11 Apr

Book review: Embrace the Oxymoron: Customer Service in Higher Education

This Friday Dr. Neal Raisman brings his expertise in the areas of academic customer service and student retention to Indianapolis to keynote the CASE Indiana spring conference.  Two of Raisman’s books should be required reading of all advancement teams.  I’ll review Embrace the Oxymoron: Customer Service in Higher Education here and later will review The Power of Retention.

I’ve described an integrated advancement model as advancing the mission of the institution by enhancing the university’s reputation, relationships, and resources.  Ultimately, we are charged with increasing the flow of resources into the institution.  Those vital resources come from two areas: enrollment (recruitment and retention) and fundraising.

As Raisman states, “There is a direct correlation between good customer service and enrollment success.  Simply put, colleges that are student-centered and treat students as welcomed and respected customers, while making sure they get a great education, will have enrollment and retention success.”

The critical and complex area of student retention is too often overlooked in advancement shops.  It seems so straightforward: students who drop out never become alumni and donors.  Furthermore, the decision to become a donor (or not) starts before a student even comes to campus, so get involved in service from the beginning.  Be a customer service advocate and lifetime engagement advocate on behalf of your entire institution.

The phrase “customer service” can be a dirty word to our faculty colleagues, much like “marketing” once was (and still may be among a few holdout traditionalists).  Raisman explains, however, that academic customer service is not a surface level tactic; it’s a strategic approach to fulfilling the real expectations of students.

“Academic customer service means keeping the student at the center of the enterprise. It means treating students as clients, not simply as customers.  It means enriching and engaging students intellectually, professionally, and personally as valuable and crucial individuals that the college wants to keep as clients.  This is achieved through positive and edifying experiences for students, not necessarily by pandering to them, as some people fear customer service would mean.”

A key point here is that students are professional clients, not customers.  The author’s parallel is a patient/doctor relationship.  “Clients depend on the service provider to give an excellent service even if it includes some bad news or directions for change the client may not find pleasant, as when a doctor tells a patient to stop eating all sweets.”  Forget the old business adage that the customer is always right.

Raisman outlines 13 principles of customer service in higher education:

  1. Students should be given courteous and concerned attention to their needs and valued as people.
  2. Students should come before personal or college-focused goals.
  3. The processes, rules, and regulations of higher education should be fully and actually student-centered.
  4. Be honest in all communications and do not patronize students.
  5. Students can never be an inconvenience.
  6. There must be a proper match between the product and the customer.
  7. Just because it was someone else who did something that would hurt a student does not relieve you of doing what is right.
  8. Students deserve an environment that is neat, bright, welcoming, and safe.
  9. Students are not really customers.
  10. The customer is not always right.
  11. Satisfaction is not the gauge of successful customer service in a college.
  12. Do not cheapen the product in the name of customer service.  No pandering.
  13. To every problem there is more than one solution and they often are external rather than within academia.

We all work in higher education because of students and our belief in the transformative impact it can have on their lives.  That’s the bottom line here.  As Raisman says, “a customer-centered college cares about students and their success more than its own comfort and status quo.”  Students are everybody’s job.  There is no one at the college more important than the individual student.  “The students must be the center of the mission and the purpose of the college or university.”


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