What a Customer Experience Manager Does (and Why You Need One on Your Campus)

Over the course of my first year here at RHB, I have been going through our vast library of Insights articles to tap into the best thinking of my RHB colleagues over the three decades (and more) that RHB has been providing expert counsel to our clients. The article below strikes me as particularly evergreen, especially for student success-minded institutions seeking a seamless transition between their recruitment and retention efforts, ensuring that the promises made in the former are realized in the latter, and that there is—to use a word that carries a lot of weight at RHB—coherence throughout the student journey from discovery all the way through to degree and beyond.

Back in 2018, I remember reading this piece by Rick Bailey when I was Lawrence University’s Vice President for Enrollment and Communications, and it catalyzed my thinking around how a customer experience manager would be an optimal role for us to create as we embarked on a campus-wide effort to improve our retention and graduation rates. It turns out that we even had the right person already on our team, even though he was in a more narrowly focused role at the time. The role—as you will see in the job description below—serves as the “coherence keeper,” aligning the institution’s behaviors across all departments and divisions around the values it expresses. 

One of the silver linings of the Great Resignation is that it creates opportunities for institutions to rethink before refilling open roles. Would a customer experience manager help your institution progress more effectively and rapidly toward its goals? Read on, reflect and—to quote Rick yet again—imagine voraciously.

Look. We get it. Calling students customers really makes you squeamish. We’ve heard the arguments against that label. Still, follow RHB Insights for a while and you’ll no doubt read our thinking about customer experience. I’d like you to understand our comfort (and I’d like to help you be more comfortable) with the word customer as a fitting description for all your important audience groups: faculty, students, parents, prospects, donors, alumni, neighbors—anyone with you transact and make exchange, whether it’s ideas or money.

Customer is a great word and granted, we know the trouble with it when it comes to higher ed. We’ve been part of the conversation of the pros and cons of the notion of “student as customer” for years and we’ve read both points of view, especially the “anti-customer” perspective (here, here and here are examples).

One difficulty in understanding students and alumni as customers is their inability to return for a refund. They’re stuck with what they get from you. Dissatisfied customers have little choice other than to drop out or transfer impeding your retention ambitions. Or they stop giving, or never give in the first place.

I’m beginning to believe that reluctance to adopt the customer label stems from your fear that we support the notion that “the customer is always right.” That’s simply not true, especially when it comes to students. Viewing our audiences as customers doesn’t equate to our bowing to their every whim. It simply means that we respect that the person on the other side of our transaction is an intelligent and reasonable consumer. A consumer with needs, interests, ambitions and defined parameters perhaps different from the ones we may deem best for them. Yet, until students appreciate the significance of transformation, they must be understood in terms of what they carry into the transaction. The student is always a consumer of our services: in the residence hall, bookstore, dining commons, health center, and in the classroom.

What’s most important to your students? A degree, or a degree from a College that Changes Lives? A diploma, or a diploma from an Ivy League institution? Studying at home or studying in the library? Studying alone or with a virtual cohort or studying in a classroom with 50 others? Learning at their own pace or pacing their learning by semester hours?

When faced with options, customers are empowered to choose. We need to respect that customers have alternative choices. If they choose us, we need to deliver experiences that consistently reflect their choice of us.

The ability to choose reminds everybody in your organization of the significance of exchange. Even though most campus personnel weigh transformation as the currency of exchange, those on the other side of the exchange understand it to be weighted as transaction. Parents and prospects are writing checks and they want something specific in return. Even altruistically-motivated donors see the importance of transaction and most expect to be recognized in some way.

Customer is not a bad word and certainly nothing to fear; it only helps to understand the mindset of the other parties in an exchange and helps campus personnel think about their accountability to the other parties in the exchange. As a firm, we refer to our customers as “clients,” a term I have heard higher ed professionals use in place of “customers.” Our clients see themselves as clients and call themselves “clients.” I appreciate the elevated nuance of the word “client.” The point is, however, the self-perception of those you serve should act as your guide. If families see themselves as customers, you should see them that way too. Get on their page to allow your relationship to flourish.

