderstanding of student as customer or for that matter what an academic customer is anyhow. Academics somehow think that a student being a customer is somehow a negative consideration when it is not. They somehow mix up that old canard about the customer is always right with the reality of what an academic customer is. They somehow believe that if they think of a student as a customer they will lower their standards, or have to give out higher grades or coddle students. That if they accept student as customer they will somehow be involved in a business which education is not. It isn’t?

None of this is correct. Except the business part because colleges and universities are businesses after all so they cannot become what they already are. Use any of the terms we do employ to obfuscate the truth but we are businesses. Professional service businesses. What we call recruiting is actually sales. Bursar, billing and collections and so on. We have budgets, revenue streams, employees, payrolls, benefits, some even have unions, all parts of business functioning. What we do in the classroom is providing professional services to a group of clients, just another word for customers which is also what the term students is for our business.

We are professional service providers similar to other professional service providers like doctors, surgeons, lawyers, CPAs and so on. They all provide a service to a patient, a client, a customer by any other name. And they all recognize that they are involved in a business as well as a practice for example. They know they must bring in revenue to pay bills so they can continue providing that service. Just as we have to bring in tuition revenue so we can provide educational service sot our clients.

We expect good customer service from other professionals as well as skill from a doctor or lawyer. We wouldn’t go to a lawyer who gave great welcome and service but did not win cases. Nor do we continue to go to a doctor who might be good technically but is a miserable person to patients. We may go to them once but will find someone else to take care of our professional medical needs if they do not combine good service with good practice. When we go to a professional  for assistance we are their clients, their customers and we are very aware we are paying for the services we receive. Paying does not alter the professional relationship. It does not make the doctor or lawyer less valuable. It does not diminish their professionalism or have them coddle you.

What it does do is create a relationship in which the professional is required to be very knowledgeable, thorough, extremely capable, and honest as well as provide the services for which you paid. The exchange of money just solidifies the customer-professional relationship. It is a payment in recognition of the professional skills and ability of the service provider. It does not degrade it. It makes it clear that the service provider is a professional whom you need to respect and listen to or you will not do well. If for example a doctor tells you to lower your cholesterol counts by exercise and eating less fatty foods and you don’t do that, it is you who fail the next physical exam; not the doctor. If the blood tests show the wrong levels of cholesterol, the doctor cannot change the test results and give the patient a better result.  All she can do is tell the patient that he failed in the nicest way possible and try to help him do better next time. If the patient does not listen, it is the patient’s fault just as when my doctor tells me to exercise and lose weight. I know when I don’t I was the one who was wrong, not the doctor and she cannot change the reading on the scale.

A patient can tell a doctor that “I pay your salary” all he or she wants but it will not change the blood test or the diagnosis. All the patient/customer relationship requires is that the doctor be fully professional, technically and personally skilled to give the best diagnosis possible. Next tell the patient the results using the best bedside manner she can and then tell him what he has to do to get a better report in the future.

This is the same as when a professor tells a student to study what was presented in class and the student chooses not to do so. The test scores are the results and they cannot simply be changed to make the student feel better though some think that student as customer means they will have to change grades to keep students happy.  What the professor owes to the student is honest grading of the work and a willing ness to discuss what went wrong as well as what to do to do better next time .

A doctor, lawyer or other professional service provider is judged on two things. First, how well she knows her area and can practice with that knowledge. Second, how well she treats her patient/client. The patient evaluates the doctor on three meaningful points, Did she diagnosis the problem well and cure me? And was I treated with respect as well as kindness. If one of them is lacking, the customer will go looking for another doctor. The first condition is obvious. If a doctor does not know her area well, she will not keep patients. But if she treats people poorly she will not keep patients and actually open herself up to a malpractice suit as found in the research of Alice Burkin. Burkin found that patients who felt they were not treated well are more likely to sue the doctor for malpractice. Moreover, the doctor who does not have a good “bedside manner” is more likely to lose a malpractice suit. So good client/customer service is important in this and other professional service provider areas.

