Student Experience, Customer Service, and the “Gig Economy”

From customer service to consumer experience.

May 3, 2016

From Customer Service to Consumer Experience

In the academy, we shun the term “customer service.” It belittles what we do, the impact that we have on students and on society. It makes it appear as if education were a commodity. Many of my faculty colleagues find the term downright insulting. I spent part of this year working with managers of front line staff and the executives to whom those areas report as well as our vice president of academic affairs trying to find a more intellectually appealing substitute term. I agree with my faculty colleagues that the term customer service does cheapen what we do and minimizes our impact. However, the concept is one that is becoming vitally important in the current economy, especially for community colleges.

As I wrap up my first college presidency experience, I have come to personally embrace the term “consumer experience.” I could also choose student experience, but consumer experience reminds me that students have choice that they don’t hesitate to exercise. For me, it reflects the evolution of the current higher education market in which we all work—one that is increasingly characterized by competition for students.

Consumer Choice and Implication for Retention and Student Success

The world is changing rapidly and it has also already changed. Students expect us to use technology. The current generation of college students and those following them have extensive facility with technology and the current research shows that they prefer it over real human interaction, in many cases. (This makes the humanities competencies ever so important for these students to acquire and master). The generation that precedes them—be they our students or their parents—judges the quality, relevance of our institutions, and our ability to give them a competitive edge in the labor market, partly based on the technologies we have available for them in and outside of the classroom. They also judge us based on our knowledge of and facility with those technologies. They expect us to prepare them for the jobs that are currently available and jobs that have not yet been created.

Students have choices. They vote with their feet and their FTEs or tuition dollars. They have so many alternatives to our institutions that we can’t afford not to take consumer experience seriously in the classroom, in the waiting lines, and over our counters. The way that we treat students, make them feel, and the overall quality of the student experience we provide matters and speak volume about our institutional culture. More importantly, however, it affects how we retain students and lead them to completion of their educational goals. I found myself often saying to my colleagues this year that every interaction or non-interaction with students is an opportunity to express to them how much we care about them as people and how committed we are to their success. Every interaction or non-interaction is a seized or lost opportunity to retain a student.

The New Gig Economy

Unlike many of us in higher education, our students are entering into the new “gig” economy. This new economy is primarily characterized by increasing technological dependence, geographic mobility, and contract work where once standard benefits like pensions, health insurance, vacation, and sick time are simply non-existent and where employee loyalty is not expected or rewarded.

Given the current economy and the pace of change, our institutions need to be more agile and adaptable in an era where new fields of study and occupations are rapidly being created. The institutions that will thrive in this era are those with enough foresight to create new academic programs, acquire and develop faculty expertise to respond to both the labor and job market needs of the new economy—gig or otherwise. Our ability to evolve our academic programs, attract and retain faculty expertise and institutional memory, and develop our human capital so that it can adapt quickly are also critical. Of course, adaptive leadership at every level of the hierarchy will ensure sustainability and long-term success.

Lifelong Learning Applies to Us Too

Lifelong learning applies to us as much as it does to our students. We have to equip our students with the ability to know how to learn and adapt to a changing economy that relies more and more on technology. We too have to master those skills that we need to teach our students. More than ever before, we are co-constructing knowledge in our classrooms. We are learning more and more from each other, as students and faculty.

As I wrap up this post, I feel fortunate to have a glimpse into how technology is affecting both my school-aged children and my baby boomer husband now entering the new “gig economy” as a career changer. My students continue to teach me long after they leave my physical and virtual classroom.


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