David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

What We Talk About When We Talk About Customer Service

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“Hello, my name is Steve Tallant, and I am the president of Texas A&M University at Kingsville. I understand you have some questions regarding how we run this university, and I’d like to tell you I’ve been keeping up with your blog.”

I received this call just after The Chronicle published a piece of mine that criticized Texas A&M University at Kingsville for describing faculty jobs—indeed, every job—as customer-service providers. Although I hadn’t expected to talk to the president, I had been calling and sending emails for comment since before the first piece was published. I wanted to understand how a university decides to put “customer service” at the heart of its mission. What are the consequences of such a decision? What other models might exist?

The words we put at the center of our institutions matter, whether in mission statements, strategic plans, or even boilerplate marketing elements. They shape communication among the disparate elements that coexist within the school, especially between the leadership and the other employees.

All too often, these phrases embody risk-averse or superficial language drawn from the business world. They rarely inspire people to think about what a university is for—to help students learn and develop.

It turns out that the decision to add the phrase “customer service” to every job advertisement at Kingsville was made very deliberately. When Tallant took over as president in 2008, he told me, he found a general lack of accountability at the institution. In response, he and others decided to use the phrase “customer service” in every context, including each job advertisement. Tallant said that Kingsville’s students—largely first-generation students of modest means for whom college was an enormous investment—deserved nothing less than excellent customer service at all times. That should be the case, he felt, for every unit across the university: admissions, dining, financial aid, and also the faculty.

He believes the process has worked. The university has grown, morale has improved, and, he said, “I have not received one negative complaint in five years.”

I did, however, hear some negative complaints from Kingsville faculty. One wrote to me that the phrase “customer service” is ubiquitous but meaningless. Even supportive faculty admitted that it played no part in the job interview process; it just wasn’t a big deal. Moreover, each employee has to go through mandatory customer-service training every year, an experience that some faculty felt served no purpose other than to waste their time.

Still, I was curious about how an institution builds customer service into its culture. So I got permission to take the training course.

It begins with a few slides on the basic mission of Texas A&M, then turns to the topic of customer service. The course, we’re told, is intended to:

—Describe strategies for providing excellent customer service and developing a culture of service

—Explain poor customer service and its impact on an organization

—Identify customers and basic customer expectations

On the whole, this training is pretty superficial. It relies on definitions of customer service from Dictionary.com and Wikipedia. The trainee is supposed to relate her experiences with good and bad customer service to the lessons of the training. The course then leads the employee into a self-assessment and a customer-service Action Plan. Take Ownership. Don’t say, “It’s not my job.” Say, “Let me find out!”

One could make sophisticated arguments about the student-as-customer or note the complicated transactional nature of buying access to education. That’s not happening in the training. Instead, it grafts a simple retail transactional model of customer and employee onto the many different kinds of relationships formed among the many people at a university. There’s nothing deeply wrong here, but for all the jokes about humanities students learning the phrase “Would you like fries with that?”, the training reminds me of nothing more than my time spent as a teenager at Burger King.

The move to bring corporate norms to the university—often misplaced or outmoded corporate norms, as Clara Burke, a lecturer at the Wisconsin School of Business, pointed out in a critique of my original column—is much bigger than Kingsville. The training session occurs across the Texas A&M system. Recently John Traphagan, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote about the customer-service culture he’s encountered in the Texas system, too. The pro-business culture of Texas’s state government intensifies the rhetoric there, but this process is happening in universities around the world.

Corporate catchphrases flatten all tasks into the same kind of behavior—in this case, customer service. They challenge academic identity and threaten the seriousness with which faculty in particular regard their administrators. Business-speak emphasizes the growing gap between academics and the people who manage them. Like it or not, nothing engenders eye-rolls among academics faster than corporate sloganeering.

It’s also not the only way to build institutional unity. What if instead of devoting time and resources to making analogies about customer service, we put learning first? What if the conversations, the trainings, the memos, and even the job descriptions emphasized this simple question: How does what I do make this a better place for students to learn and develop?

It’s a question as relevant for the gym, the dining halls, the fundraising offices, and even the president’s office as it is for the classroom. Best of all, “learning-centered” is not code for accountability, it’s not borrowed from the corporate world, and it doesn’t have to be twisted to fit the unique environments of higher education.

It’s just what we’re all here for.

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