How the ‘Student Experience’ in Higher Ed Parallels the ‘Customer Experience’ in Business

How the ‘Student Experience’ in Higher Ed Parallels the ‘Customer Experience’ in Business
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Having spent 30-plus years working in the corporate world, I always look to lessons from commerce that can be applied to colleges and universities. Can research on enhancing the “customer experience” in business be used to improve the “student experience” in higher education?

I believe the answer is a resounding “yes.” As economic policy analyst Stephen Moore recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the Bellevue Square multi-level retail mall in Seattle is thriving – and it just happens to be home to online e-commerce giant Amazon. The mall’s owner believes the secret to its success is the emotional fulfillment it offers to consumers. Basically, the theory goes that we are social animals seeking human connection in communal areas rather than remote, isolated services. This may be an old-fashioned concept, but many customers still want the experience of touching, feeling and smelling the product – which I call fit -- before buying it.

My institution, Woodbury University, recently completed a pre-enrollment survey of parents and students. These students had been admitted, but had not yet made the decision to enroll. I expected that among the top factors for students and parents in choosing a college would be a beautiful campus with top-notch facilities. In fact, the leading factors were subtler, and parents and students concurred in their conclusions. The availability and quality of the academic major ranked first -- similar to the product in retail -- followed by experienced and qualified professors (#2) and professors who mentor (#4), paralleling the importance of customer service in retail. In short, this survey indicated that a personalized educational experience, with close faculty-student connections in a welcoming and safe community, were the keys to success at our institution.

And, as in business, the initial value proposition matters greatly in higher education. Increasingly in business, there is a correlation between the digital world and the brick-and-mortar world: the customer shops around online before making a decision to buy the product online or at a physical retail store. The latter enables the customer to experience fit by feel and touch. The same goes for prospective students. The key initial student experience is digital -- the university website -- just as it is in retail, but the difference here is that only certain “customers” are accepted. A student who inquires digitally usually visits the physical campus to decide if it is a good fit before sealing the deal.

In sum, the student experience in higher education is, in essence, a buying decision. At Woodbury, we value the time-honored factors of excellent customer service, top-notch academic majors and experienced faculty and staff in both recruiting and retaining students. Businesses rise and fall according to their ability to satisfy consumers. In that same vein, educational institutions thrive when they truly understand who their customers are and what’s required to serve them.

David Steele-Figueredo, Ph.D., is President of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.

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