Customer Service as a Competitive Advantage

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 29th annual National Small College Enrollment Conference. The keynote speaker was Dr. Neal Raisman, principal of N.Raisman & Associates, a leading customer service consulting group for retention, enrollment, morale, and marketing for higher education. He challenged attendees to think about students and families as their customers and to prioritize customer service at their institutions. While perhaps causing some to shift uncomfortably in their seats, Raisman’s argument is convincing.

We all know that negative experiences are one cause of attrition at colleges and universities. A large portion of those are arguably related to poor customer service. Attrition is tied to loss in tuition revenue, so why aren’t institutions prioritizing customer service more?

While the marketing of higher ed, especially to prospective students and their families, has changed dramatically in the past five to 10 years, have institutions made similar changes on the customer service front to keep those students and families satisfied with their “purchase decision?” In February 2017, Dr. Raisman, with the Educational Policy Institute, released “The State of Academic Customer Service on U.S. Campuses.” In this report, Raisman argues that strong academic customer service can in fact be a competitive advantage for schools today, especially because most schools themselves say they aren’t doing a great job of it.

Raisman found that definitions of what is good customer service, how to administer it, and its overall importance across U.S. campuses varies widely not only from institution to institution but also within different units on individual campuses. Senior administrators and those responsible for providing the bulk of customer service experiences have different views of the quality of customer service on their campuses. This is perhaps the root of sub-par customer service — yet another reason to break down those campus silos.

Further, Raisman states that faculty, staff, and administrators require training in customer service, as many do not know what academic customer service is, what it entails, and how to provide it. Some elements of good customer service include timely response to emails/voicemails, access to faculty via office hours, providing up-to-date information on course curriculums, schedules, well-maintained facilities, etc.

Ironically, after I left Raisman’s keynote that afternoon, I proceeded to have a series of not-so-great customer service experiences of my own. And, each time, I made a slight (or not so slight) grimace, and a mental note. We all know those feelings of frustration and irritation after a bad encounter or less than fluid experience — do we really want our students and families to feel that way when they think of us?

Last year, American University launched its Reinventing the Student Experience project, a multi-year initiative to transform AU’s student service infrastructure. Part of the effort involves seeking insight from businesses and organizations outside higher education. The task force asked itself these major questions, which may be helpful for you and your institution to consider answering as you look to make improvements to your own institution’s customer-service approach:

  • What is our overarching purpose and service philosophy?
  • Viewed from the student (and parent) perspective, what are the services they need and when?
  • Have we organized the touchstones for student progression and success based on the sequence of the educational process?
  • To what extent does our service “infrastructure” facilitate academic accomplishment, social adjustment, and economic stability and how do we effect these changes within the context of a traditional university?
  • What does success look like for today’s students, and for those who will come after them?
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