Customer experience is nothing new, of course, but the idea of managing customer experience has seen increased favor in recent years. Knowing that your brand is built on the impressions you make or have on individuals heightens the importance of their encounters with you. While it’s relatively easy to control the messages you send in digital and print communications, trying to manage all the touchpoints with customers becomes a heftier proposition. The greeting of a receptionist answering the phone, a smile from a student walking across campus, the manner in which a professor lectures, the quality of the campus landscaping, or the availability of parking for visitors all shape perceptions and customer impressions. Yet these “experiences” are often well out of any marketer’s control. At best, preferred standards can be established and communicated; and these standards can be taught and managed to a degree.

The management of these encounters with customers—their experiences with you—prompts interest in adding professionals to your marketing team. Increasingly, corporations are building entire departments to address customer experience management. Thus, experience and service designers are among the most employable new experts in the market. Technical teams include experience designers to ensure their new products will meet the demands for ease of use. Hospitals and health care systems employ customer experience managers to ensure patients are receiving exceptional care. Athletic franchises use the expertise of their customer experience managers to make the fan experience fun and memorable. High Point University has invested in customer experience to the degree that a campus concierge helps to address the needs of students, and the physical plant staff is referred to as the “campus enhancement team.”

Since a customer experience manager is quickly gaining momentum as an essential employee for campuses, we’re providing a model job description to assist you. You may already have someone on campus equipped to move into this position. You may need to recruit a professional. Here are some ideas to jumpstart your thinking about this significant role on your campus.

Who are you looking for?

Because service design, design thinking and human-centered design are all relatively new fields, you may find it difficult to find a seasoned practitioner. Several colleges and universities have added programs in customer experience design, most notably Stanford’s D School, enabling you to recruit from these programs directly. You may have success finding a marketing professional with background in business management who possesses skills in customer experience or design. Overall, you’re looking for someone with strong leadership, communication, and professional skills. Your customer experience manager likely will be a connoisseur of hospitality in all its forms.

What will a customer experience manager do?

Job Description

Reports to President or CMO

  1. Examines/Audits customer journey identifying opportunities for improvements in customer experience across the campus.
  2. Oversees qualitative and quantitative marketing, customer, and satisfaction research. Works with research professionals to collect, analyze, and interpret customer interaction data to identify requirements and information useful in optimizing customer experience.
  3. Clearly understands the scope of audiences and constituencies of the campus.
  4. Defines and implements standards/procedures for ensuring optimal customer experience. Helps define and establish a standard for customer experience across the campus.
  5. Convenes campus teams charged with managing customer experiences to offer insights and evaluations/work across teams.
  6. Contributes to new employee training; cooperates with HR in conveying customer experience expectations.
  7. Presents data to stakeholders including trustees as a measure of success for the campus.
  8. Offers recommendations regarding campus facility improvements or accessibility.
  9. Partners with IT and data managers to assess and improve communications with customers (online, social, print, digital).
  10. Liaises with marketing, sales (recruitment and advancement) and advertising units to analyze customer feedback and develop programs effective for improved customer experience.
  11. Enlightens campus personnel on the associated benefits/consequences of their decisions on customer experience and revenue.
  12. Oversees the hiring, orienting, and training of an organization’s customer experience team.
  13. Supervises the activities of customer experience team to ensure their interaction with customers reflect positively on the company.
  14. Organizes training programs for customer experience representatives in order to update their job knowledge and enhance their skills.
  15. Teaches hospitality and customer service skills across the campus.
  16. Establishes communication mediums through which customers can readily contact a company and vice versa.
  17. Prepares and manages annual budgets in achieving set objectives and goals.
  18. Attends seminars, workshops, and conferences related to the industry in order to improve performance and inspire new opportunities for campus improvements in customer experience.
  • Spread the word
Ken Anselment

Ken is the Vice President for Enrollment Management at RHB.

Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.