Australians love to win things, but we’re going to have to content ourselves with a silver medal in a sport that has yet to trouble the Olympics—we’ve come second to Italians in being grumpy customers.

Apparently, we’re divided against ourselves on this issue. What makes some Australian customers grumpy is that other Australians are bad at giving service.  According to this morning’s news report, Brett Whitford, the executive director of The Customer Service Institute of Australia—who must know a bit about irony—thinks that “Australians see providing service as a demeaning job … and people in other countries like India feel it’s a privilege to provide service. In Britain there is more prestige in being in retail than in most countries.”

There’s been quite a bit of chatter about retail and service in the news of late, and especially about how hard it is to track down the employees in the department store or the mall.  You can wander around for days, it seems, looking to try on something, or even to buy it, but there’s no sign of assistance.  The tills and counters are empty. The most prominent staff are the security guards and those who check your bags on the way out to make sure that you haven’t given up on the attempt to make a legitimate purchase and just pocketed the item.  If you do manage to track down an employee, chances are that they’re so busy doing the work of six people, in a space whose design so clearly anticipates a larger workforce, that they’ll be a bit snappy.  You’re likely to come away with the impression that they’re not experiencing the prestige of being in retail right at that very moment.

This is beginning to sound familiar.  Despite the current focus in higher education on the language of the student experience, student satisfaction, student demand, student expectations, student-centredness, student-friendliness, and so on, you only have to spend five minutes on Facebook to realise that things are getting pretty grumpy out there.  It’s an uncontrolled brand situation, as they say.

So now I’m wondering if this is because higher education is a service provided by Australians who are culturally disinclined to serve, or whether it’s because our customers are themselves podium finishers in customer dissatisfaction?

Five years ago, the surest way to stir up academics was to mention that students should be thought of as customers at all. Everyone exhausted themselves trying to explain to the marketing department why the metaphor of customer satisfaction doesn’t slide across from the department store to the campus. Higher education is a difficult experience, we said, and it’s often character-building precisely because it’s marked by episodes of disappointment, self-doubt, frustration and failure. Since it’s also mass produced, externally accredited and involves event scheduling on a scale designed to save us from all the customers being on the premises at the same time, we can’t actually be all that flexible about what we do.

Historians will remember Dr Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, published in 1946 and still going strong, which encouraged parents to react to their child’s individual demands rather than to operate according to rigid schedules. This is a terrifically nice idea, until it becomes clear that children also need to develop capacity to operate in a world that doesn’t revolve around their needs.

So one of the attributes that we build in graduates is resilience, and we do it by being prepared to deliver the less good news, sometimes quite unsmilingly. The Tuesday class is full. The class that interested you has been cancelled because only seven other people the entire student body wanted to study it.  You can’t enrol in this class if your other commitments prevent you from attending and then ask us to make up for your non-appearance, because we don’t do home delivery.

Of course, our students understand this quite well. They’re not spoiled children—far from it—and many of them already work in retail. They know that sometimes no means no.  No they don’t have it in our size, or in lavender, and they don’t split bills because their workflow will crash if they have to figure out who had the cake every time, and they don’t have the authority to offer a better price on this item, and they don’t make the rules.  Nowhere is this clearer than the campus coffee cart, where we stand in line to watch our students work, instead of the other way around. And they do their everyday jobs pretty much as we do, with a mix of restraint, competence, ill humour and genuine friendliness.  They’re not perfect, and neither are we.

So perhaps the good news for the marketing department is that our students are not children, nor are they naive about the predatory aspect to customer care. They don’t want to be told that they’re the centre of our universe, and they’re not here to be entertained or flattered. They have first hand experience of providing understaffed, underpaid, micromanaged service to stressed customers, and (this bit is really secret) our attempts at ramped up CRM aren’t fooling them at all.

To get through this sour patch, we’re going to need a more thoughtful approach to their grumpiness, that will include admitting that some of the time they’re right: our efforts to do more with less are leading to service failures that are getting worse.  We can’t absorb or disarm their reaction to this by giving them a feedback button on the website to let off steam, because we can’t create a better climate of service and support for students without making a better workplace for the staff who provide it.

But if we get some of those things right, then we can start to think seriously about what it will take to see students as co-creators of higher education, not just as its grumpy customers.


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