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Students & Workers as Customers: It's Complicated . . . But Okay

In a recent Slate piece by Rebecca Schuman whose work I follow regularly, she raises important concerns regarding the view of college students as customers. However, as a woman who has spent a good part of her life in the service industry, I'd like to offer a different perspective on the concept of students or employees as customers.

It is not the view of students as customers that is necessarily the problem. It is the assumption that the customer-service relationship is one-way that is the problem. For successful customer service, there are roles and responsibilities that each person and organization must fulfill. You see, that even in a restaurant, customers may behave in ways that contribute to great experiences, and they may also behave in ways that lead to less than satisfying experiences. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant or cafe understands this deeply.

It's all about perspectives, relationships, communication, and understanding.

In a restaurant or cafe, for someone to be a customer and have a great experience, several things must occur.

  1. Perspectives: Restaurant workers and customers must expect a great experience and look forward to that.
  2. Relationships: Order takers, cooks and baristas, servers, cashiers and customers must value each other and appreciate each others' role in the cafe.
  3. Communication: Clear, sufficient, and welcoming communication will ensure the accuracy of orders, the quality of the product, and efficient and gracious service.
  4. Understanding: With knowledge that comes from clear communication and appreciative relationships, the restaurant/cafe experience will be successful.

As a waitperson, I learned early on that each customer and service opportunity was unique. Some customers wanted to chat with me beyond the details of food and beverage ordering and reception. Others wanted minimal communication--just enough for the transmittal of the core details. Some wanted their food as quickly as possible while others wanted leisurely experiences. My job was to learn each customer's desires and needs and to work within that framework to ensure a great experience for them . . . and for me.

How can we view students and employees as customers in a good way?

  1. Perspectives: If we view students and employees as customers, we err if we perceive that as a one way relationship in which the school or company serves students or employees without reciprocal expectations. All relationships are invariably two-way--whether functional or dysfunctional. Both organizations and individuals need to perceive each other as integral to their success. And both need to look forward to and expect a great experience.
  2. Relationships: Schools serve students in providing an education. Employers serve employees in providing a job. AND students and employees need to understand that they have important roles and responsibilities to play in order to ensure their success in school and at work.
  3. Communication: As the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us almost a century ago, there is no such thing as a private language. All communication involves more than one person, and the most successful communication is two-way, clear, sufficient, and appreciative of each person's subjectivity in the world.
  4. Understanding: Administrators, faculty, students, employers, and employees need to appreciate, value, and respect each other. For example, in college, administrators and faculty need to work together to develop ways to help students grow in their respect for the authorities, guides, teachers, and mentors around them. Without this, students will not be able to take full advantage of the invaluable learning opportunities available to them.

Higher education administrators, faculty, students, employers and employees need to ask "What is constitutive of a successful experience? What is constitutive of a great education? What is constitutive of a great workplace and great job performance?"

When customers understand the time involved in a great cappuccino or fine meal, they are more than willing to wait longer than picking up a coffee or sandwich at a drive through window.  When students are helped to understand what is involved in a great college experience that will successfully prepare them for their post-graduate life, then they are more willing to do the work necessary to make that happen. When employees understand their work, it importance and how it fits into the larger picture of their company's success financially and in contributing to the forward progress of the world, then they are more willing to bring a more positive attitude and higher level of commitment to the job.

So can we view students and employees as customers? Certainly. Yes, it's complicated. And in that is the wonder and success of it all.


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