A Day In The Life Of a Stanford MBA Student

Customer Is Always Right

Are Students Customers?

“The customer is always right.”

Whether you waited tables or checked out groceries, your boss probably hammered that dictum home. When customers complain, it takes more strength to humbly apologize than push back Forget the factual inconsistencies, passive aggressive slights or outright belligerence, customers, in essence, pay your bills. You want them back. As a result, you give them some latitude.

But what happens in markets like education? Technically, the student is a customer. They pay tuition in exchange for a service. Schools even carefully cultivate brands that are based on certain expertise and experiences. However, MIT isn’t Macy’s and Babson isn’t Burger King. In the education space, schools themselves choose their customers in the admissions process . Unlike a traditional exchange, schools don’t automatically impart knowledge or confer a degree. Instead, the process requires commitment and work from students. In fact, the students themselves are the finished products. And that creates quite a dichotomy when students control the purse strings and can walk away if they grow disenchanted.

And that raises the question: Is the customer always right in education? Should schools bend to the whims of their consumers (aka students) or is there something more intrinsic at stake here?

From the Berkeley free speech protests of the 1960s to University of Missouri diversity protests of today, students have demanded a greater role in the direction of their schools. Since they are helping to foot the bill, they undoubtedly deserve a voice. But where is the line? Recently, Santiago Iniguez, dean of the IE Business School, tackled this very topic. When it comes to business schools, he points to an inherent philosophical conflict not between students and administrators – but between administrators themselves.

One is the traditional customer-supplier model, where schools provide a commodified service to the marketplace. Iniguez cites David Bejou, Dean of the College of Business at West Virginia State University, as one proponent. “While some administrators find it difficult to accept the idea of students as consumers, in reality, that’s what they are in today’s competitive marketplace,” Bejou writes for the AACSB. “Schools are sellers offering courses, a degree, and a rich alumni life. Students are buyers who register for courses, apply for graduation, and make donations as alumni. The longer these ongoing transactions are satisfactory to both parties, the longer the relationship will endure, to the benefit of everyone.”

Iniguez considers this model to be short-sighted and simplistic. For one, a business school’s job is to push students to experiment, question, and even change – many of the same things that traditionally push away customers. “The learning experience [is] a personal transformation,” Iniguez writes, “and that at times will challenge the tastes, desires, and preconceived opinions they might have held up till now.”

However, such discomfort is absolutely essential for students to eventually achieve the ends that drove them to enroll in the first place. “It is precisely this voluntary immersion in a learning process,” Iniguez explains, “that allows students to overcome short-term difficulties, and to understand, at least in retrospect, the importance of certain practices that they may not have understood at the time, as well as to value the ups and downs of personal development, but which will conclude with the satisfaction that comes from deep-rooted personal change.” A product or service is designed to bring joy – or lessen the pain in the least. And that isn’t necessarily the goal of education.

Of course, Iniguez’s “in retrospect” is the key word here. Many students don’t appreciate growth until long after their student loans have been retired. Those moments where we are found wanting are often seared into our memories – and generally painful to summon.

As a result, being a consumer – in an academic setting – requires an entirely different set of expectations. In Iniguez’s experience, for example, the best students are often modest and open to new ideas. “It is very advisable to recall a version of Socrates’ maxim cited above: “I only know that I know nothing”. In education, a marked consumerist attitude often derives in arrogance and self-sufficiency, supposedly knowing what is best for one’s development and learning.”

However, this approach doesn’t let academics off the hook for delivering strong ‘customer service.’ In fact, Iniguez cites Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a former dean of George Washington University for nearly 20 years, for emphasizing just that. “Students are not customers nor are they not customers,” Trachtenberg is quoted as saying in the New York Times. “They are investing time and money with a purpose in mind. The school that does not serve that purpose will not survive.”

So how do Linkedin readers define this issue? As you might expect, they were all across the spectrum. Octavian Maianu, a business process consultant at Kent State University, essentially argues that the answer essentially depends on your vantage point.

“The reality is that students are in multiple roles at different times depending on [whose] lens you’re using,” Maianu writes. “From an admissions perspective, they are customers. From an educator’s perspective, they are the product. From a student’s perspective, they are both a customer and a product since they have to choose between different products (education/institution) that meet their particular needs and are seeking to be transformed in some way by the product they are purchasing. With any service, the players involved with serve different roles along the life cycle.”

Albert Powell, a Director of Learning Technologies at Colorado State University, sees students as customers except in the classroom. “They deserve and are demanding user-friendly data systems, policies and procedures that make sense, and campus (and distance student) services that help them. Any of us would ask for the same things from any vendor we do business with…BUT – inside the classroom, students are not customers, at least in the sense that they don’t control the curriculum, decide when tests will be given, or determine what they are interested in learning. Faculty and curriculum determine those things.”

Perhaps the real answer, says Boris Shmagin, a consultant, is how education is defined in the first place. “Training can be explaining and monetirzed. Education is a movement up in seeing and doing life.” In other words, if a student wants a true education, they may be best served by focusing on the process over the end result.

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Source: Linkedin

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