Dirty word? Thinking about customers

No-one really wants to think about students as ‘customers’. And there’s plenty of debate out there about the challenges of consumerism and the threats posed to collaboration and collegiality. But does that mean that universities can’t learn from the innovative ways other industries work with customers? On the contrary, they might find there’s quite a lot to learn.

For example, when it comes to providing the best experience for customers, many businesses don’t just wait until the end of their product life cycle – when the goods have been delivered, or the service completed – to find out how things are going. In the same way, surveying students at the end of a module, academic year, or as they’re heading out the door at graduation doesn’t give enough time to learn from any bad experiences and put things right. Of course, that has to be balanced with avoiding over-surveying, but it is possible to use data from multiple sources – including comments on Facebook or Twitter – to find out in real-time what’s going on, and if something needs fixing. You don’t always need a formal survey to get valuable information about how things are going.

It’s not just multi-billion-pound mega-businesses which are working on customer experience, but public-sector organisations too. The Houses of Parliament, with a sprawling estate, entrenched traditions, creaking buildings and many vocal occupants (sound familiar?) has worked on a project to examine the experience of visitors. A willingness to challenge “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is essential to improve the experiences of guests, tourists and expert evidence-providers accessing the parliamentary estate. It’s not easy mapping out every stage of the visitor journey, being honest about what’s working well – and less well – and then prioritising how to make it better. But if the mother of all parliaments can do it, why not a university?

For the sake of pennies

One of the most disappointing experiences I had when working for a university started with a phone call from a mother in tears. Her son, who had re-sat his final year exams, thought his results had come in the post. But in place of his marks was a red slip of paper, with text in bold type, telling him that his results wouldn’t be released because of an outstanding debt. No information on the slip about the amount, why it was owed, or how to pay. No name, no number to call, no web address. Just a statement that he needed to get in touch.

Off I trot to the exams office to find out what’s happened. They can’t release the results because finance has put a block on the student’s record. Then to finance where a quick check shows a total outstanding library fine of 50p. Armed with the information that this can be written off, I get back to the student’s mother and apologise profusely. But they still have to wait for the records to be updated before the exam results will be released. He passed, I’m glad to say.

This is small but unhappy example of processes working for the institution’s silos, rather than being designed to offer the best experience to the student. So much of it could have been better, and – obviously – the cost of staff time, printing and postage vastly outweighed the 50p debt. The hurt caused to the student and his family was wholly unnecessary. I don’t doubt that his mother relayed this experience to others. With thousands of such processes and – to use the jargon – ‘touch points’, there’s a lot to think about in a student’s ‘user journey’ at university. It might be difficult, but getting it right is really important.

What can be done?

First you need to decide that you want to make changes, and that you’re willing to challenge the status quo. Not everyone is going to enjoy the process, but focusing on the outcomes for students should – I hope – get enough people on board. There’s also a good business argument, as the best customer service should also be efficient, rather than adding costly layers. Marty Herbert, from KPMG Nunwood, specialists in managing customer experiences, told me that: “Competing on service may not be what universities have done in the past, but it’s time to recognise that this is how businesses and public-service organisations of all sizes are working.”

KPMG Nunwood uses a framework called The Six Pillars to explain the values of the best customer service, with characteristics such as integrity and personalisation. These are useful provocations – and all very reasonable – to help think about how the best service can be delivered. And the proof of the pudding? KPMG Nunwood’s 2017 UK Customer Experience Excellence analysis report shows that top-ranking firms are achieving sustained improvements in customer experience that deliver financial results too. The report explains more about the pillars and gives examples of what companies are doing to improve the customer experience. My experience of universities has seen failings in all six of the pillars, not least in managing a student’s time and effort. There are often too many steps in processes, the information can be hard to find, and it can be hard to get answers when you need them. In my most recent experience as a student, I’ve found the multiple systems, opaque terminology and hoops to jump through particularly frustrating, especially as a part-time, distance learner. It can be better than this. Why shouldn’t the student experience be as good as the top retailers?

You don’t need to believe that “students are customers” in every sense to also believe that they deserve good service. And there’s plenty of room for objection to the positioning of students as customers in the HE debate. But using data, thinking about students’ experiences of higher education, and applying some of the tools from outside the sector, we can do a lot to make the overall experience much better. Hopefully then we can share experiences of fantastic service and not ones of causing deep upset over petty issues.

3 responses to “Dirty word? Thinking about customers

  1. Couldn’t agree more. It’s perfectly possible to deliver high-quality customer service for services and facilities in a university without negatively affecting the partnership-based elements, while simultaneously having the benefit of not wasting students’ or staff members’ time, energy and goodwill on trivial things.

    I’ll never understand why university staff think it’s sensible to put in place rules which – outside of work – they would be baffled or maybe infuriated by if they were subjected to them as a customer/client in a shop, restaurant, bank, medical practice, solicitors…

  2. We, at the independent University of Buckingham, have been doing it for more than 40 years. Here is an example of what we do http://bit.ly/bbe_independent

    That is what happens when a university just depends on its students and parents paying fees along with donations from supporters.

  3. Lots of Unis engaging in Customer Service Excellence across services including, IT, Libraries and Student Support. If you aren’t engaged in an ongoing conversation with students, colleagues and visitors to your University somethings amiss.

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