Imagine the Video: The Importance of CX in Higher Ed

Welcome to another entry in our Imagine the Video series: all the insight and substance of a long-form video interview packaged into an easily-consumed, informative read. We give you the content, you imagine the rest.

In this episode, we find Rick and Sam passing through the Nordstrom flagship store, located in downtown Seattle. In addition to offering the latest styles in fashion, Nordstrom is notorious for being the ultimate purveyor in customer satisfaction amongst retailers. So it’s no wonder that, while moseying about in the men’s shoe department, the topic of customer experience—and its role in higher education—comes to the forefront of their conversation. Their discussion touches on many facets of CX in higher ed, including its origins, its implementation, the importance of “customers” and much more.

Shopping bags, bustling crowds, hustling salespeople, the aroma of coffee, the music of a carefully-crafted corporate playlist (a mix of contemporary and classic songs, no doubt) and the nondescript chatter that permeates a busy department store—you can picture the scene.

Now: Imagine the video.



Rick: Sam, don’t you need some new wingtips?

Sam: I don’t know about that, but I’ll try some shoes on with you.

Rick: One of the things that’s cool about Nordstrom is that they’ve built a brand around customer service—exceptional customer service. The experience of going to Nordstrom has always been a pretty remarkable thing. One time a salesperson who was on vacation called me to arrange a time where I could go in and pick up a perfume that Tammy had expressed interest in. It was awesome, it was incredible. When I walked in they called me by name and knew exactly what I wanted. You’ve got to love those kind of experiences.

Sam: I agree. It feels like quality experiences are rare. You always remember the good ones. And the bad ones. Anything in the middle, we don’t tend to latch onto.

Rick: The whole idea of customer experience is not particularly new, and higher ed is beginning to catch on to the idea of shaping experiences that will attract customers and maintain loyalty.

Sam: Yes. I think in some sense there has always been awareness about how a student might experience an institution before the purchase is made. Given market shifts and a total paradigm change from gate-keeping to recruiting, it’s incumbent on colleges and universities to understand all of the experiences a customer or prospective student and their family might have with them, to say nothing of an alumnus or a donor.

Rick: Absolutely. The experience a donor has with an institution is pretty significant in terms of their willingness to write a check. I think higher ed has always been really good at shaping those experiences. My goodness, the thought that goes into first-year student experiences, or summer orientation, or a donor dinner, or a commencement exercise. Those are very thoughtful experiences and markers in a student’s journey.

Sam: I agree. I don’t think the discipline of acknowledging a customer’s experiences would be relatively new to higher education. The science of it is still burgeoning. There are whole industries that work to identify experiences in all kinds of different verticals. I think higher ed can take some lessons from large companies who design wonderful experiences and leverage that to their benefit. Just mapping out all the experiences a student would have and giving it some order, is of great benefit to an institution.

Rick, you and I just conducted an exercise on a college campus working to identify touchpoints within a student’s journey as they would describe it, and then also as a faculty member would describe it. Even that comprehensive list of touchpoints would surprise many administrators, and many marketers, once they understood the entire gamut of interactions that they have with customers and potential customers.

Rick: In using that journey—those touchpoints—as a way to tell the story, think about Agnes Scott. They created a customer journey around Summit, around two big ideas of global engagement and leadership development that shape a student’s experience and create a brand for the institution, or build a market position around that experience. Those opportunities have not been seized like they can be for the rest of higher education.

Sam: I agree. In the case of Summit, the institution acknowledged the volume of touchpoints around those two qualities. Research validated that, and they were already providing a significant amount of infrastructure for a substantial amount of travel away from campus. Likewise, leadership development was present in a slightly different way than the somewhat patriarchal ways delivered at some other institutions. Those existing touchpoints served as evidence that this could be authentic and still new for the institution. More often than not, we encounter institutions that tell us they aren’t very distinctive from their competitors, or describe the ways they’re distinctive in non-specific terms. In those cases, our first exercise is to start documenting all the experiences, or the touchpoints, within a journey at that particular institution.

We should probably state a couple of working definitions for customer experience.

Rick: Let’s start with: is it okay to say “customer?”

Sam: Go ahead, we’re in Nordstrom.

Rick: Well, saying “customer” in this store is okay. It’s great. But when we do so on a college campus, we get a wide-eyed and slack-jawed response. When we talk about “customer” experience, that’s hard for campuses to swallow. I was talking to Rick Hardy of Concordia University in Irvine a couple of weeks ago, and he said, “In customer engagements the customer is always right. In higher ed, if we think of students as customers, the truth is, they’re not always right. In fact, the reason students are there is to be taught what is right.” I understand that differentiation, but truth be told, “customer” relates to two parties in an exchange. And there is exchange in the higher ed experience. If I’m a prospect, I’m going to pay you something in exchange for—

Sam: Something of value.

