Monday, January 22, 2007

Captive audiences?

My daughter, who serves in a Florida fine dining restaurant, told me a story about her assistant manager. Late one evening some customers came in with a special request. The assistant manager said “no.” They sought out my daughter who often served them and she repeated the request. “Don’t worry about them” , the assistant manager responded in a sneering voice – he was in the process of closing, a bit early. “They’re regular customers. They’ll be back,{“

Her story got me thinking a problem I see plaguing many businesses. Seeking out new customers or responding to other institutional priorities is ‘where the action is.” It is where the promotions, increased responsibilities, prestige and big salary increases are found. Lip service aside, serving existing customers is at the bottom of the priority list, if it shows up at all.

Another example. I purchase vitamins from a high-end company the sells its products via direct marketing. Its reputation is has been based, in part, on the quality of their products but also on the quality of their customer service. But lately, service has deteriorated. Customers are encouraged to order on line rather than working with their representatives. My representative has reported increased problems in getting responses to her requests and queries. She has come to accept this lack of good stewardship as a new norm. Systems analysts call this “drift to low performance.” When she was on vacation I called for assistance myself, after trying unsuccessfully, to log on to a less than customer-friendly web site. After a wait of some minutes I reached a “customer service representative” but he could provide no information. Our system is down, he told me, indifferently, You can try back in three or four hours.

I have already blogged about a company has provided me with the worst customer service I have experienced in a long life, Cingular Wireless. Civil servants in the most primitive developing country bureaucracies do better – far better. I assume this is a product of the long-term contracts most cell providers now force on their unwilling clients. Readers may recall the response of a Cingular representative, at a local outlet, to whom I expressed my concerns: “the customers keep coming,” he told me candidly, “why should we do anything different.”

Universities can face the problem of indifference to captive audiences, as well. Relationships between students and the institution are complex. Students are both more and less than ‘customers.” The value-added they seek, an academic degree, requires a long-term investment. Institutional control over students, even graduate students, is quasi-paternalistic.

Many faculty members function as semi-independent entrepreneurs, beholden as much to external reference groups, their professional communities, as to the institution or its students. University leaders are guided more by these groups than by teaching or ‘service to the community’ when making decisions about salaries, promotions, and the sine-qua non-decision affecting a faculty member’s life, academic tenure. Fortunately, many faculty are drawn to their profession by an intrinsic love of teaching, and often creative contributions (research, art, composition, performances) as well. To a degree these loves transcend institutional incentives.

But this may not be the case for other staff members who support the institutional infrastructure in which teaching and creativity occur – facilities, finance, housing, dining, maintenance, information technology and the like. Their roles are similar to what they might be in a non academic business or government agency. Their motivations, as “position descriptions” and Human Resources Offices emphasize, are more conventional. The reference groups to which they are beholden, as a practical matter, are not students or even faculty members, but institutional superiors in relatively conventional ‘chains of command.” The incentives to give lesser priority to the needs of a university’s captive audience, students, are greater and may be difficult to withstand.


Blogger Robyne said...

I have worked in a number of universities throughout the world and I have found very often that many of the administrative staff actually dont like students and I really mean dont like students. They just dont get it that they are one of the main reasons we are all there. (Often the fees for teaching supplement poor research grants.)

They are dealing with customers but because they are "students" they dont get the same attention. I noticed you said "both more and less than customers". How can they be less than customers? They are paying a fee for service...the service of being instructed in a particular subject.

I notice that you are American. I think that Americans have given the concept of service some dignity again compared to UK or Australia. Whenever I am in the UK getting frustrated with the total lack of service I think longingly of the US.

Great post by the way..really started me thinking.

11:16 AM  

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