December 3rd, 2012

Academic Customer Service Shouldn’t be a Dirty Word


Earlier this year, we kicked off the semester with a faculty development workshop on academic customer service. Academic customer service is a hot and contentious topic on many college campuses, with faculty often reeling at the suggestion that students are customers (and therefore “always right”) or that education is a product intended for consumption. The feedback from our session in August was prickly and some of the comments demonstrated that we were in worse shape than I imagined.

Contrary to what some in higher education believe, attending to students’ needs does not erode the process of higher learning; it enhances it. The collaboration of educator and student, who each bring varied insights and experience to the educational process, is unique to the learning environment. But within the student/teacher dynamic is the opportunity for faculty to wield significant influence in students’ perception that they are cared for by an institution that is responsive to their needs. Consider the customer service objectives outlined by the University of Texas at El Paso, which state:

In the classroom, on campus, and in the community, as UTEP representatives, we will:

  • Interact with others respectfully and courteously.
  • Listen carefully in an effort to understand others’ points of view.
  • Be knowledgeable problem solvers.
  • Take responsibility for UTEP’s continuous improvement.

These objectives do not suggest that students are “always right,” that their education is a commodity, or that faculty members are dedicated to pleasing them (and their parents). Instead, all members of the community are committed to ensuring that higher learning is a collaborative endeavor built on a foundation of respect, trust, and shared commitment to the values of education. Profound learning outcomes can emerge from such a framework.

While much of students’ “customer service” experience takes place in areas outside of the classroom, faculty can provide good academic service through a variety of mechanisms, most of which are simple and fairly intuitive. First, it’s important to clearly outline the objectives of the course in a manner that students understand. Spending time at the beginning of the course explaining and outlining the context of the objectives provides a framework for the semester’s activities, contributes to students’ understanding of how the course material supports the learning objectives, and reinforces how the course itself relates to their field of study. Further, a clear explanation helps students understand what they need to do in order to have a successful academic experience.

Throughout the semester, providing timely answers to students’ questions is an act of customer service. It’s certainly a challenge in a 24/7 digital environment to keep up with the demands for communication. However, little makes a student feel less valued than a significant delay in a response to questions. One way to manage the communication demands is to post clear policies on the syllabus, including a stand-alone FAQ page (I teach an online class with enrollment of up to 125, and without the FAQs, I’d be answering email all day, every day). Helping students find the information they need on their own is important, but if students have questions about the course material, it should be a priority to answer it as quickly as we can, even if we’re directing the student back to a course resource.

Regular feedback is another important academic customer service point. I am always surprised to hear from faculty who state that they can’t submit midterm grades because none of their assignments is due yet. For a variety of reasons, six weeks of instruction without the benefit of feedback is problematic. Even if course content and structure do not lend themselves to regularly graded assignments, it’s important for students to know whether or not they are successfully meeting course objectives. Regular feedback not only contributes to improved learning, it also mitigates any potential misunderstandings regarding student performance that could emerge later in the semester.

A commitment to good customer service is not antithetical to the values of higher education. We can provide good customer service without relegating ourselves to the ranks of knowledge brokers. Employing simple, intuitive support strategies in the classroom will enhance students’ learning and overall college experience.

Christine M. Nowik is the Assistant Dean of Student Success and Retention at Cedar Crest College.