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When Customer Service Really Matters

I’ve written before on this site (most recently here) about the customer-service mentality that is infecting college campuses across the country with the belief that students are “customers” and instructors merely “service providers.”

Not in the classroom, I’ve argued. The idea that a student in the classroom is a customer leads to some dangerous conclusions—such as that “the customer is always right”—and puts faculty members in the untenable position of trying to please customers rather than teach students. You’re probably familiar with the arguments; I’m not going to rehash them here, and I am far from the only one making them.

All that aside, I have recently been reminded firsthand—as a parent, not as a faculty member or administrator—that there are times and situations where good customer service on a college campus is indeed vital.

My son is a senior in high school taking several classes at a nearby college as a dual-enrollment student. Not the college where I work, but another state institution that is much closer to our home (long story).

A few weeks ago, he had to register for spring-semester classes. As a dual-enrollment student, still taking classes at the high school (along with basketball practice, student council, etc.), he needed to schedule his college classes at very specific times.

He had been forewarned by the college’s dual-enrollment coordinator that sections fill up fast, so he was prepared the moment the registration portal opened (at midnight on a Sunday) to enter his selections.

Just one problem: Somehow a hold had been mistakenly placed on his account, so that when he opened the portal, he was unable to register. By the time he was able to contact the dual-enrollment office, at 8 the next morning, all the sections that fit his schedule had already closed. Obviously, this presented a significant problem for him and for our family.

Now, I was an administrator of one sort or another for 20 years. I understand that glitches occur, that people make mistakes. I spent a lot of time in my various administrative roles working to correct the mistakes of the people who worked under me—and all too often my own mistakes. But the point is that I did do whatever I could to correct them, and to make sure people who weren’t at fault, like students, didn’t have to suffer because of our snafus and miscues.

That’s what I expected to happen in this situation, and I was prepared to be very angry if it didn’t. I needn’t have worried. I had one brief conversation with the dual-enrollment coordinator and another with the assistant registrar, during which they both assured me that they would do whatever they could to get my son into the classes he needed.

“Just send Michael by, and I’ll help him work things out,” the coordinator told me. So I did. Between the two of them, and with some help from various deans and staff members, they were able to put together a schedule that, if not ideal, at least works for him.

I am grateful to that institution, and to those individuals, for putting the customer first in this situation. I would like to think, and I do believe, that my own institution would have responded in the same way. Besides being an excellent lesson in letting go for me as a dad, the episode was a good reminder for me as a professional that, even if our students aren’t exactly customers, we are there to serve them.

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