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Attracting Students | 6 minute read

Technology Isn’t Disrupting You: Customer Expectations Are

Meeting, or exceeding, student expectations needs to be the path forward for higher education

By Amrit Ahluwalia | Managing Editor, The EvoLLLution: A Destiny Solutions Illumination

Welcome to an ongoing series by The EvoLLLution’s Managing Editor, Amrit Ahluwalia. His articles will recap content published on The EvoLLLution, providing postsecondary leaders with some wider visibility on what's happening in the fast-changing world of higher education.

When we think about the companies that have completely redefined their respective industries over the past decade, a few significant examples come to mind:

  1. Netflix vs Blockbuster
  2. Uber vs Taxis
  3. Amazon vs Big Box Retailers
  4. Airbnb vs Hotels
  5. Apple vs the Music Industry

At the surface, the common thread between these giants is their creative approach to leveraging technology to get ahead. But digging just a little bit under the surface unveils a more significant truth:

All of these companies redefined their respective industries because they focused on delivering the best possible customer experience.

What set these companies apart and made them the no-doubt choice for the majority of consumers is that they leveraged technology effectively to solve a problem with the way a given service was being delivered.

  • Netflix delivered convenience and freed customers from late fees.
  • Uber reduced the uncertainty of cab travel and minimized the opportunity for fraud (recently covered in my own hometown Toronto).
  • Amazon offered a high-end customer experience and personalized service.
  • Airbnb freed travelers from limited availability and pricing options.
  • Apple unbundled music content and allowed consumers to purchase specifically what they wanted (songs) rather than forced packages (albums).

Their technology, in isolation, would have helped them to compete in these spaces, but what’s truly differentiating, redefining and impactful is their reimagination of the delivery of their respective products/services around the needs of the consumers rather than the needs of the producers.

Higher education is in the midst of a similar tidal wave now, but for the most part, we’re still chalking up the shifts to newly available technologies rather than the sea change toward meeting customer expectations.

To put it simply, colleges need to become student-centric to succeed in the future.

What Does Customer Service Look Like in Higher Ed?

To start, this requires institutions across the board to start thinking seriously about who their customers are and what they’re looking for from their institution.

“[Non-traditional students] view college through the lens of a consumer who is buying service,” said Diane Johnson, President and CEO of New Charter University, in an interview with The EvoLLLution. “Exceptional customer service practices are essential for universities to be competitive with this large segment of the market.”

Johnson, reflecting on what great customer service means in the postsecondary context, expanded:

“Good customer service includes integrity in the quality of program offerings. It includes timeliness in responding to student inquiries and issues. Good customer service ensures that all students are treated with respect and genuine regard. It includes the tone that is used when speaking to a student. Customer service includes anticipating user experience issues that could create barriers for student success or convenience and eliminating those. Customer service includes eliminating wasteful or inefficient practices that drive up costs and diminish the student experience. Customer service means that representatives of an institution always conduct themselves in a professional and respectable manner.”

Fundamentally, she added: “It refers to the way that institutions view and treat the individuals they serve.”

How Can Technology Play a Role?

Technology is obviously important to delivering the kind of customer experience the modern student expects, be they an 18-year-old coming straight from high school, a K-12 learner in a summer camp, or an adult.

At a starting point, delivering a great customer experience involves recognizing that student expectations are defined by what they see in the eCommerce industry, and trying to mirror those best practices.

“Advances in the eCommerce space have increased the expectation of high levels of autonomy to be able to manage the fiscal and academic transactions associated with their schooling,” said Johnson. “Non-traditional students expect their schools to offer a one-stop technology-hosted self-service space. They expect easy to find and use eCommerce options for application processing, tuition and fee payment, course registration, learning environments, library services, and transcript purchases.”

Those technologies on their own won’t make a significant difference, though, unless they’re leveraged as part of a broader strategy to deliver a student-centric, customer-focused experience to learners.

For Michelle Fach, Director of Open Learning and Educational Support at the University of Guelph, investing in a new back-end system helped her division to accomplish the realization of the customer service vision they’d set out.

“There are a few key characteristics that define a great customer experience for postsecondary students, and chief among them are approachability of staff and the system,” she said in an interview on The EvoLLLution. “We need to create an environment where students don’t have to go to multiple spots to get one piece of information—or to get different information on the same question from multiple sources.

Of course, as Fach alludes to above, this means not just focusing on products that face students directly, but also on the processes that guide staff work. After all, Amazon doesn’t exist as a front-facing website that relies on numerous staff touchpoints to look automated. They back up a great front-end experience with a back-end infrastructure designed to deliver automation and personalization at scale.

“People’s roles will no longer involve moving paper around,” she said in reference to their new customer lifecycle management system.  “There will be less time spent on routine administrative tasks and more on services that add value to the learner experience.”

Accelerating into a Customer-Centric Future

As every other industry evolves, higher education leaders cannot assume their space will remain unchanged: sleepy, ivy-covered, and defined by what’s right for the institution.

Customers are being placed at the center of every other industry and they will expect for their needs to be prioritized by the institution as well. (If that sentence annoys you, please read this prior article defining the limits of “customer service” in higher education).

Reflecting back on how we’ve seen the previously-mentioned giants change their respective industries, let’s apply some of those changes to higher education:

1.  Netflix delivered convenience and freed customers from late fees.

  • Provide students with more access to flexible program modalities and scheduling.

2. Uber reduced the uncertainty of cab travel and minimized the opportunity for fraud.

  • Deliver a secure environment where students can pay by credit card and be confident in the safety of their data.

3. Amazon offered a high-end customer experience and personalized service.

  • Understand that your students are customers and build infrastructure and culture to match that reality.

4. Airbnb freed travelers from limited availability and pricing options.

  • Become more flexible with programming types and create a wider array of credentials that can be offered at numerous price points.

5. Apple unbundled music content and allowed consumers to purchase specifically what they wanted (songs) rather than forced packages (albums).

  • Unbundle programming to deliver more diverse programming across the entire Spectrum of Access.

Easy right? Well, no. But necessary.

To learn more about how the University of Guelph OpenEd leveraged Customer Lifecycle Management software to deliver on their vision of a customer-centric education environment, please click here.