Many people in academia get upset when students are referred to as customers. The concept seems to irk faculty in particular. Something about the customer and service provider relationship in a higher education context just seems wrong. It seems to me that the problem comes out of some misunderstanding and misperception. This is especially so as a result of misunderstanding of the line “the customer is always right”.
Faculty and others in colleges seem to believe this statement means they should give the students what they want such as high grades and praise when they are not due. This is incorrect and a rather naïve concept if one just gives it a bit of thought especially in the academic and most professional service environments such as medicine.
The phrase is attributed to Caesar Ritz who applied it to a hotel environment to exhort his staff to take the hotel’s clients seriously with courtesy and tact. He was upset that his staff were treating the guests as if they were not valued. He did not want to lose clients in his superior-class hotel so he had to have his staff treat the guests at a level as high as the hotel was posh. The staff were somewhat rude to guests and did not respond quickly enough to their needs and concerns. They were Parisians after all and the guests were not.
This could be done in a hotel/food service environment to an extent. If a customer complained that a steak was not done well enough, it was to be replaced with no questions asked as opposed to how Basil Faulty might have handled it. If a hotel room was not up to expectations the guest was given another that pleased him more. This could be done in a hotel/food service environment where there are not rules and regulations that must be followed on what rights the guest has.
The phrase was not intended to mean that the customer could not be wrong at times but when he is correct him with tact and concern for his integrity. It also had its limits as it does now. Let’s say a guest eats a meal at a restaurant and the bill came to $100. The bill arrives and the guest tells the waiter that the meal was good but I only want to pay $25. The customer is always right? No. The customer is wrong and the job of the waiter it to tell him that as appropriately as possible. The customer can be wrong.
A man goes to the doctors with an ailment. The doctor tells him that he needs to have his gall bladder removed but the patient says he’d rather have his appendix removed. Does the doctor agree and remove the appendix? No. Of course not. That would not just be absurd but unprofessional. The doctor would be called upon to refuse to do the surgery but tell the patient so in a way that does not denigrate the patient. In other words not like the TV character Dr. House.
The statement is not meant to mean that the patient, the diner, the customer or student is always right but to treat them properly. The statement is to guide staff and service provider behavior toward the customer.
In academia it calls on all of us to treat students as if they are important and valued people. It calls upon us to act as professionals, teach at the highest level possible and not denigrate or belittle students as did the fictional Dr. Kingsley in the movie The Paper Chase. In the movie Dr. Kingsley has asked a first year law student a question. When the student cannot answer the question, Kingsley says “Here is a dime. Go call your mother and tell her there is serious doubt that you will ever become a lawyer”. That would be an example of not treating the customer right. To treat the customer as if he were not wrong would be to simply tell him that the answer is incorrect and try to guide him to the correct answer. To treat the student as if he does have value, integrity and feelings.
The phrase does not mean we should give out high grades or coddle students but to be fully engaged and treat them properly. We know that students are often wrong like on quizzes and tests. Seeing a student as a customer does not mean that you should have made an easier quiz or just give everyone high grades. It means that if a student is not doing well we should step in and try to help him or at least offer help. Some students will accept it and others will not but our role in acting right is to make the offer.
We also work in a regulated environment with rules and codes that do not allow us to take the phrase so simply. If a student applies for financial aid and does not get as much as she wants, it is not for us to simply say “Oh well the customer is always right” and give her more financial aid than she is entitled to. No the job is then to follow the rules and guideline set out by the federal or state financial aid program and explain as politely, professionally and completely as is possible that this is the amount of money that is allowed.
Note the phrase “as is possible”. The reality sometimes is that the customer can be wrong to the point that one cannot work with him or her. Some students, some customers can become abusive and use highly inappropriate language. The customer is always right does not call upon anyone to subject him or herself to abuse. The customer has an obligation to do things correctly too and if he does not then there is little you can do but professionally refuse to help at that time. Customer service never says that anyone is to accept abuse from a customer just as we are not to give it out.
Students are our customers. They pay money for a service which is the definition of a customer. Use the word client or student is you will but it is all the same. They are our customer/clients and need to be treated as you would want to be. You would not want a doctor to treat you rudely or come to the exam with indifference for your well-being, not answer your questions, not be available after the appointment or not be up-to-date on medical information and prescriptions. In the same way students want us to treat them professionally, with concern for their learning, have their questions and lack of understanding be responded to in the classroom and in office hours and for our lectures to be up-to-date and not off of yellowed notes.
That is treating the student as if he or she us right.
If this article makes sense to you you will want to obtain a copy of the new book on academic customer service From Admissions to Graduation: Achieving Growth through Academic Customer Service by Dr. Neal Raisman, author of the best seller The Power of Retention.