Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Is the Customer, the Student, Always Right?

Which of the following is true?

  1. The customer is always right. True False
  1. If there is a question, refer to number 1. True False
It has been an inviolable adage found in the backrooms of most retail outlets and restaurants that both number 1 and number 2 are correct. The customer is always right. It is therefore our role to do 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, benefits 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 many academic say."Students are not customers". Students do pay for an education so they must be customers. According to the basic definition of a customer, they qualify. They exchange money for goods and service like courses and services and that makes them customers. Call them students or clients if that makes you feel better, but they are our customers and that changes the equation quite a bit. So don’t pick 1 or 2.

 And we are in a business, an academic business,a service industry which is underfunded in too many situations,  so we must "do business" to make sure the revenue comes in. After all, without money coming in how are we to fund budgets, 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 reality, the positions above are all or nothing postures that are both wrong, and yet still sort of have some validity. .

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.

And 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.

So they old adage is wrong in higher education. But there is a saying that does fit what we need to know to keep our students satisfied and in school. "The customer (the student) comes first". That is a statement I hope we can all get behind.

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