They say that the customer is always right. But how exactly do you define a customer? Recent protests by British university students about the quality of the education they’re ‘purchasing’ have caused Carol-Ann Morgan to reflect on the lessons we can all learn in a wider business context.
Who would have ever thought it? …Students protesting about not enough teaching classes? However, this is exactly what has recently been seen at a number of well known UK universities, and reported in the national press. Thinking back to the days of my education, most students breathed a sigh of relief at the cancellation of any classes and headed for the nearest place of recreation. The recent actions from some students raise questions about the shift in students’ attitudes and behaviours related to their educational experience.
Higher education has undergone significant changes in recent years. Many of these changes have impacted directly on the perceptions of students themselves; not insignificantly the requirement for them to pay fees. This has prompted discussions within the sector about the positioning of the student as a “customer” or a “consumer”. It can, and has been argued that the term “customer” is not appropriate for the field of education as the relationship is completely different to that of the conventional commercial buyer/seller experience. The successful attainment of an educational qualification requires mutual investment from both sides of the equation. This said, many academics have directly observed a shift in student attitudes and behaviours in favour of the “customer” positioning; most recently in the very public protestations by students about both the quality and the quantity of the educational “product” they feel they have purchased.
Whether or not we agree that an educational qualification can ever be thought of as a “purchased” product given the nature of the necessary relationship between the parties involved, the student protestations serve to remind us of two things. Firstly, the importance and power of the voice of the customer, consumer or service user (by whatever name we choose to use), and secondly, the perceived value for money of the product. The students’ action was an open demonstration that their expectations are not being met as far as the delivery of the course is concerned, and that they would like to place the issue on the management radar screen. Customers in commercial markets may simply switch to use competitor suppliers.
Reputations take time to build, and taking our eye off the mainstream product, from which these reputations have been built, can have disastrous effects. Customers are generally unconcerned about internal operational or financial issues which can impact on the quality or delivery of a product to them; their satisfaction is rooted in expectation and direct experience. Taking care of our customers not only enables us to respond with offers and services which meet current and future needs, it also serves to protect the reputation of the company by ensuring we have a loyal base of advocates willing to spread the word – a valuable source of free PR.
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