Students expect a high level of service, but the word “customer” in higher education has historically been viewed as taboo.
In an era where customer service is integrated into every sector from retail to transportation, therefore, universities may not meet students’ expectations. Dissatisfied students and parents create enrollment turnover.
And it’s much more expensive to attract a new student than it is to retain an existing one.
How can a university bring customer service best practices from other industries into higher education?
We invited Gareth Fowles, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Lynn University, to come on the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss why higher ed needs to follow the lead of customer-service oriented companies from other industries when it comes to student support.
Customer Service in Higher Education
“Our president (at Lynn) has really encouraged all senior leaders as well as our faculty, administrators, staff, and students to look at a different type of education,” Gareth said.
For example, a number of years ago, Lynn unveiled a program in which they provided all their students with an iPad.
The university’s leaders weren’t initially enamored with the device because they knew Apple would put it through iterations, but the policy still created a new ecosystem at Lynn. Students were on a uniform platform, and faculty members could actually start creating their own textbooks and loading those up unto iTunes U.
Soon, Lynn developed a relationship with Apple, which led the school to start looking at what it could learn from other industry leaders such as Ritz-Carlton, Amazon, and Netflix.
These companies provide a high level of customer service and enjoy a similar rate of engagement from their customers. When you go into an Apple Store, for instance, it’s always serviced very well no matter what you need.
What if you applied that same principle to the various levels of services that a university provides students, whether it be academic advising, the registrar’s office, financial services, or student affairs?
“We’ve recently developed a taskforce,” Gareth told us, “to start looking at what the students’ experience is like here at Lynn University…with the ultimate goal of improving our retention rates and graduation rates.”
Implementing Design Thinking Across Campus
Design thinking is becoming an integral part of Lynn’s identity as the college considers its future.
“One of the biggest initiatives that we’ve really adopted this mindset is through the unveiling of our new strategic plan,” Gareth said, “which is called Lynn 2025.”
That plan relies in part on design thinking principles. It emerged through discussions among a wide variety of constituent groups, including the Board of Trustees, senior executives, faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
“We firmly believe that we’ve incorporated the voices of a multitude,” Gareth said, “and a breadth of diverse constituent groups that we believe will lead the institution to much continued success in the coming years through this new strategic plan.”
Customer Service for Online Students
The online audience at Lynn is a relatively new audience the school is targeting and servicing. It’s a young student population at a young institution of just around 3,000 students. Until recently, most of the experience the school has provided has been targeted at the residential life of the undergraduate students.
“But over the last five or six years,” Gareth said, “we’ve really made a concerted effort to start targeting graduate students…we’ve provided a considerably larger number of courses and programs offered online.”
Lynn also launched an online program for the nontraditional learner. Sometimes, online students’ level of experience is different from that of their on-campus peers. That’s why Lynn invests in making the online experience similar to the one students on campus have.
Now, the school is working out how to make all its services easily accessible by online students. Lynn attracts students from across the country and around the world. How does it make sure that a digital learner in California, for example, is adequately served and feels that the same level of customer service that student on campus does?
“At the end of the day,” Gareth said, “the level of education that a student receives online compared to on ground here is the same offering, and so that customer service needs to be adequately prepared and available to students online as well.”
Next Steps for Improving Customer Service in Higher Education
There’s going to be a decrease in the number of high school graduates from now until 2023. In the coming years, colleges will see more first generation students, more students of color, and more lower socioeconomic families enrolling. To attract and retain that shrinking and diversifying pool of students, institutions must ensure they are appropriately and adequately servicing the students they attract.
Otherwise, those students are going to find schools that will provide what they believe they need.
“Higher education is in somewhat of a precarious position,” Gareth told us. “We as an institution are very mindful of the national landscape, and making sure that the investment that students and families make in a Lynn University education is one that is going to be sound for the respective families, and ultimately, yield the return on the investment that they are making.”
If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.