Evaluating Customer Experiences in Higher Ed

By now, you are probably becoming comfortable using the word “customer” due to the prevalence of discussion around customer experience (CX). Design thinking as a discipline places high value on shaping satisfying customer experiences that influence purchasing, loyalty, interaction, recommendations—in truth, CX encapsulates everything about our relationships with those whom we exchange anything (services or products).

Think for a moment about the hundreds of experiences you have regularly:

  • checking out at the grocery store
  • buying concert tickets online
  • standing in a queue at the theater popcorn stand
  • making an airline reservation
  • conversing with the mechanic at your car dealership
  • receiving notification of jury duty
  • completing your insurance and health questionnaire at your doctor’s office
  • waiting for your bus
  • checking into your hotel
  • posting an Instagram photo
  • getting a hair cut

With each of these, and thousands more, you are building impressions, making decisions and evaluating your response. You can be certain that your customers are doing the same with the experiences they are having with you.

How will you evaluate the experiences that relate and connect your institution with your customers? Try focusing on a specific audience, say parents of prospective students or alumni donors from the 1970s, or high school counselors. (Choose an audience that has meaning for you in terms of significance to building better relationships or exchanges.) Now select a particular experience, such as visiting campus, meeting with a financial aid advisor, submitting an online gift or arranging your high school visit.

Certainly, some market research can help: ask real customers to tell you about their experiences with you. Discover where the high and low touchpoints lie. Listen for your strengths as well as where opportunities for improvement lie. Your assessment will require empathy. You need to walk in your customers’ shoes; you’ll need to really hear from your customer’s point of view. That’s not always easy to do; yet, be sure to approach evaluation in a defenseless mode. You may be inclined to rationalize your choices—don’t. Just listen and learn.

Here are five questions you can ask yourself in order to evaluate your CX without speaking with customers. We always recommend you speak with your customers directly, but these five questions will help you: a) assess your choices in shaping experiences, b) imagine experiences you can create or improve upon and c) determine what experiences are worth your investment.

Discover how RHB can help you evaluate your customer experience through our signature research methodology.

Does it support, prove, or reinforce the market position you have chosen?

As you think about any experience, the first question you need to ask is whether it helps advance your market position. Remember, you get to choose your market position. Your behaviors and messages must align with that decision in order to ultimately build the brand that you desire. If, for example, you have chosen to be the most beautiful campus among your competitors, then you will need to invest in plant maintenance to ensure that campus visitors see manicured lawns, clean and uncracked sidewalks and gorgeous buildings with spotless restrooms. Anything short of that will not support the position you have chosen. You can’t say you are one thing if you are something else. Well, you can, but no one will believe you.

How does this experience differentiate you from competitors?

On a similar note, think about the experience you are evaluating as a way to stand out from the crowd of competitors. How is this experience better than that of your peers? Do you have a more robust social media strategy? Are your communications more personalized? Do you offer programs that competitors do not?

You will need to assume that, for the most part, your peers are offering similar experiences. Getting into, through and experiencing life after college have common characteristics no matter where you go to school. 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.

Does this experience naturally reflect your institution, or does it seem artificially overdone?

You can tell when something is just too much, too over the top, too put on. At a time when consumers seek authenticity and when commentary is prevalent and easy to share, you can build more trust by being yourself. That’s true for your institution as well. Experiences need to reflect reality.

When an experience goes overboard, you create tension for the buyer. You create an expectation that cannot be sustained. Initially, the consumer may be very impressed with the experience, but if you cannot repeat that same level of experience in other areas, you’ll lose the confidence of the consumer.

Let’s say that your admissions team develops deep, caring and welcoming relationships with families. They’re able to draw students into the campus. In fact, when they plan a campus visit overnight, it’s an incredible event with tons of personal attention and service. Let’s say that your student development team takes a different approach. Because they want students to learn independence, they don’t hold hands of new students the way the admissions team might. 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 realized once a student enrolls.  Should admissions minimize 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.

How could you make this experience more memorable?

Experiences stick with us, especially those that are great and those that are terrible. You know this from your own encounters. You’re still talking about that incredible meal you had on vacation. And you still bring up that nasty car rental agent when your office lunch conversation turns to horrible travel experiences.

You no doubt are motivated by your own history to create great experiences for your customers. As you dissect the experience you are offering, an important question to ask is “what will our customer remember about this?” Follow that with: “what could we do to make this a more positive memory?” By asking these important questions, you’ll likely find little tweaks you can experiment with to offer an out-of-the-ordinary experience.

Is this experience the best it can be?

The question of quality begs a couple of other questions: “what do we mean by quality?” and “by what will we measure quality?” Those two questions often create roadblocks for higher ed professionals. Our world focuses on critique, on evaluations that are thorough and correct. (As I’m writing this paragraph, my colleagues and I are chatting about a recent piece of data about which we are skeptical. This “criticality” is built into most of us in higher ed—and it seems beyond our control!)

Still, even without precise measures, you know when you’ve had a good experience or not. You know when you’ve been satisfied with service. You know when you’ve been delighted. And you know when you haven’t been.

Examine your customer experiences with this same sensibility. Work less at a perfect definition and “score” and invest your time in assessing how well the experience achieves its goals, satisfies customers and leaves a favorable and coherent impression. 

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.