Why universities need to think about customer experience

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A good CX strategy could be the difference between the success and failure of a higher education institution.

By U2B Staff 

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The success and very survival of higher education institutions today depend on their ability to provide students the best experience money can buy.

This isn’t anything new; the student experience has always contributed to an institution’s performance on global league charts.

How reliable their metrics are may remain a subject of much debate but prospective students, especially internationally-mobile undergraduates, often have little choice but to lean on them when picking an institution.

But what has changed, or rather intensified, over the years is how picky or discerning the student cohort has become. 


Students today are not only seeking for good after-sale value of their qualifications, they want an educational experience that is personalised and customised to their individual learning needs. They want a journey that is seamless, offering them ease of access to the university and its resources, from application and enrolment through to teaching methods and finally, the process of graduation.

It must be reminded that outside the higher education sphere, students are consumers like everyone else. Growing up in the digital era means they are well exposed to the world of well-honed “customer experience” or CX, where complaints are quickly met with solutions and bad reviews sink businesses.

The reality facing universities today is that they don’t only contend with each other when it comes to providing good CX, they’re also fighting with service providers in virtually every other consumer-facing industry.

Add to that an increasingly saturated, technologically disrupted, and financially squeezed higher education space and the challenge for universities becomes even greater.

A critical mindset shift

University students
Universities need to get comfortable with thinking about their students as customers. Source: Shutterstock

In such a landscape, universities need to get comfortable with thinking about their students as customers and the business of higher education as a business in itself. 

Most importantly, they need to think about the CX they provide and employ strategies that will help them win the marketplace.

There is resistance to employing such an approach, of course. Some might say that operating under the forces of marketisation pushes the higher education market toward a low-cost commoditised industry model, taking away from its very core objective, ie. to develop human knowledge and potential.

But given the pace of change in a world dictated by technological advancements, failure to accept new ways of thinking could prove catastrophic. 

Fact is, bad CX brings down businesses. Technology in the form of social media has helped make sure of this.

Remember Amy’s Baking Company from Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares? Amy and Salomon Bouzaglos, the couple behind the restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, learned the hard way what bad CX could do to a business. 

They first made headlines for their disastrous showing on the popular reality TV show where they swore at customers, took servers’ tips and fought with host Ramsay who eventually staged his first walkout without making changes to the restaurant. But whilst it definitely made for good TV (curious customers would later patronise the restaurant just to goad Amy and her husband into lashing out), it didn’t work so well in the real world.

After fuss over the episode died down, Amy’s verbal showdown with customers continued over social media and the restaurant kept bleeding customers, resulting in its eventual closure two years later. 


It goes without saying, therefore, that when it comes to dealing with paying customers–as universities do–there’s simply no alternate reality where bad CX leads to greater financial returns. 

And given that not many institutions even think about CX–research has shown this to be true–those that do take it seriously and are willing to throw resources at it will undoubtedly surge ahead in the competition for students.

For those looking to take the leap, here’s some expert-led guidance on how to approach CX for your institution, compiled from leaders in the space.

Identify your starting point

It’s always important to know where you stand in the market and where you want to position yourself.

When you think about the student or customer experience, what has your institution promised it would deliver?

Have you said your educational offering promises a transformative experience with the best learning technologies? Or does your institution provide students with the best industry links? Do you claim yours to be the most beautiful campus?

Is it all or a combination of these?

Remember again that when dealing with a discerning customer base, it’s important to put your money where your mouth is. Paying lip service won’t work; institutions must be prepared to invest in these promises because anything short won’t support or reinforce the position they have chosen to be in.


Speak to your customers, map their journey

As Touchwork points out: “Sometimes, the best thing you can do to build a strong relationship is simply spend time with people. It is no different when you are trying to build relationships with your students.”

Nothing could be truer. Remember that behind every enrolment statistic is the human student and his or her support network, each one entering higher education with a different set of ideals.

