Student as a Customer

Delivering successful outcomes requires universities to treat students as customers, partners, and individuals.

Imagine buying a new mid-range car.  As a customer you have many choices to make; from the type and model to how the car will be financed and any optional extras you may want.  The range of cars now available is extensive and every car manufacturer within your price range will be vying for that sale.

In general, the research you conduct to determine your purchase correlates with the level of investment you make.  So, for a mid-range car in the £30k to £40k selection, the amount of research you would do upfront would be substantial.

And what if, after your purchase, you were not happy with the car?  A good car dealership would not see the point of sale as the end of the customer journey, as a happy customer would recommend the car to others and potentially purchase another one later down the line.  Good aftersales support is a key differentiator and helps you ‘retain’ the customer.  If both the car and the after sales support was bad, then, it is not uncommon for the customer to cut their losses, get rid of the car, and find one that matches their expectations.

It’s not hard therefore, to draw parallels with another investment in that price range.  A University degree.  The student as a customer concept is of course nothing new, although many within the industry may be reluctant to entertain this point of view, applying the ‘student is a customer’ approach has its benefits.

Students as customers – The parallels 

  1. The investment (tuition fees) are required to improve your personal economic value in the future
  2. The accessibility of the global education market place for education has driven change in offerings to match student/customer offerings.
  3. A satisfied student (and future alumni) is the best advocate for the University ‘brand’ – like a net promoter score
  4. The higher education system is a global market where institutions compete for students/customers
  5. Brand reputation and exclusivity (high achieving/like-minded students) are propositions for HEIs in attracting student/customers

This is not to say that the relationship between student and education provider is as simple as that.  Unlike the distinction between customer and service provider, the responsibility for a successful outcome requires the student to be an active and willing participant.  Nonetheless, the “service” by the provider should tick all the “boxes” in a way that maximises the chance of success in achieving the desired outcome.  Think of how SaaS (Software as a Solution) companies are set up to obtain revenue through a recurrence model and it becomes apparent why they deploy a customer success programme to ensure that customers remain happy, satisfied and engaged in using the software.   Could the same approach not be applied to students and educators?

What businesses understand about their customers’ expectations and what it means for your students.  

  • Customers expect businesses to have omnichannel capability so that communications can be in the channel of their choice – Does your University provide the ability to self-serve, employ the use of chatbots to understand requests, as well as the traditional phone and face to face methods?
  • Customers expect consistent quality in business response and turnaround – especially for transactional enquiries – Is your University applying standardised responses for the majority of enquiries and are responses consistent, irrespective of channel?  Does the response turnaround consistent irrespective of the time of year?
  • Customers expect services to be efficient, timely and seamless.   Is there a recognised owner for each student service (i.e. examinations) within your University, who has responsibility for ensuring consistency and efficiency?  
  • Customers expect that straightforward transactional requests can be requested at any time – Are transactional requests completed by an administrator during business hours?
  • Businesses aggregate customer data across multiple touchpoints and use the data to hyper personalise offerings, acting to maintain engagement and build loyalty.  Does your University consolidate disparate student data points (i.e. attendance, mental welfare, exceptional factors) to spot trends in engagement and where necessary take early intervention, thus maintaining positive engagement?

Irrespective of label; student, customer, participant, educator, there is a common shared goal with all parties, which is for the student to complete their University degree.  This means maintaining good engagement by creating the right environment for them to learn and grow and intervening when engagement drops.  Universities that focus on achieving the right outcomes will not get hung up on arbitrary labels but will treat every student as an individual with the ambition to succeed.

Phil Wong

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