Is “customer” still a bad word in higher education?

In a meeting earlier this week someone referred to our students as “customers,” but then, realizing what had been done, quickly walked the statement back by saying something like, “not that we think of our students as customers.”  That’s been a long-held student/academic affairs mentality — students are not customers.

There are certainly parts of this sentiment that I understand.  The implication is that a student has different responsibilities in the educational experience than a customer would in a commercial experience.  And I believe that to be true.  But, I also believe that too often we lean on the idea that students aren’t customers as a way to comfort ourselves for providing less-than-stellar service.

Sometimes this less-than-stellar service is beyond our control.  We don’t make all the policies, and we don’t control the bureaucracy.  But, dang it, we say we’re here for the students.  So, when it makes sense to pick up a phone and make a call rather than send a student traipsing across campus, we should do that (as one of my colleagues did this afternoon, I’m happy to say).  That’s not hand-holding or coddling, that’s just good service, and our students deserve it.

Recently a person that I respect posted, jokingly, on Facebook the old adage “a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”  We know students put things off, and we know they don’t always take action when they should.  But, the very tone of that statement belies our often-stated mantra that we’re here to help students.  Does that mean we shouldn’t discuss consequences and better planning and better decision making?  Of course not.  But, we shouldn’t be afraid of “service” just because we think it is for customers and not for students.

We should be focusing on how to give the best service we can, and we should be learning from those commercial sectors to which we don’t like to be compared.  Whether you like it or not, those are the standards to which we are being held.  The experiences students have with us are contextualized not against other university offices or offices similar to ours on other campuses (which is why benchmarking is such a flawed concept sometimes), but rather against service in all settings.

What are you doing to provide absolutely top-notch service to your students?  I’d love to hear about it.  I’m sure it’s happening!




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  1. Is “customer” still a bad word in higher education? « Service Design ... | Designing design thinking driven operations |
  2. Is “customer” still a bad word in higher education? « Service Design … « Designing design thinking driven operations
  3. Is “customer” still a bad word in higher education? « Service Design ... | Service Design Thinking |

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