Rick: Yes. It may be all the stuff I don’t know, and you’re going to teach me what I don’t know. But I am paying you for that.

Sam: Let’s talk about that for one more minute. We hear that resistance to calling students and families “customers” because of our unwillingness to acknowledge that we may be moving to a more commoditized form of delivering what we have. I get that, I understand that. And I don’t want to diminish the fact that you as an institution may have qualities that cannot be commoditized, but I think it’s disrespectful to not acknowledge that families are purchasing something from you, and they are going into significant debt for you.

Rick: For you. For the experience.

Sam: Yes. For the experience, and it’s going into the institution’s pocket. I believe we’ve lost sight of that.

Rick: It’s that very fear of commoditization that makes defining, describing and creating a distinctive customer experience important in rescuing higher education from becoming a commodity. If I’m not doing anything different than anybody else, then…

Sam: You’re just a can on a shelf. Surprisingly, we agree on that.

Rick: Let’s back up and talk about what customer experience is.

Sam: The simplest way to define customer experience is in three components. The journey; the path that a customer takes in our experience, is mapped from pre-enrollment through commencement and beyond.

Rick: Sometimes over a four- to six-year engagement.

Sam: We’re looking at a continuum of time that a customer travels and experiences your institution. Along that journey, all the individual, granular interactions that both the customer and the institution play a hand in. Often we are afraid of stealth visitors in the prospect phase, pre-enrollment phase. Potential customers are having an experience with you—touchpoints—before you even know or are aware that they are happening.

The last category is comprised of the environments that the customer is in. Whether those are virtual environments, environments that the customer only has control over, or the environments that you have control over. That’s the parking lot, or the dining room, or dining hall or wherever. The “environment” is the third component.

Rick: In a similar fashion, I could buy those wingtips online and have one experience, but standing here, holding them in my hand, showing them to you, trying them on, is a very different experience. The result may be the same, but that experience is powerfully different.

Sam: In good and bad ways. For instance, it may be that I pay a little more here in the store because of services that I might get: a fitting, somebody’s opinion of the way the shoe looks, a free shoe shine, having them boxed up, having the shoe salesman know my name. On the other hand, there are virtual purchasing environments that are really incredible. I use Amazon because of the way they’ve managed the experience. They’ve done it in almost the opposite way. They’ve done it by removing friction. Nordstrom might include points of friction. They might have you intentionally speaking with someone. If I’m a Nordstrom customer, I’m being served in an intentional way. They might slow down the process of trying on shoes instead of speeding it up. There are pros and cons on both sides but I think if we are at least aware of counting and cataloging touchpoints we’ll have some advantage. We’ll at least be cognizant of what we’re doing with prospective students and their families.

I don’t know if you noticed yesterday, we did an audit of the process of depositing for a new client.

Rick: Yeah, I was going to bring that up.

Sam: Working with a new client, we had heard there may be some unknown or unacknowledged friction around submitting a deposit through their website.

When the student received the announcement of admission, they were directed to a URL. So we had a team member who was working blind (she works in higher education so it was a little biased). We handed her the admit packet and had her count the number of clicks and logins it took to submit a deposit. We discovered that it took a minimum of 12 clicks. It took two logins, if she even knew what her login and password were. Remember: she’s trying to deposit.

Rick: She wants to give you money.

Sam: She wants to give you money. There is no reason she needs a login. The only payment method was a checking account number and routing number, checking or savings.

Rick: No credit card.

Sam: No credit card. In the occasion where you’re hottest, the people that love you the most…

Rick: The people that you love the most.

Sam: You are supposed to love the most…You make it incredibly difficult for them to reciprocate.

Rick: If I had to make 12 stops to get to this pair of wingtip shoes, I’d walk out and go somewhere else.

Sam: Of course. Certainly in higher education, inside your top five or top ten cross-apps, if you are a moderately selective institution you cannot afford any negative friction in the action of depositing. You cannot afford it. We’re talking about percentage points of yield. To think that an institution might not be aware of how easy or difficult it is to submit a deposit.

