Customer, customer service, customer experience. This was the center point of my part-time job in retail almost 16 years ago, while I was simultaneously a university student. My employer understood that keeping the customer happy and creating an exceptional customer experience would help set the business apart from its competitors—hence, they reiterated to employees on an almost daily basis the importance of the customer! Although I applied this theory at work, I did not think much about it in relation to my experience at university.
Today, we talk about students as “customers,” and universities and colleges around the world compete at a strategic level to attract and retain students and improve the student experience. While my university at the time was, of course, competing for students and had a focus on the student experience, my only concern was learning and obtaining a degree, whilst enjoying student life overall – regardless of whether I was on campus or off. Moreover, despite paying tuition fees, I did not see myself as a customer of higher education.
Fast-forward some years, and this was also true of my time as a teacher in the Further Education (FE) Sector in the UK. I was committed to providing the best student experience, but it was mostly in relation to teaching and learning and was confined to the classroom. I did not see my students as customers, despite providing them a service and striving to do everything I could to help them succeed.
Though some higher education institutions today are still reluctant to refer to students as customers, the initiatives to enhance the student experience say otherwise. However, these initiatives are still relatively immature in comparison to customer experience strategies across other industries, such as retail and manufacturing. Moving forward, delivering an exceptional student experience will become an important point of differentiation and will contribute in concrete ways to the success of universities and colleges. Now is the time for institutions to redefine the student experience, and create and roll out strategic and holistic initiatives.
Consider the student experience of tomorrow, today
Because higher education is business-to-consumer (B2C) by nature, relationships become increasingly important. Students expect more from their institutions than relevant classes and interesting professors. Rather, it is the relationships that students have with faculty and staff that color their overall relationship with the institution. They don’t care how, but they want customer service in real-time, and via mobile and social media. Therefore, a high level of customer service – before and after enrollment – in all interactions with the institution is a must. Students who receive a high level of customer service when dealing with everything from enrollment to course registration are more likely to remain enrolled in their institution, and retention can have a remarkably high impact on institutional operations.
However, maintaining long-lasting relationships with students is a difficult task, especially with changing market realities. Today, universities and colleges face challenges on numerous fronts. several of which were not the case when I was a student, or when I was teaching. These include declining enrollment; the rising cost of higher education; the need for greater accountability for student outcomes, unsatisfactory student experiences, and unsatisfactory alumni engagement and support; and the need for new revenue sources.
These challenges are difficult to fully comprehend, let alone solve, especially in silos. However, if institutions look beyond academic offerings to differentiate themselves from competitors and make positive changes around their approaches to student engagement and experience, they can create and maintain a distinctive identity that can attract, retain, and engage students over the entire lifecycle.
Customer service will remain an evolving concept for universities and colleges – at least in the near-term. However, when institutions think about the student experience of tomorrow, they must also evolve to a student-centric model that spans the lifecycle and enables more personalized and innovative “service” delivery. Additionally, it goes without saying that customer relationship management (CRM) solutions are a crucial part of the overall student experience strategy, and the long-term rewards of positioning CRM as a strategic asset to redefine the student experience are worth more than the effort required to get there. It will transform universities and colleges in the way that enterprises have been transformed across other industries.
In support of the student experience strategies of today and tomorrow, consider SAP solutions for student engagement and commerce (i.e. the SAP Hybris portfolio) powered by the SAP HANA platform to enable a 360-degree view of your prospective students, real-time interaction and engagement, and sophisticated, predictive analytics, with the potential integration to core key transactional systems on campus (e.g. S/4 HANA with SAP Student Lifecycle Management).