smith+co on
customer experience
Jennie Davis
  • By Jennie Davis
  • Nov 03 2016

Student or Customer?

can universities learn from business purpose?

A family member has recently started at university, which will cost a minimum of £27k for the duration of the course. With this amount of money changing hands between the majority of UK students and their education supplier, there is no doubt that the world of universities is big business and big money.

“Every organisation has a culture, for better or worse, just like every organisation delivers a customer experience, for better or worse.” Shaun Smith

These figures beg the question: how many universities see potential students as customers, and engage with them in the best and most robust way they can?

For my student relative, her initial experience was arguably lacking in the sort of engagement and ROI that £27k should warrant. For her first week, she was required to attend just two lectures, which lasted just two hours. During this time, there was no opportunity offered at all to engage with other students or indeed the lecturers.

The freshers week activities could be found after an online search, but if a young student hasn’t been given a platform to meet people, make connections or feel engaged during their first steps at university, who will they be attending the fresher’s activities with?

Given the number of induction programmes I’ve designed in my time, it’s fair to say that I was a tad frustrated. Yes, for the incredibly bold student or ‘customer’ they might well enjoy attending a fresher’s event alone, with no prior emotional engagement, or any forum for new connections. But for many people, especially those fresh out of college or school, a certain level of direction and guidance is required in the early stages of university life.

I’m not sure the university leadership team sees each student as a £27k asset. In this particular university, there is a walk-out clause with a full refund available in the first two weeks. So if that first impression isn’t worth writing home about, that’s potentially £27k walking out the door.

Universities typically see their purpose as research, so how does this impact on the experience for those individuals ‘purchasing’ a student experience and education certificate from them? I would argue that university leadership teams should immerse themselves in good business practice and become familiar with the role that ‘purpose’ plays in purchased education.

In the established business publication On Purpose, Shaun Smith captures this notion wonderfully as he examines creating a ‘cult-like’ culture to drive up engagement. He says:

“Every organisation has a culture, for better or worse, just like every organisation delivers a customer experience, for better or worse. What matters is that it is the one you intend and that it serves to sustain your differentiation. For us, a cult-like culture is one that can be defined in much the same way as a distinctive customer experience - consistent, intentional, differentiated and valuable.”

For the money students pay to study and experience university life, one would expect a tangible sense of intentionality when it comes to how staff engage with their students, and how students are facilitated to engage with each other. Though this will become a lot easier once the students have settled in, it is imperative that these steps are mastered in the first term.

Get your copy of On Purpose here.