From Amazon to Uber to GrubHub and beyond, online retailers have built every step of their user experience to be as simple and customer-centric as possible.
Their omnipresence as icons glowing under millions of thumbs means it’s working: Though the products they offer differ greatly, each of them knows the way they provide their service is as important as the service itself.
Customers wouldn’t take an Uber or order sushi if the journey to either endpoint was fraught with technical or service issues. And yet, they say this is exactly the experience higher education institutions provide—forcing them to spend time dealing with administrative challenges rather than their learning and academic development.
In the same way an Amazon user likely isn’t just looking for a one-time experience, the modern student is also looking for a recurring investment.
In the same way an Amazon user likely isn’t just looking for a one-time experience, the modern student is also looking for a recurring investment. Education is no longer a one-and-done experience. The mentality of “student for life” has been slowly ingraining itself for years as learners return to school to advance their existing careers and skillsets.
Chris Dede, a professor of Learning Technologies in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, said higher education needs to reconfigure itself to serve a shifting workforce.
“Educators are faced with the challenge of preparing young people for unceasing reinvention to take on many roles in the workplace, as well as for careers that do not yet exist,” Dede wrote in an article for the EvoLLLution. “I’ve had to reinvent my teaching and research every few years because of advances in digital technologies, increasing globalization, and shifts in society.”
Schools, he insists, should do the same.
The response to this intricate web of expectations and demands shouldn’t be to sweep it under the rug, but to take a page from the giants’ handbooks and build higher education around these new requirements: honoring and building all processes around the lifecycle of the average student as they pass into, throughout and beyond your institution.
The gods of commerce have placed data-driven decision-making at the core of their operations, and so should you.
Below is a brief overview of the student lifecycle, which explains how higher education leaders can increase positive experiences for students and positive outcomes for their institutions at every stage.
Stage One: Acquisition
Competition for learners’ time and investment has never been more pervasive. After all, educational alternatives can be found in MOOCs, bootcamps and even YouTube videos. And then there’s competition from the rest of the traditional postsecondary sector, whose service areas are less bound by geography than ever before.
A student may be drawn to an institution that has programming relevant to their ever changing needs, but a seamless, user-friendly experience can be the point of conversion for many prospects.
To capitalize on this takes more than a functional webpage and regular updates on your school’s Facebook profile. Though they certainly help, what conveys professionalism and trustworthiness is consistent branding, up-to-date information on available programs, and (crucially) a seamless enrollment experience.
Marie Cini, formerly the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Maryland University College, told the EvoLLLution in an interview that all it takes is three poor experiences with administration to send students packing
“We lose them when they’ve had approximately three problems with administrative bureaucracy,” Cini said. “What we’re trying to do is help our students have that better experience because now we have real data that shows if we’re inefficient in helping maneuver our students through, that has a deleterious impact on retention and success.”
Think of the Amazon experience. Fully online from discovery to checkout, with clear item descriptions, an ever-present “shopping cart”, a secure payment system and an easy means of tracking the status of their purchase. Here, the consumer’s experience comes first, with all processes designed to give them what they want without having to rely on staff time or effort.
The best “customer service” happens when customers serve themselves. For higher education institutions, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be as painless when a student browses your offerings.
The best “customer service” happens when customers serve themselves. For higher education institutions, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be as painless when a student browses your offerings. The same is true once they register. They should be immediately provisioned with the tools and services they need—from access to the LMS to parking passes, login info and important dates—immediately. There should be no need for awkward fumbling, waiting periods, or needless calls for administrative assistance.
Automating enrollment-adjacent processes can be a lifeline to reeling in wandering prospects as well. Course waitlists can be set to let students know when availabilities crop up, and abandoned shopping carts can prompt automatic emails to visitors reminding them that they never completed their purchase – a feature that can reign in many stragglers and give enrollments an unexpected boost.
