Posted tagged ‘customers’

The customer as king, or maybe scumbag

May 11, 2010

Many years ago, when I was 11 years old, I bought a chocolate toffee bar (I now forget the brand name) from a small local shop. When I tore open the paper wrapping I discovered, to my surprise, that what was inside was a piece of plastic of about similar dimensions to the anticipated sweet. The bar was manufactured by Cadburys, and on the wrapper there was an address you could write to if you had a complaint. So I packed the plastic ‘sweet’ into an envelope and sent it to the company. About a week later I got back a big parcel with a letter of apology and a selection of Cadburys products. I was so pleased with this that for some years afterwards I always felt all the sweet packets before I bought them in the hope that I might find another plastic one. I never did, alas. But I was now aware of the concept of customer service.

In fact, customer service was never that big a thing in Europe. Or perhaps, even if you did your best to provide your customers with what they needed, you might not be inclined to do it with a gracious tone or good humour, as perhaps to do so was thought to be just a little demeaning. I remember in particular taking a holiday in the then Soviet Union in 1988 and being just amazed at the extent to which people serving you could reach what were for me totally unimaginable levels of froideur. Certainly a smile was always out of the question.

But then we all became more aware of how this was done in the United States, and we began to shift from the idea that ‘Have a nice day’ was really just annoying to a point where we saw friendliness and helpfulness as worthwhile attitudes. This even infected the public service in some countries, with officials emphasising their service role and inviting users to suggest ways in which it could be improved.

But now I wonder whether this is being rolled back. As we all know, there is a well known airline which has a degree of uncooperativeness vis-à-vis customers built into their business model, in part because meeting annoyed customer demands is expensive. And today I ordered something from an online service, only to be told by way of a rather curt email that they did not propose to deliver the product (which I had already paid for), for no reason they were willing to divulge, and with the added inconvenience that a refund (of the not entirely small payment) would be made only if I went through a rather annoying bureaucratic process. When I suggested by return email that an explanation and an apology would have been nice I got no response at all.

What are we to make of all this? Is it now the new business model that customers are expensive if they are not tightly controlled, and that it is a definite no-no to offer them any guidance, support or regret when things go wrong? Will this approach also infect the public service?

But more worryingly, are those who are pushing this new way of doing things in fact right? Is it better and more profitable to be unhelpful and unfriendly?

Customers, consumers, traders? What are students?

October 22, 2009

Just over a year ago I raised the question of whether it is appropriate or helpful to think of university students as customers. Are they buying something from us (or is the state doing so on their behalf), and if so, what does that suggest should be their attitude and ours to the ‘transaction’ between us? Across the Irish Sea in the UK, this is a question that is being asked with increasing frequency. In part this is because in England (and Wales and Northern Ireland, but not in Scotland) tuition fees are now payable, and indeed are rising. This has prompted the question whether students, conscious that they or their families are paying, are becoming more demanding as they insist that they receive the appropriate service.

I dislike the latter way of looking at it. In fact, I dislike it a lot. I believe that students have rights when they enter a university, and that these rights are not in some way different because they either do or do not make a financial contribution themselves. They have a right to expect a good education, just as they have a responsibility to contribute active participation and effort. Education is a process experienced in partnership between the student and her or his tutors. It costs money, and somebody has to pay it (though in Ireland we don’t appear to have grasped that yet, properly), but the exact identity of the purchaser isn’t critical, it seems to me: the beneficiary, with all rights, is the student.

In the UK the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, has now entered this debate, and he has suggested how students should approach their courses:

‘It’s a change in culture and attitude that we want to encourage. As students who go into higher education pay more, they will expect more and are entitled to receive more in terms, not just of the range of courses, but in the quality of experience they receive during their time in the higher education system. If there is a degree of passivity then, I hope, that without rejoining our student population to take to the barricades, that they become pickier, choosier and more demanding consumers of the higher education experience. Therefore teacher quality and the quality of the teaching experience is going to become more important.’

Lord Mandelson’s speech contains further reference to the changing assumptions of higher education, to the prospects of reduced public spending and the need for universities to diversify their income while also expecting closer scrutiny and control – themes with which we are now well familiar in Ireland. But what this shows is that the shifting patterns of funding and the current tight budgets are having an unpredictable impact on financial and operational autonomy for universities. It is clear enough that the old assumptions are dead, but we don’t yet have new ones. If we are to have a confident and internationally competitive system of higher education, we need a greater consensus around this. Let us hope that our own current strategy processes will help to deliver that.

Students as customers?

September 21, 2008

Tomorrow (or rather, I should say later today, as it’s past midnight) I shall be welcoming a new group of first year students to Dublin City University. It’s a moment I really enjoy, as you can almost smell the sense of excitement and of a new adventure amongst the people in the room – a lot of raw idealism mingled with just a tad of anxiety. It is always a moment when I experience the sense of shared ambition between the students and the faculty, and when I hope fervently that this survives and prospers throughout the time they spend with us.

One of the things I try to tell the students is that they are not here just to acquire the information and analysis that we give them – it is a much more equal relationship than that, and must be driven by a sense of shared purpose and the willingness to engage in mutual learning. And what this also raises is the question as to what the relationship is between the students and those of us who are employed by the university.

From the 1980s it became common to talk about students as the university’s ‘customers’. The thinking behind this was based largely on the desire to describe a relationship between autonomous and more or less equal parties, with the students entitled to demand support and performance from lecturers and professors. Academics on the whole have been uncomfortable with this label, in part because it suggests that higher education is a market activity in which a commodity is being bought by (or on behalf of) the students. But if they are not customers, what are they? They are certainly not just pupils under instruction and subject to the lecturer’s control.

This is important also because the gradual introduction of quality control measures into academic life has made it necessary to consider what role students should have in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the courses they are studying. Some of the early quality assurance systems almost excluded students from the process. On the whole that has been remedied, or is being remedied, but there are still questions about the extent to which student opinions should be accepted as objective measurements – the fear being, for example, that popularity will be confused with quality.

We probably have not yet resolved the issues in this debate. However, it should be clear to all of us working in universities that students are not our subjects, but our partners in the adventure of higher education. We need to treat them with respect and listen to their opinions and act on their judgements to the greatest degree possible. When we do so, we are also likely to benefit from the contribution that many many students will make to the quality of the learning experience that we, as university staff, can and should also enjoy.