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.

  • Faculty Development

    Often people reject what they otherwise would agree with, solely because of unfortunate associations. Whenever we encounter those problems in faculty development, my coworkers and I brainstorm new terms to change the associations. We've even renamed an initiative to resolve such problems.

    Why does the term have to be "customer service"? Why not "mentorship" or something else? See what you and your colleagues can come up with.

  • Faculty Member

    Of course this was written by a Dean–an administrator who is shielded from the realities of the classroom.

    • Faculty Member

      I agree with this perspective because Administrators and Deans have become so removed from the classroom environment that they think one teaching method or technique fits all classes, and that all courses afford the instructor time to include them in the course. Instructional styles and techniques will vary based on whether or not the the course is qualitive or quantitive in its contents. Additionally, they feel that all instructors, and every corurse have substantial time to implement every new concept that is published regardless of whether or not its implementation has been tested, and been demonstrated to be effective and effectual based on the time it takes to implement them.

      • Christine

        Just saw this comment as I was looking back for an old source. I probably should have noted in this brief article that I've been teaching for fifteen years and have certainly been anything but "shielded" in the classroom. Thanks for your comment, though.

  • Greg

    Thanks for a common sense post! It's a slippery slope teachers and administrators will find themselves on if they always bend to the "instant gratification" demands of what some would refer to as the "entitlement generation." Common sense, common courtesy, and common sense can still be part of any customer or student service mandate.

    Additionally, your four customer service objectives can easily be adapted and would be acceptable to the majority of students, I would think:

    1. Interact with other students and college/university staff respectfully and courteously.
    2. Listen carefully in an effort to understand others’ points of view.
    3. Strive to become knowledgeable problem solvers.
    4. Take responsibility for your education and continuous improvement.

    • Greg

      OOPs! I meant "common sense, common courtesy, and common respect."

  • Aylwin Forbes

    I don't think any reasonable person would object to the "customer service" objectives as outlined by UTEP; but do I really need a workshop to tell me to how to " Interact with others respectfully and courteously?" If so, I have some serious inter-personal issues.

    Where I see pushback against the customer service ideology is when the management eradicates traditional professional development (attending conferences, workshops etc) and replaces it with some overly energetic self-help "guru" who asks you how big your blue dot is and wants you to make every day a great day!

    • Eileen

      Hi, I am very interested in hearing what you would want in training to support a service initiative, since you know what you don't want. We are working on a university wide initiative at Coastal Carolina University and I would appreciate what trainings you feel would be beneficial without being "hokey" and big blue dot!!
      Thanks so much-

  • While learning, students are not customers they are our partners.

    It may make sense for an institution to regard its students as customers because the institution provides (many) services that students pay for. It may make sense to think of programs provided by an institution as products offered to students which must have a good ROI for both the institution as well as for the students. However, like any metaphor, this one too has limitations and it quickly breaks down when extended to faculty and students, to teaching and learning.

    Metaphors are important and, as teachers, we learn to use them often and use them well. Metaphors can clarify an abstract concept, can ground an idea and can provide the intuition necessary to an in-depth understanding that often times leads to innovation. Scientists have been using metaphors since time immemorial with many discoveries being attributed to metaphors but also many missteps. The missteps are due to overextending a metaphor.

    In his Touring Award lecture, Fernando Corbató said:

    “The value of metaphors should not be underestimated. Metaphors have the virtue of an expected behavior that is understood by all. Unnecessary communication and misunderstandings are reduced. Learning and education are quicker. In effect metaphors are a way of internalizing and abstracting concepts allowing one's thinking to be on a higher plane and low-level mistakes to be avoided.”

    It is worth taking a step back and evaluating the consequences of an overextended metaphor achieving the opposite: learning and education that are slower, positioning one’s thinking on the wrong higher plane and a source of low-level mistakes. It is my view that extending the customer service metaphor to the classroom is an over-extension.

    When it comes to teaching and learning, faculty and students are partners, the product is the learning that ensues and the customer is society as a whole, which benefits from it all. If anybody can be the judge of whether the product (learning) is worth the price (taxes) it is the society itself which is indeed always right: the patient who receives care from a doctor that must be capable of providing it, the person who drives over a bridge that must not collapse when it’s windy outside and the person who flies in a plane that must be capable of flying. A professor does not sell its knowledge to the student who is learning, they share it and together the student and the teacher are preparing to make sure society continues to be “well served”.

    Perhaps, the feedback from your session should be celebrated. We are not in a “worse shape than imagined”, we intuitively or analytically understand that all metaphors have their limitations and that in this case, the customer service metaphor ceases to apply.

    Reference: Corbató F. J. (1991) On Building Systems that Fail, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 34, No. 9,

  • Prof

    I find much of the "customer service" rhetoric demeaning and resent the presumption that I need to be told how to treat students professionally. .Our students should be understood as clients, receiving our services, not customers being served.

  • Guest

    I thought the article was well-written and could not argue against anything said, and I've had some of the same concerns we all have had along the way!

  • CalStateBizProf

    It's regrettable that folks reject good ideas like these out of hand because of their association with business. While there are major, important differences between higher ed and business, some ideas do have merit. Recognizing that students may be prone to exaggeration, or telling the 'truth as they see it,' I regularly hear stories of colleagues disrespecting students; I also regularly witness instances of colleagues disrespecting one another! In sum, this piece reminds me of the importance of professionalism and collegiality.

  • Pingback: Interesting article « NACADA's Faculty Advising commission()

  • ChemInstructor

    If we all taught with the idea of "serving" students, our institutions would be better places. I am not suggesting that instructors remove the job of learning from the student at all. I set high standards for my students and my students have to work hard at learning. However, students often need help and being available whether electronically or in-person is considered by some to be secondary or unnecessary. Taking excessive time to grade and give feedback inhibits the learning process. Listening to students is important regardless of what they are saying. Attitude is important and students know when their professor is self-serving as opposed to really caring about the student.

  • If you want a student to “buy in” to what the teacher is selling, best to practice common sense customer service strategies to build the relationship. By the way, the customer (student) is not always right. So when they are wrong, treat them with dignity.

  • Don cook

    Learning in its universal sense is a form of knowledge in which the knowledge, talent in addition to behavior of a collection of people is transfer from one production to the next

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  • Gretchen Lindell

    Thank you for your insightful and thorough observations. I recently wrote a post on my blog,, which parallels your approach. It is interesting that we hail from similar backgrounds too. I write from the perspective of dean/faculty member. Student success counseling changed my whole perspective on what should and should not occur within the classroom.