Today's students are non-traditional in the sense that they bring a consumer mindset to the higher education system. Given that they are used to a well-honed Customer Experience (CX) which they've already generally discovered in the "real world", they thus expect something more personalised and customised from education institutions.
In other words, students of today expect their experience with universities to match up with the level of service that they receive in the consumer world. But should they? And is it even possible?
The whole idea of the importance of CX to higher education isn't exactly new, but in recent years there has been an increased interest in it with institutions devoting more resources.
Students = Customers
But there is some resistance to thinking of students as customers.
Traditionally, many business leaders have subscribed to the edict, "the customer is always right", a dictum that doesn’t sit too well with educators whose very purpose is to tell students what is right. If students truly are customers, shouldn't they always get what they pay for? In that scenario, pass rates would be 100%, and no student would ever fail. Put it this way: If Amazon only partially sent you an item, would you be satisfied?
On the one hand, certain aspects of the university cannot- and should not - be commoditized, for example, the grading process. But on the other, universities cannot ignore the fact that students are purchasing something from them.
As customers, the path students take is very long, ranging from four to six years, and beginning with the decision-making journey.
As in the business world, marketing teams in universities are now mapping this journey, studying the steps a prospective student will take and tweaking the messaging and touchpoints accordingly. Practically speaking, there are four key stages in this process which mirror that of any organisation.
In the first stage, universities should identify student personas – the audiences most likely to apply to the school. In general, these personas will be prospective students or parents of prospective students but may also include alumni if a school is looking for donors.
In the second stage, the university should identify touchpoints - such as social media accounts, the website, the admissions office - all the moments that a persona will interact with the university both online and in person.
In the third stage, the university should gather feedback from students and recognise any pain points that have occurred across any channel along the journey.
Finally, after the journey map is complete, it can be shared with those responsible for managing the university's numerous touchpoints such as the web designers, the admissions staff, campus tour staff and the marketers. The goal at this stage is to refine the map based on the feedback acquired in stage three and refine it, increasing its effectiveness.
RHB, a U.S marketing and design consultancy firm serving higher education, has done some research about the pain points in the deposit process and given an example of how it can be refined.
A university had come to RHB with a problem regarding friction that was occurring when students tried to submit a deposit through the university's website. RHB discovered that it took two logins and a minimum of 12 clicks for a student to give the university money.
Going deeper, Alisa Chambers, a designer and developer at RHB, looked at eight different institutions' deposit processes to find more examples of friction. She found that in three of the eight cases a student had to click five times to reach the deposit page. Furthermore, the deposit pages were obfuscated by using vague language like "Secure your spot", "Want to register?" and "Reserve your place", when they should just say what they mean: "Add to cart".
Chambers came up with a simple redesign of the deposit process with CX in mind. "It should be designed in a way that is most convenient for the customer, not an even compromise of convenience between buyer and seller," she writes. "Be thoughtful about your language, your payment gateway and your login process."
As service becomes an increasingly important differentiator, institutions that are not implementing CX strategies to compete risk lagging behind.
Last year, The Digital Clarity Group (DCG) surveyed institutions in both the U.S. and U.K. and found that a lack of CX leadership and a failure to fully embrace digital channels were among the chief weaknesses of higher education institutions that are struggling to make the shift to a customer-centric world.
Today, universities ignore CX at their peril since the higher education sector has had to evolve due to the pressure exerted by student expectations and the competitive nature of the education market.