I did a quick unscientific review of about 20 sites yesterday. Most of them weren’t that easy. It wasn’t intentional friction. It wasn’t something that said, “We’re going to create this experience so that you’re more or less committed.” These were bad, negative touchpoints within that customer experience. I’m sure there are hundreds of positive ones, but 12 clicks—that can do a lot to sour an experience. Just like if I get these wingtips home and they’re squeaky, or there’s a size 9 for a right shoe but a 9 and a half for the left shoe and I have to come back here to do an exchange and all that.

Rick: Well it’s certainly an increasingly popular topic across engagements with all audiences of higher education. It behooves us to get it right. That notion of living in the experience economy that Joe Pine and Joe Gilmore describe is a powerful notion and I think higher education is coming to terms with that. Maybe a little later than everybody else.

Sam: Maybe. Back to your earlier point, I think higher education is ahead of the game because for centuries, literally, they’ve designed meaningful experiences for students. Most of those are pedagogical. And, the majority of them assume some sort of social maturation. Yet, at least in the last 40 years, we’ve had to move from a pedantic position into something that’s more cognizant and aware that this customer is contributing something to you. I think that’s going to be positive, but it’s also going to make some waves and people are going to have to change.

Rick: It’s interesting, given how much has been baked into higher ed experiences like matriculation ceremonies or commencements—all that pomp and circumstance, all the regalia on parade with it, all the routine and tradition that goes into those experiences that are incredible markers in a journey—we don’t give the same kind of thought to how easy it is to make a gift to the institution, or to send in a deposit check. We should be just as elegant with crafting those encounters as we are at giving somebody a diploma on graduation day.

Sam: Of course. I think if there is a blanket lesson, it’s about getting off the top line of those celebrations. Back to your point about orientation, we need to be designing touchpoints that are aimed at some sort of conversion. That conversion could be something as general as happiness, or something as specific as addressing a retention concern between first year and second year. If we put those glasses on and looked at our experience, what touchpoints can we design and manage to get us to certain points of conversion?

I think what we would both say is: institutions have significant experiences built for students that either rose organically and aren’t being acknowledged as a sort of master process, or are being used intentionally, that just aren’t being shown to the customer because it feels like that’s too far down the path for the customer to understand. And I don’t think that’s always true.

Rick: Parenthetically, you and I would urge that those experiences be coherent with the market position. That they reflect the market position the institution has chosen. It’s not just making them elegant, but making them yours.

Sam: Back to an experience from last week: the tone and quality of those experiences is really important. But it’s more important for those experiences to be intentional. It takes two parties to create a touchpoint. It is the institution’s influence and it is the customer’s influence. The institution’s influence has to be coherent and authentic but also delivered with intent so that we’re honoring that customer’s engagement with us with something that’s specific to us. We don’t waste their time, and we don’t disrespect them. I think that’s critical.

I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’m thinking there are probably tens of thousands of touchpoints—

Rick: Oh, probably.

Sam: —that a student and a family have. There are thousands before pre-enrollment, if you are really fine with your measurement. You’ve probably read the Forester research, it’s a couple years old now I think. This is where culture comes into play, that the culture of your institution supports delivering intentionally-refined experiences; specific touchpoints for students. As marketers we’re not going to be able to manage all those touchpoints.

Rick: Way too many of them.

Sam: Way too many of them.

Rick: Too many variables out of our control.

Sam: Too many variables and it goes against our grain of acknowledging every single aspect of a constituency. It’s really important to teach the whole community.

Rick: Completely agree. That’s why we train the whole community to understand what our market position is, what we hope our brand will be and what things we want to reinforce so that those experiences, those touchpoints, all contribute to an authentic understanding of our brand.

Sam: Right, I totally agree. From the physical plant to the president.

What do you make of the environment element of this? We’ve just discussed virtual environments, right? Whether those be Facebook Live, or trying to submit a deposit. Let’s talk about physical spaces, because it’s been a point of controversy over the last decade in terms of how colleges and universities have invested in their physical plants and why. We tend to know, and we can measure, part of a customer’s journey through our place will involve the environments that they exist in. What do you make of that?

Rick: I think those impressions we make—whether it’s the student valet who takes my car before the donor dinner and where that happens and how that happens, or the kind of welcome I receive in the admissions office, or the condition of the campus on visit day, or the cleanliness of the classrooms—all of those things create an impression in the physical space that either confirms or…

Sam: Creates doubt.

Rick: …creates doubt in my perception of what I’m going to get in this exchange.

Sam: Speaking of exchange, what’s the verdict on the wingtips? Are you convinced enough to make a purchase?

Rick: I think I found a winner.

Sam: They look good on you.

Rick: Thanks.

Sam: They’d look better if you got them in cordovan…

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.