Creating a customer-centric culture

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The higher ed model has traditionally been focused on delivering the final product — well-educated graduates. However, as learner demographics evolve and lifelong learning becomes, well, a way of life, institutions are recognizing the need to shift focus by turning to customer service models outside of higher ed to make it happen.

Student success is on the line, but so are increased enrollments and graduation rates — along with affinity among alumni and donors.

We understand there’s heavy debate over whether or not learners are, indeed, “customers”, and a perception that the application of customer service models in higher ed undermine the altruistic values of academe. At the end of the day, both camps can agree that student success is the ultimate goal. Let’s examine an institution that’s reinventing the student experience through corporate inspiration, and see what some of the best companies are doing.

What do a progressive healthcare system and a grocery chain have to do with student success?

Just ask American University.

When new students arrive at American, as is the case at many colleges, they confront a complex aggregation of offices and practices. Traditional university structure and advising isn’t set up to respond to today’s digital natives who expect access and resolution at the click of a button.

When leaders at American began the university’s Reinventing the Student Experience (RiSE) project in 2015, they discovered that “the comprehensive nature of what we were trying to imagine was a bit easier to spot in the corporate world,” said Jeffrey Rutenbeck, then dean of the School of Communication.

They turned to the renowned Cleveland Clinic and high-end grocery chain Wegmans for a look at their approaches to improving customer satisfaction. They found that, in both instances, the “customer” was at the center of the experience, with the overarching goals of anticipating and exceeding expectations.

This is accomplished through continued customer service training at all levels of the organization during standing monthly meetings that explore various topics and celebrate employee success. Data is also a critical component in measuring “customer” success, and it is employed throughout to measure everything from communication to employee satisfaction.

In the development of their RiSE project, students remained at the forefront of their plans. American understood that students have unique goals, needs, and challenges throughout their experience. In their meetings with students, four unique types of student themes evolved, and personas were developed from this feedback to serve as a guide in the reinvention.

Another key component to ingraining this “customer-centric” ethos throughout the culture is listening. By providing training that fosters this key skill, American gives their employees (and learners) an active role to play in improvement initiatives and the opportunity to have ownership of the experience.

“The kind of excellence you can achieve with technical proficiency is very different from the kind of excellence you can achieve if you build a culture that connects everyone to the same mission,” said Rutenbeck.

Best practices

Here are some best practices from corporate customer service models that you can apply at your institution:

  1. Understand who your “customers” are
  2. Deliver a consistent, seamless experience throughout the learner journey
  3. Make the experience convenient
  4. Set and manage expectations
  5. Align services with your overarching mission and values
  6. Personalize the experience
  7. Listen
  8. Be responsive
  9. Ask for feedback
  10. Establish accountability across all services

Wondering where to start looking?

Here are 10 companies delivering outstanding customer service:

  1. Zappos
  2. Apple
  3. Wegmans Food Markets
  4. Hilton
  5. Costco
  6. Amazon
  7. Trader Joe’s
  8. Lexus
  9. Google
  10. Publix

Learn how you can stay competitive and improve retention rates through the adoption of innovative practices.

Information from this article comes from “The Innovation Imperative” by The Chronicle of Higher Education 2019.