Elevating Student Experiences: Beyond Customer Service in Higher Education

Young woman sitting at a desk smiles looking out of the window holding a coffee

How campuses treat students makes a difference in whether students start, stay, and maintain a close relationship after graduating. How we treat the student – as a customer – matters.

Throughout the article, you will encounter two distinct terms – customer service and customer experience – that are used to describe the quality of interactions with customers.  But what exactly sets them apart?

Customer service, in essence, pertains to the efficient processes that enable customers to complete transactions or resolve issues swiftly, without any frustration, and with a positive attitude from personnel. A shining example of this is Chick-fil-A, where customers often commend the fast service and scripted phrase, “It’s my pleasure,” delivered by the staff.

On the other hand, customer experience encompasses a broader and more sustainable enduring relationship that an organization cultivates with its end-users. It encompasses efficient transactions but goes beyond that, incorporating programs aimed at fostering long-term loyalty and a sense of belonging, extending well beyond the point of sale. Think of the Apple Store as an example. While it may not be the quickest way to purchase an IPhone, customers willingly queue up because the store’s entire ambiance exudes an inclusive culture, expertise, and affinity.

Colleges should aspire to offer both exceptional service and an enriching experience. The term “experience” is likely to resonate more with faculty and staff because it signifies a higher purpose, one that transcends mere transactional efficiency. 

It’s worth noting that referring to students as customers can provoke resistance among college employees. This resistance likely stems from the perception of faculty and administrators, who view their work as a long-term relationship with the student – a journey from novice to expert as the student grows through the curriculum.

However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that students are indeed customers, whether we use that term or not. Students have choices when it comes to where they matriculate and persist, and their relationship with the institution carries a voluntary financial component. They can be viewed as customers, consumers, clients, patrons, or buyers.

Worrying about terminology is a needless distraction. In an environment where there will be nearly 500,000 less high school graduates entering the college market in the coming years, coupled with lower enrollment rates for graduates, and a July 2023 Gallup poll revealing that 62% of Americans either don’t care about or actively devalue higher education, colleges must prioritize both service and experience to enroll and retain students.

Exceptional customer service and customer experience don’t happen by chance; they require management. They aren’t the byproduct of employees being good people or the product (education, assessment, mentorship) of being noble. Achieving outstanding service and experience necessitates strong leadership, meticulous planning, comprehensive training, diligent management and thorough measurement. 

Regardless of the terminology you chose – be it customer service, customer experience, student experience, or something else – start now! Strive to make every student’s journey as smooth as possible, ensure that your staff exudes friendliness, and make the student feel a sense of pride being part of their college community – something they can’t wait to recommend to others. 

Steve Smith, a former college president, enhanced campus customer service through innovative steps involving faculty, staff, and students. Throughout his career, he’s led workshops for hundreds of campus administrators on customer service training and consulting.