The third parameter of the doctor patient relationship is trust. If the doctor is able to develop a association in which the patient believes the doctor is both competent and caring the trust in the professional is established. But if the doctor seems competent but not caring trust is not developed,. This is similar to the relationship in a classroom.  If students believe the professor knows his stuff but is not empathetic to their needs, the bonds of trust are not developed. As we know from the research into what students use to judge a good professor in the classroom, empathy is an important factor in their judgment.

A professor way must be fully knowledgeable in her field and be able to present that in a manner that conveys the information to students. She must be skillful in her teaching style and manner. A teacher is no more responsible for a poor grade of she meets the two above professional requirements than doctor is responsible for an unhappy diagnosis. What both are called on to do to treat the patient/student as a customer is to provide the best professional assistance to help make the patient healthier, the student more knowledgeable and do so in a professional and humane manner.

Students report that when they do not do well but feel they have been treated with respect they are more likely to accept the lower grade and place blame on themselves. But in a class they did not do well in and the professor taught like Dr. Kingfield from the 1973 movie The Paper Chase, they placed almost all the blame for a poor grade on the professor. This situation is reflected in student evaluations also.

And student as customer? Well they fit the basic definition of a customer; a person who exchanges money or something of value for goods or services.  Our customers exchange tuition and fees money to obtain the services of the university that range from parking to teaching.  They pay to go to school. They pay for what goes on in the classroom as well as out of it. They are customers even if we do not want to recognize it.

Treating students as customers is not the same at all as how a customer may be treated in a retail or hospitality setting  for example. There the customer is to have his or her wishes served so he will buy something or leave a good tip and come back. The customer pays at the end of the service. But in a professional association, the customer usually pays up front thereby changing the relationship. The service provider is not working to please the customer to make a sale or get a bigger tip because the money has already passed hands. The service provider is trying to meet the expectations and needs the customer paid to have met. Ina medical relationship, the expectation is an accurate diagnosis or operation. For a lawyer it is to win in a case. For an accountant, balancing the books. For a teacher, providing the learning and skill development the course promised.

So treating students as customers does not really alter the basic relationship of professor to student. What it does is require that the professor knows his stuff, can deliver the information and skill development promised in an effective professional manner. It also calls on the professor to do so in a manner that engages and makes the student feel she is important. And finally it is all done in a professional manner that treats the student as  a valued individual.  It does require also that the student be assisted and helped to learn just as a doctor/patient relationship calls on the doctor to explain the diagnosis and treatment prescribed. And just like doctors, lawyers and all other professionals, it means that office hours are kept and extra consultation be provided when needed.

Seeing students as customers does not mean coddling them or inflating grades. Not at all. Just as a doctor cannot exercise for me or change the results of that blood test neither can a professor remove the rigors of meeting assignments or change grades to make students happy. If a doctor tells me to do something and I don’t that is my fault; note hers. By the way, if a professor feels the administration is pushing her to make the course easy or give higher grades that is not because of seeing the student as a customer. It is because the administration is not doing its job properly or perhaps doing it unethically.

Seeing students as customer just means that we have to meet their expectations in the classroom and at the college. That we teach at the highest level possible with a professional demeanor and skills. It means that we treat students with courtesy and dignity. It also means that we do all we can to help them gain the education and skills that they paid for. Treating students as customer means that we have to provide them with a full return on their investment with them working as partners in their education. It means treating them as you would want your son, your daughter, your mother or father to be treated. Nothing more or less. 

Treating students as customer says we should deliver a superior educational, social and personal experience for every student. So I ask, what is so wrong with seeing students as customers? I should think that actually we should think of them as our professional customers or clients. it seems to me that  would elevate what we do, not lessen it.

NRaisman & Associates has been providing customer service,retention/enrollment training, research and solutions to colleges and universities 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 on customer service and retention. NRaisman & Associates prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. 

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