Why Universities Should Adopt a Customer-Centric Approach
Customer-Centric Universities can Find Success Through Stronger Student Engagement
Buzzwords like “customer centricity” and “customer experience” are trendy monikers used to reflect the various approaches and philosophies of how a business could or should interact with its customers. Customers, after all, are the most important influence on the success of a business, so it makes sense that organizations would place such a strong emphasis on their needs. In recent years, organizations outside of traditional business industries have begun to adopt the customer-centric approach. Healthcare is the most notable example in its industry-wide push for patient-centricity. For some reason, higher ed institutions have not been so eager to adopt business best practices. Why aren’t universities adopting a customer-centric approach in their recruiting, retention, and engagement of constituents across the student lifecycle?
For one, addressing students as customers may feel taboo. The primary purpose of higher education is not to make money off students’ desires to expand their knowledge and develop skills. Sure, students pay for a service that the university delivers, but for many in higher ed, that feels like a necessary prerequisite for focusing on what really matters: learning. While this thought process is justifiable, it downplays a reality many students are intensely aware of: college is expensive. It’s an investment of time and money. As any good financial advisor would tell you, it’s not worth making an investment in something that will not provide a healthy return on investment (ROI). Yes, students care about their learning and development, but they also care about achieving satisfactory post-grad outcomes from this not insignificant financial investment. Neglecting this key student concern because your eyes are laser-focused on learning outcomes practically ensures that you are not fully meeting students’ needs. Students see themselves as customers of your institutions. You should, too.
Without adopting a customer-centric approach, you fall into a reactive response to student needs. Without getting too deep into semantics, there’s an important distinction between being customer-centric and being customer-focused, though. Organizations applying a customer-focused approach tend to be more reactive to fulfilling customer needs, and adjustments are made only when obviously visible indicators arrive in the form of complaints, metric data, or search analysis. On the other hand, customer-centric organizations tend to be proactive in anticipating customer (and prospective customer) needs and interests. A customer-centric organization might say, “What would it be like to walk in my target customer’s shoes? I can imagine that their feet would start to ache after a while. I should offer them a solution to ease their pain”. A customer-focused organization might respond, “Oh, I see that you’ve got blisters from your walk. Would you like a Band-aid?” This is especially evident in the solutions generated for attracting low-income and first-generation students. When these students struggle early in their academic journeys, they don’t always know what type of help is appropriate to ask for, or where to go to request support. If your school is taking a reactive approach, you are leaving an important student population – the ones who don’t know how or where to request resources – in the dark. Start by immersing yourself in your students’ lives. Anticipate where they might struggle. Create resources before they need them. Be proactive. Over time, your happy customers will generate word of mouth awareness (this one’s for you, admissions), be better equipped to succeed on campus (+1 for student success), feel more loyal to the university (you’re welcome, alumni relations).
With all the content and resources available online, people don’t pay attention to anything that doesn’t add value to their lives. This means that if you want to get noticed by prospective students, current students, and alumni, you need to lead with offering them something (an event, an article, a resource, etc.) of value. You should know your customer well enough that you can anticipate their needs and present them with that value-added offer just as they realize they need it. This is especially important when it comes to engaging with college alumni. For alumni, there is nothing worse than graduating from college in debt, only to have the school call you a week after graduation to request a donation. What value have you provided them since they graduated? If the answer is none, or you’re unsure, it’s not appropriate to ask for money. With a better understanding of your young alumni’s needs, you’ll be able to tell when they feel secure enough in their post-grad lives to start engaging with your advancement team. Until them, find a way to help satisfy their desire to give back to the university with their time and talents.
The customer-centric approach isn’t just a solution for alumni relations or advancement professionals who need to turn their alumni’s success into dollars for the university. This perspective has powerful implications for higher ed leaders across admissions/enrollment, student affairs, student success, career services, and advancement. With a common understanding of how you want to engage with these important constituents, customer-centric universities will be more consistent in their messaging and service delivery.