Clients, not customers

Students are not customers but rather clients, involved with us in a creative process which involves the students in a fundamental way.

Clients, not customers

This is a throwback post, first published in July 2014. It came to mind yesterday while I was reading my LinkedIn feed (the only social media I really attend to these days) where a higher ed "disruptor" who I follow (and who I generally like following) made the point that the pandemic has made it clear that students are customers and higher education needs to shift its thinking in that direction. I'm giving it a signal boost now just in case this conversation comes up for any of my readers. I'm adding some update notes at the end, to catch us up to speed with my thinking about this topic in 2021.

This morning the Chronicle had an article with the expertly-crafted headline “5 Dirty Words Admissions Offices Should Embrace”. The first one of these was “customer”:

Many people who work at colleges dislike the word, preferring to call students “students.” But as more Americans question the value of higher education, Mr. Niles said, institutions must think more like businesses, with customers to please, customer-service to enhance: “It gives you a sense that you have a responsibility to them.” Colleges exist to serve students, he insisted, and not the reverse. It’s worth noting the terms used every day in admissions offices include “inquires,” “prospects,” and “suspects.”

(Ed.: “Suspects”? Really?) Unsurprisingly this generated a number of comments, some of which may contain actual dirty words.

As much as I’m uncomfortable with business-buzzword language in general and in higher ed particularly, there is – like it or not – an element of higher education that involves financial sustainability. And since we cannot expect third parties (= the general public) to continue to fork over whatever amounts of money we feel we need, yes, universities need to pay attention to things like competition, branding (which was not one of the dirty words, interestingly), and accountability. But what should we think about the concepts of “customer” and “customer service”? It sounds good on one level and diabolical on another.

I think there’s a better way to consider the relationship between students and colleges, and it’s the idea of the client, with faculty playing the role of consultants.

Over the last year I’ve had the great pleasure to do work as a consultant to clients, usually academic departments interested in learning more about the flipped classroom or teaching with technology. It’s been great fun and very fulfilling. How this works is as follows:

  • First, the client has some kind of need to fulfill or interest to pursue. For example, a math department might be interested in pursuing a flipped-learning model of instruction and they need help getting started.
  • Second, the client does some looking around for people who can help them, and since all the good people are booked through 2018, they get in touch with me to come help them, usually through an on-site workshop.
  • Third, before the workshop, the client and I get together and outline what is going to happen, by talking with the client to determine their exact needs and interests and then roughing out a plan for the flow and goals of the workshop.
  • Fourth, I retreat to my nerd-cave and hammer out a plan for the workshop that will hit the sweet spots the client mentioned and attain the goals we set.
  • Fifth, during the workshop, I work actively with the client (which is really a group of people, not one person) and make sure everything runs as planned. Which it never does, because people do not know what they truly want when they first talk to me, and that’s OK because I am the same. So, I kiss my plans goodbye and improvise on the spot with the goal of help them want the things that they truly need. (It’s taken me nearly 20 years of classroom teaching and 10 years of parenting to realize the difference.)
  • Sixth, once the workshop is over, I get back with the client and get assessment data of some sort – usually just a verbal debrief of what went well and what could be improved, and I mull this over endlessly until the next client emails me.

This process seems similar to other client-consultant relationships you’ll find: web design consultants hired by businesses to create web sites (there’s an example of where what the client wants is not necessarily what they need), personal trainers hired to help people get fit, financial planners who help people get their money in order for the future, and so on. I’ve heard that even medical practices are moving to this model, where doctors are there not to tell patients what to do, but to provide perspective and knowledge and to help the patient make decisions about his or her own health.

Clients and customers are similar in some ways. They are both paying for something and will get some sort of deliverable (though not necessarily tangible) product in return. They are both justified in being dissatisfied if the product they receive is not, in their estimation, worth the expense they incurred. However, there are two important differences.

  • A customer is participating in a transaction in which something of value (money) is being exchanged for a finished product. If the product isn’t what the customer wanted, then the customer is justified in taking action to either get his/her money back or else get the product they did want. By contrast, a client is participating in a process in which they are co-creators of the product they want. The consultant – and other clients – are the other co-creators. The consultant is there to provide expertise, perspective, and guidance. The consultant’s particular responsibility is to refine what the client says he/she wants into the thing that they actually want but don’t realize it yet.
  • A customer has basically no responsibility in this transaction other than to employ due diligence in shopping around prior to participating in it. On the other hand, a client has two crucial responsibilities. First, they have to attend to their side of the creation process, to do the work that’s been delegated to them and to make their thoughts clear to the consultant. Second, the client has to listen to the consultant and follow his/her guidance and trust in his/her expertise. If the final product isn’t to the client’s liking, the client is obligated in most cases to take at least some of the blame, because they were collaborating in the project. On the other hand if it’s good, the client gets to take some of the credit.

The client-consultant model for me is the right way to think about students in higher education. Students have invested, often at great expense, to participate in higher education, and colleges have a responsibility to honor that investment by treating students well. It’s wrong to tell students that there are “just students”, so please shut up and take what we give you and be grateful. But students are not “customers”, for the simple reason that they have a relationship with both the product and the experts in the system that mere customers don’t have.

I also like conceptualizing my role as a professor as that of a consultant with my students. It implies a close and productive working relationship with students, one where I am working with students rather than against them, treating them not necessarily as equals but as respected partners. I’m supposed to listen to them, help them set and meet goals, and come away from the experience with a “product” that makes us all happy.

For me, that’s a healthy and long-lasting model of higher education that the general public will readily buy into.

Postscript: One commenter at the original CHE left a helpful pair of academic papers about students as clients. I intend to dig into those before school starts back.

Updates for 2021: This article was on my mind a lot too during my sabbatical where I was working with people who are actually customers on a daily basis. And it resurfaced last week when I was speaking with the Student Affairs folks at SUNY Broome about what we in higher education can learn from the business world, drawing on my experiences during that sabbatical. One of the first things I told the SUNY people was that I am not going to sit here and claim that "higher education needs to be run like a business" because higher education and businesses have fundamentally different goals, models, and assumptions. While the two sectors have more in common than we realize, and while we in higher ed would be well served to study what good businesses do well (including customer service), the syllogism ends there.

The pandemic, if anything, has definitively driven home this point that students are not customers in higher education but rather clients, involved with us in a creative process which involves the students in a fundamental way. We faculty don't craft a product and then sell it to the students; the students are themselves part of the crafting process, and this is what makes higher education useful and compelling. At least, this is how it should be, and probably needs to be if higher education is to be viable moving forward.

In fact it's when we conceive of students as customers — and therefore put ourselves in the role of manufacturer and retailer, making and selling a product to the students without their involvement — that we start to slide into irrelevance. Because students can buy that sort of thing anywhere, or even get it for free. If we go this route — especially in our pedagogy, if we choose or slide back into teaching models that are passive and uninvolving — then we'll likely end up going the way of many manufacturers and retailers today. Have you seen some of the empty shopping malls recently?