Step foot onto campus, into a full lecture hall and you see them with their laptops open, fingers poised over keyboards, ready for the lecture: Customers.
Wait, did that last word make you cringe? If it did, you likely work in the higher education environment where “customer” has long since been considered a dirty word. To you, they are students. If anything else, maybe they’re most akin to colleagues or partners.
But customers? Never.
We know that thinking of students as customers has never been widely accepted in higher education. To many, it’s suggestive of a transaction and an uncomfortable retail environment. These students are there to learn. They give your institution money in exchange for valuable goods and services like a high-quality education, and housing, and dining, and ticketed events, and merchandise from the bookstore, and…
Wait a second…Perhaps it is time to consider the semantics behind “students” and “customers” and accept the latter with nary an inner cringe. It’s better for your brand and it’s better for a quality higher education experience. All it takes is just accepting it, no paradigm shift necessary. Hear us out.
Forget ‘the customer is always right’.
For many in higher ed, ‘customer’ is analogous with “the customer is always right.” It evokes indignation, an impatient hand-on-a-hip and the manager being summoned. In academia specifically, the fear lies in the permittance of students to dictate the terms and conditions of their own education and evaluation. The hypothetical result would be a breach, if not a total loss, of integrity. “I paid you to give me an ‘A’ and graduate cum laude!” is not a situation that any faculty or staff want to negotiate.
The fact is, it’s time to give students a little more credit. Students step onto campus expecting your institution to have high and rigorous academic standards, otherwise their degree is worth nothing. They have a goal they want to accomplish – whether personal or professional. They evaluated options to help them achieve that goal. And all things considered (where they live, how much they can afford, where they could get accepted, etc.), they decided to attend your institution to help them fulfill their goal.
Plus, students going into higher education know they are getting far more out of their experience than stepping off a stage with a degree. Be it through joining clubs, interning, or simply living apart from their parents for the first time, a higher education experience is loaded with growth potential. Beyond studying biochemistry or business marketing, students gain real-world experience, make lifelong relationships, and evolve as individuals.
“The customer is always right” doesn’t fit in higher education because the customer is not trying to be right. They’re trying to change the trajectory of their life.
Just buy it: how students can help your customer service and bolster your brand.
Branding and marketing professionals know that a customer’s relationship with a brand is far from transactional. “The customer is always right” not only doesn’t fit with students and academia, but that notion of pure transaction and navel-gazing is changing in general. It’s no longer an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.
For one, customers help define, shape, and evolve a brand — they’re not just handing over money in exchange for something off a shelf. We are witnessing people who want to join brands as a movement — contribute to and grow something beyond themselves. And now more than ever brands are looking to their current and potential customers as a valued source of validation and where to go next. They’re turning around and asking them if they’re doing the right things, what’s working, and what they’d like to see. Just refresh the Instagram or Twitter accounts of your favorite brand for a myriad of examples.
So when you consider your students as customers — not colleagues or partners — you can build your brand better. Invite them and they can push your brand to evolve, encourage growth in critical areas, and become champions of it. Walk around campus and count how many students are sporting a sweatshirt or sticker on their laptop of your school if you’re in doubt.
“Your brand is what others say about you when you’re not in the room.” -Jeff Bezos
Specifically for marketers in the higher education space, the customers are in the proverbial room. These customers are the students, active and participatory in the outcome of your brand. Though they may not be leading lectures or research as undergrads, they are not separate from your offering, your business or your operation. On the contrary. They’re an integral part of it, and what they think and say about your brand matters.
A seat at the table: your students as customers.
Take a look at your recruitment marketing materials. You may realize that you already have a customer-centric message. If you’re in doubt, check off if you are touting any of the following in your marketing collateral:
- Class size – A customer-centric message about the attention a student will receive.
- Student support services – A customer-centric message about how their needs will be attended to.
- Extra-curricular opportunities – A customer-centric message about the breadth and quality of your offering.
- Build and promote on-campus residences —A customer-centric message about providing an all-inclusive environment.
- Program social events and entertainment offerings — A customer-centric message about more to university life than class.
- Sell merchandise — A customer-centric message about being part of a community.
Student support services, campus amenities, improved technology, renovated places and spaces, attractive residences: none of these are your core business, and all indicate a commitment to customer service and satisfaction. The hesitation to embrace ‘customer’ in your language is undermined by the obvious commitment to customers in your actions.
You likely have consulted students and gathered their opinions on your offerings. It’s only natural (and smart) to design and refine the offerings to appeal more to your customers, instead of designing the offering, logistics, and pedagogy without any contribution from the students. If you’re doing this already, congratulations, you have many customers interacting with your brand. Whether you know it or not, you’ve given them a seat at the table. And that’s a good thing! It will only make your offerings better and more appealing.
The customer isn’t always right, and frankly, nobody is as long as students and customers aren’t positively paired. All it takes is a change in language — no indignation or manager required.