Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Academic Customer Service is Not Retail Customer Service

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.

Retaining a student is much tougher than getting someone back in a store. In fact, once a student leaves a college, she does not come back while if a store has provided weak to poor customer service, if it has what a person needs at a good price, he will very often go back. Part of the reason is that there is little investment in the store. It does not cost anything to wander the aisles looking for a shirt for example. It does cost to go to classes looking for the education needed to get a job. Further, a person can often do without getting that shirt. He will usually have others at home he can wear. But a person may not be able to get a job without buying that degree with six years attendance and paying (that's the average time to graduation now).

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, pin 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 have been trained to get a job and learned something, I can get a job with. All I have for the thousands of dollars I paid into college is a piece of embossed card stock with signatures that says education took place. At Nordstroms I get a shirt I can wear. In college, I got a diploma I can hang in my office that somehow says I am trained and educated sort of like the Tinman in the Wizard of Oz.. 

Bad service in a school may well make the student leave forever as studies have shown. In fact, weak or poor academic customer service can account for 76% of all attrition.

Yet schools most always tolerate bad behavior and service from its employees. That is another difference between academic and retail customer service is 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 worker in a service office like the registrar's or business office who growls when she has to help students. Can’t just let her go. Need at least a long period of progressive discipline before one can even contemplate dismissal. And if she is in a union… Rather different than most stores or a resort. If a person angers and repels customers there, he or she is gone quickly.

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 the store sells and is the only one so doing in the area, then he’ll grin and bear it to buy it. She may want to leave but if the product can only be obtained there, she will have to either get it there or forgo it completely. Education? Can get composition, math, psych, etc. etc. most anywhere even on-line so one does not have to be bound by location and exclusivity. 

There is another and most significant difference between academic and retail customer service. In academic customer service, we know "the customer is not always right". In fact, that is proven every day on tests and quizzes and too often in the ways that they can act. It is the job of the college to teach the student to become "more right" through teaching both in and out of the classroom. Out of the classroom? Yes because we are not only teaching information and ideas but preparing students for life after college and for job. In a store, there is no interaction to improve the customer while in college, that is our mission.

To assure you retain more students through academic customer service, training is needed. We can't expect our faculty and staff to provide good service if they have not been trained to so so. Contact us today to learn how we can increase retention and graduation rates through improved customer service training at 413.219.6939 or email me at

We can and will increase your population and enrollment.

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