For many of us, the adage “the customer is always right” still holds true. A customer-centric strategy is so important, in fact, that any organization that finds a way to serve customers better will be able to disrupt even the most well-established industry. Nowadays, of course, such solutions often involve technology.
The higher education community has a lingering discomfort with the notion of “customers,” at least in some quarters. To be sure, the institutional mission of educating learners, particularly when we think about providing a formative experience to young people, does not equate to the corporate mission of selling products. Yet we shouldn’t forget that students — along with staff, faculty, researchers, alumni, donors and community partners — are our customers, and IT teams have immense power to give them a great experience or one that’s not so great.
Steve Jobs was famous for flipping this notion on its head. As he said to BusinessWeek back in 1998, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” People have been debating this statement ever since, but it’s hard to argue with Jobs’s larger point about innovation. Change is tough, and it’s even harder when the change agent must first convince users of the merits of a new direction.
So, what’s the right mix of listening to customers and leading them? It’s a balancing act that I suspect is familiar to many IT professionals. At some institutions, having the time to even consider such a question might feel like a luxury. If staff are stretched so thin that they barely have time to put out the fires every day, stopping to think up ways to serve customers better might feel like a lower priority. Yet making the time to think about customers — and IT’s relationship with them — is critical.
In higher education IT, the importance of “good customer service” can’t be overstated. Institutions that are unable to deliver secure, high-performing connectivity will have a hard time attracting high-caliber students, staff, faculty and researchers. This connectivity may start in the classroom, but it extends throughout campus to the library, labs, research facilities, residence halls, collaborative spaces, stadiums and even the grassy quadrangle, where students expect to be able to log on and work as if they were sitting inside a classroom.
What works, I believe, is for IT to create and maintain open lines of communication with users/customers. Everything about technology changes so quickly — the tools, the applications, users’ habits and preferences, cybersecurity threats — that learning how to maintain high levels of service at all times, in all conditions, is imperative. Customer service must be built into an IT department’s processes, not tied to a particular product or rollout.
One institution that shines in this regard is the University of California, Berkeley. Recognizing that students comprise the largest group of users of IT services, Berkeley created systems to ensure students are closely involved in IT processes and — here’s the critical piece — regularly have opportunities to give input into IT decisions. Berkeley’s Student Technology Council, for example, advises the CIO on student technology and is represented on major IT committees. The university also has students staff its IT help desk and work in student affairs IT. This is a win-win strategy that gives students valuable experience and ensures that IT stays closely connected to its customers, not as a one-off survey, but as an ongoing conversation in which each side understands the other’s experiences, challenges and objectives.
Berkeley’s model could work in almost any institution, or it might spark ideas for other ways to enhance the customer service experience. Berkeley’s strategy deserves mention for another reason. It puts into practice one of the most basic principles of service: Know your customer. That’s a philosophy that I believe even Steve Jobs would approve of.
This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.