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Improving the Higher Education Customer Experience

This week begins our 10 week journey into 10 different types of businesses and how they can deliver exceptional experiences for Customers.

This week we will be diving into Higher Education – which is particularly relevant since many schools started back this week or are about to welcome students in the coming days.

Much of what we discuss will have relevance to any business – let’s face it, polite service is polite service any way you slice it.  But every industry has its own nuances that make it special and that have particular resonance to its Customers.

To harness excellence in any one of these businesses it is crucial that you understand the larger mission, the Guest perspective, potential pitfalls, and how to win.

So to begin, let’s take the temperature of the marketplace.  Right now Higher Education is at a cross roads – and it has been there for a long moment now.  There is declining enrollment and smaller institutions are fighting to survive.  There are pressures from many different sources and the online aspect has eaten away at the brick-and-mortar institution’s student base.  At the same time, online colleges and courses are finding their footing in the marketplace and everyone is trying to figure out how these two different channels can work together.

At the same time, just as in health care, prices continue to rise and the overall value of education comes into question.  The question isn’t around “Should I go to college” but rather “What is my post secondary strategy?”  There are many options from 2-year degrees, trade/culinary schools, online universities, and your traditional university experience at a 4 year institution.  That’s a lot of options, and all have their degrees of advantages and costs.

But we aren’t here to discuss the future of higher education as much as we are to help craft a Customer focused mission to help you win.

So let's jump in and talk about 4 points of consideration to delight and retain your Customers:

THE MISSION This is one of the most critical pieces to success.  Without understanding the core mission, everything else just starts to lose momentum.  Every business has a central focus that drives success for the Guest, and in Higher Education it is all about the education.  When you train, onboard, and motivate your teams, be sure to keep the core mission in mind at all times.  Walt Disney called this The Weenie - the one thing that drives Guests and inspires them to move in a certain direction.  There are many different types of services happening on a college campus - admissions, curriculum, campus housing, student life/programming, book store, and more.  It is easy for all of these different missions to get siloed and to find themselves operating in a universe all their own.  The best way to combat this is by having a strong core mission and inspiring robust communication between departments.  That mission is very simple:  To help students get an education.  Sure there are those who teach, care for the grounds, recruit new students, and sell books - but when everyone embraces the mission bigger than themselves it is a powerful way to get the whole campus team to pull the rope in the same direction.

THE GUEST PERSPECTIVE Understanding our Guests is key in any channel, but in Higher Ed, it takes on a whole new meaning.  Today's college student is as much the same as they are different from those who came before.  Never forget, regardless of generation, college marks the first time that students are away from home for any length of time.  These days, not many go to summer camp, and with the propensity for today's parents to be hovering "helicopter parents," this represents a real chance for little Johnnie to spread his wings for the first time as an adult.  This can be a source of excitement and anxiety all at the same time.  Pepper in the cost of college, the uncertainty around the job market, and the odd ball roommate who won't pick up his socks, and you have a Guest in need of some real understanding.  Keep in mind that this marks a real milestone in the life of students on campus and often they may need an understanding ear and a kind smile as they orientate themselves to this new adventure.

THE PITFALLS Students are the life blood of all campuses.  Too often it is easy for folks on college campuses to assume that since the college is built, the students will come - in today's competitive market place, it is a constant battle for every student who enrolls.  The cost of acquisition has never been higher and colleges can't afford to take a single student for granted.  Also, the days of certain departments seeing students as an imposition to their work rather than the reason for it have to placed firmly in the rear view mirror.  Everyone has to take ownership for attracting students and then work tirelessly to retain them.  This means that faculty and staff must be hired and trained with a focus on enhancing the overall student experience.  It also means that when students start on campus, they too must be welcomed and made to feel very much at home in their new surroundings.

HOW TO WIN Winning in higher ed requires a fierce devotion to students and a willingness to see them as Guests rather than just enrollment statistics.  Students, when treated as Customers, can develop a deep loyalty to institutions and become not just donors, but advocates.  I myself have a deep level of devotion to my alma mater Ball State University, and it comes down to not only the education I received, but the overall experience I had while living in Muncie, Indiana.  Enrollment departments must become assertive recruiters; residence halls should feel like hotels; and food should have the tastes both of home and a great restaurant.  There are a million details that can lead to a fantastic educational experience, and many have nothing to do with the classroom.  It all comes down to making things as easy as possible for students - from enrollment to classes to buying books.  When they feel that their university is loyal to them and has their best interests at heart, they will reciprocate that loyalty back at a very high level.

So remember, college students cannot be taken for granted, but when treated well they have a propensity to develop life long relationships with their universities.

But often, this all begins by treating them not just like a student, but as a cherished friend.  There are campuses full of brilliant, motivated, and caring leaders who are ready to do just that.  Higher Education is a fantastic place with amazing faculty and staff - and brimming with hope.  I want to extend my thanks to everyone who is working tirelessly right now to get their semesters off to a fantastic start.

Next week we will take a deep dive into the restaurant industry.  I look forward to us dishing up some fantastic best practices (and yes, better puns) together.


Tony Johnson is a Customer Experience Expert, Keynote Speaker, and Author with a wide background including decades in retail and restaurants.  He regularly speaks and coaches organizations to IGNITE THEIR SERVICE PASSION using his common sense approach to Customer engagement.  Tony has spoken to government agencies and Fortune 500 companies to unlock their amazing capacity for excellence.

Check out Tony's FREE Resources and Training Tools: Web: YouTube: Twitter:

Check out Tony's book: RECIPE FOR SERVICE Now Available on

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