To offer them an experience of value, their needs must be placed front and center of your CX strategy. According to Vassit, “a common mistake made by universities looking to effect digital transformation is to focus the digital experience around themselves rather than the end-user.”

What are your institution’s unique selling points?

Instead, to inform their strategy, universities should seek out the opinions of current staff, students and alumni, doing this with surveys, focus groups, opinion polls or even social media.

Additionally, it’s also helpful that universities consider undertaking customer journey mapping. This refers to visualising the different stages of the customer journey, as well as the touchpoints that customers will encounter when trying to achieve a goal.

In higher education, this could refer to the process a prospective student goes through when trying to find a course they’re interested in or when they’re looking to enroll in your university; or how an existing student accesses test scores or takes that new learning module. 

It must be reminded that many prospecting students rely entirely on a university website when deciding where to study.

These “stealth applicants” are not exposed to your institution’s best marketing efforts, including even social media campaigns, relying on sources like league tables, word of mouth or a simple Google search to identify the choices they have. Once they’ve learned about your university, they then research further via your institution’s website, not making contact with the school until they’ve decided to apply.

Ongoing research by UniQuest confirms this: a recent analysis of its partner universities showed that 85 percent of students in the 2016/2017 academic year had applied without making any contact with the institution prior to application.

So it’s crucial, therefore, for universities to understand these behaviours and where in the marketing funnel they are losing or converting customers.

By mapping these journeys, your institution would be able to identify what has worked well in the past, where in each journey current or prospective students are finding themselves facing the most challenges, and from there, which areas need correcting.

Research your competition

For any strategy to work, it’s important to know where you stand among your competitors.

Ask yourself this: how does your CX differentiate you from competitors? Is your CX better than that of your peers? Is your social media strategy reaching the right people or achieving its intended targets?

Are your marketing campaigns more personalised? Does your institution offer programmes that are different in any way to your competitors’?

Have you recently introduced stackable credentials to supplement degree qualifications and want to promote that to a different student segment?


These questions and more are important to ask. The answers will help you evaluate your uniqueness in the market, and will help you elevate your institution’s potential.

RHB says: “Your task is to make your experience uncommon. By doing so, you will create value. If you can make your experience unique, you can create a monopoly.”

Coherence is key

When you’re employing a CX strategy, make sure to embed it into the very vision and mission of your institution. For the strategy to work, every department head and faculty must sing from the same hymn sheet.

Don’t oversell or create a strategy that’s artificially overdone. Again, we remind you that you’re dealing with a generation of consumers that don’t take well to being hoodwinked into believing something that isn’t immediately true. 

Open day
When it comes to CX, university teams must sing from the same hymn sheet.

If your admissions team is developing a personalised relationship with the families of student prospects and is able to attract these new potential recruits for a campus visit, it’s important that the same service is reflected in every other interaction between the same family and other parts of the university. 


RHB in an example said if the student development team takes an approach that encourages student independence, the clash of ideals would reflect poorly on the institution.

“You can see that the difference of these two mindsets may create a tension that is felt by the consumer. The gap between the high-touch service of admissions and the low-touch service of student development may create an expectation that will not be realised once a student enrolls.  

“Should admissions minimise their efforts or should other offices on campus raise their standards for student experience? That’s a tough question and one that only you and your colleagues can determine. For the sake of your customers, you all need to be on the same page.”

Make improvements

Experiences stick. And that includes even the terrible ones. What does help, however, is when you’re able to take stock of your errors and make improvements later on.

As you evaluate your CX, it’s important to always ask how you can continue to improve your offering. To do that, go back again to your student customers and ask: what do you remember the most out of your experience with us? What could we do to make this even better?

The only way to know you’ve done something well is by measuring customer, or student, satisfaction rates. More importantly, your customers’ insight will provide you with the added impetus to do better, ultimately raising your institution’s profile in the higher education landscape.

When students know you care about their experience and want to do something about it, a bad experience can be turned into a good one. They might also be more charitable when providing feedback on annual third-party student surveys, helping burnish your institution’s credentials in the global marketplace and boosting your rankings score.