Stage Two: Retention
Students desperately want a seamless and straightforward administrative experience. Between caring for a family, balancing work and personal interests, your student should spend their school hours learning – not running in circles trying to navigate their institution’s already overwhelmed admin and information systems.
Those self-service tools will help here. If a student wants a transcript or record of payment, they needn’t be subject to 23 minutes of royalty free music periodically interrupted by an automated voice thanking them for their patience.
Instead, simple things like transcripts or receipts should be available online, when the student wants, along with records of their progress and other necessities.
That need for seamlessness was one of the key drivers Harper took into account when looking for a new registration system for continuing education, according to Assistant Vice President of Workforce Development Mark Mrozinski.
“Students expect a seamless online experience. They don’t want to have to work between departments—they want to use a process that looks familiar based on their experiences with commercial sites,” he said in an interview with The EvoLLLution. “That was the experience we were looking for when we chose Destiny One.”
That easy access cuts both ways, too. When staff do have to intervene to resolve an issue, having access to a full customer history allows for a personalized experience that spares students having to reiterate every aching detail of their problem to siloed administrators.
“Destiny One’s ability to offer an “Amazon” experience really was the stand-out,” Mronzinski continued. “The student experience—giving them the intuitive, seamless online registration process that they rightly expect—was our number-one consideration as we moved forward.”
Stage Three: Win-Back
Higher education leaders are aware that the student lifecycle doesn’t always follow a straight line. Learners can be enrolled part time, stop out and re-enroll for any number of reasons. Given that it’s easier to retain an existing customer than to attract a new one, an institution’s commitment and capacity to win them back is as much an indicator of success as its enrollment numbers.
Much of win-back falls on the shoulders of effective marketing. A student who has stopped out needs to know when courses or offerings are coming up that match their profile based on past enrollments, interests, goals or career pathway. A general email blast is unlikely to yield more than a few hundred furrowed brows, but a personalized email that knows its target has a far higher chance of hitting its mark.
Good marketing also ensures that your institution is high on the list when prospects are doing their diligence for options online, with course information that’s descriptive, search engine friendly and (all together now!) easily accessible in a way that shortens the number of clicks between them and the enroll button.
Crucial to win-back is a smooth website experience. If a past student is thinking of broadening their skillset, their past institution is likely one of the first names on their list. Whether they’re on a phone, tablet or computer, making that website responsive and easy to navigate can limit the amount of time they spend thinking about alternatives.
Stage Four: Advocacy
Despite all you may have done to provide your student with a top-of-the-line education, the average customer is, sadly, more likely to bemoan a poor customer experience to their peers than to trumpet a positive one.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, though. Making “cheerleading” worth their while with features like digital credentials can be an effective means of giving them something to commemorate their achievement while subtly directing others to your institution. Badges, microcredentials, digital certificates and degrees… these are all opportunities to further circulate your brand, perhaps even linking back to the program in the case of digital items.
According to Elisabeth Rees-Johnstone, Executive Director of Continuing Education and Professional Learning at the University of Toronto OISE, offering digital badges serves multiple purposes.
“Digital badges are data rich in ways that paper-based certificates and resumes or PDF transcripts can’t be,” she said in an interview with The EvoLLLution. “So, at one end of the spectrum, digital badges act like online gold star stickers used to reward and motivate, and at the other end of the spectrum, they house rich learner and institutional data which can be used to identify skill sets or competencies.”
Badges, she continued, can help individuals stand out in hiring and promotion processes.
“Often the skills we have as employees get lost in translation and missed by prospective or current employers. Digital badging presents a great opportunity for a transparent solution to this—a means to effectively showcase skills and competence while further providing assurance that the skills represented have been validated by a third party.”
Building Education Around the Student Lifecycle
Students are consumers, and they’ve come to demand as much from their education provider as they do from their Netflix subscription. Customer service leaders have experienced near-incalculable growth by prioritizing their consumer experience in the same way they prioritize their product, and higher education needs to employ the same principles if it’s going to reap the same benefits.