Imagine the following, hypothetical situation: the owner of a small high-tech company needs all of his employees retrained, in view of the adoption of a new, company-wide software system.
He decides to send a few of them to a week-long course with a private firm, specialized in offering short courses on the particular software that will be acquired. A firm representative promised him that at the end of the course, these employees will be proficient with the new system, capable of operating and managing it, and able in turn to train other colleagues. That way, the company will be up to speed in little time.

I am no expert, but I am sure that in the private sector something like the above takes place on a regular basis. It kind of makes sense, does it not ?
Of course, sending one or more employees to take a course of this kind, is typically a very expensive proposition, but one that seems well worth the cost, given the much greater risk associated to loss of productivity, if no action is taken. High-tech companies simply have to stay atop of rapidly evolving technology, if they are to remain competitive (or at least this is what I read on some magazine in the dentist’s waiting room).
So, the employees come back, each one proudly waving an official-looking certificate issued by the firm in charge of their training, assessing their mastery of the software system. All of them express satisfaction with the course, speak enthusiastically of the friendly and professional instructors, praise unconditionally the enjoyably relaxed atmosphere of the course, the fast-paced and effective delivery of content. The company owner is understandably pleased — until the new software is shipped, that is, for that is when problems begin.

Employees who were sent to receive formal training, consistently prove unprepared, unable to confront seemingly straightforward situations, and answer basic questions from fellow employees. Their knowledge seems to be limited to a few buzzwords, their understanding nebulous at best; frequently they resort to lengthy and costly phone calls with the technical support service of the maker of the software.
It soon becomes painfully obvious that the training that these individuals (allegedly) received is inadequate; they are of no help with the installation and operation of the new software, let alone with providing guidance to others. In order not to incur in a serious slowdown of the company operations, the owner must resort to paying a hefty consulting fee to a few free-lancers, tasked with doing what those employees originally sent out for training should have done — if the training had worked.

Naturally the company owner is hardly pleased. He summons those employees to his office, and asks for explanations. They all act flabbergasted; they tell him that, while they surely understand, indeed share his disappointment, they are at a loss explaining what happened. They all assure him that they diligently attended the course, sat through the lectures, completed the tests and were ultimately found proficient. What else were they supposed to do ?
Thus, the only conclusion with which the company owner is left, is that he was “sold a lemon”, that the firm claiming to be able to provide training for his employees, in fact took his money and did not deliver on the promise. Infuriated, he gets on his phone and calls the sales representative.

The sales representative reassures him that the training firm has a distinguished reputation, that they have always been committed to offering outstanding training and to overall customer satisfaction, and that his employees brilliantly passed all the required competence tests — they would not have been issued official certificates otherwise.
The owner is not appeased — “These people are unable to perform even the most basic tasks with the system on which your firm is supposed to have trained them. I had to hire outside consultants to do the job, and was told that my employees were ostensibly not exposed to crucial aspects of the system’s architecture. How is this for customer satisfaction ?”
To that, the phlegmatic sales representative replies “Well, Sir, there seems to be a misunderstanding here — our customers are your employees — they are the ones with whom we interact, not you. They all expressed resounding satisfaction with the training that they received and with their overall experience. I know this for a fact, because at the end of the course, each one of them was asked to fill out a customer feedback form, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. I shall be happy to forward the forms to you, if you wish to examine them yourself. I am sorry if they do not seem to perform to your expectations, but that is really between you and them, it has nothing to do with us.”

Of course, all of that is hypothetical. I mean, who would take seriously such a bizarre rhetoric from the sales rep ?
I am no businessman or entrepreneur, but in this hypothetical example, if I were the company owner I would probably tell the person that the only use I have for their “customer feedback forms”, depends on how soft is the paper on which they are printed. With a tone of voice that I would have difficulty keeping low, I would probably add that the underlying “good” that was purchased was the employees’ training, not their “satisfaction”, and that the customer is whoever foots the bill.
“Don’t get me wrong”, I would say, “it is great that the employees are happy with their course, but ultimately I, the company owner am the person who must be satisfied with the transaction. The employees are merely the beneficiaries of my investment, for if the training firm had actually, um, trained them, they could very likely leverage their added knowledge (and certificates) to obtain a pay raise from me and/or to seek a higher paying job elsewhere.”

OK, what is my point here ?
Well, a lot of people, in conversation, when I describe to them the above, hypothetical situation, quickly agree that of course the training firm would have acted dishonestly and unprofessionally, and that the argument of the sales representative would be ridiculous and fraudulent — then again, they add, “which sales representative would say something so preposterous ?”.
But then, when I tell them that that is precisely what public universities do, they roll their eyes. They dismiss me tout court, as I follow up by asking:
Why do the same considerations not apply to public universities ?
Why do we insist calling college students “customers”, when in fact they are merely the beneficiaries of an investment that their parents, as well as taxpayers, society as a whole has decided to make on them for the common good (an investment from which the students themselves will derive various benefit, income being the most obvious) ?
When the community that has funded their education, when the public schools, hospitals, law firms, private companies etc. (yes, the real “customers”), hire these individuals expecting that they be competent and prepared, and find out that they are not, what would be the sense for public university officials to defend their institutions by saying “Oh, but our customers were happy, look at the student evaluations !” ?

“Come on, that is a completely different thing ! You cannot compare the two. Students are customers !”.
That is what I am told all the time. But why is it a different thing ? I don’t get it.
Few things irritate me more than hearing students referred to as “customers”.
Maybe it did not come across clearly from this post.
Don’t worry, i shall say it again in the future, I promise.

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7 Responses to “Customers”

  1. Isotopic Says:

    I probably agree with you on the more general points you make about treating students like customers, but not on the analogy.

    At a university, the enrichment of the students (with knowledge, critical thinking skills, creative skills etc.) is the point. Sure, certain professional degrees are designed to be used for specific professions (though no one would make the argument that they come out ready to practice law, operate on a brain, or build a bridge), however in general, universities are designed to “improve” (in some way) the student, irrespective of the use to the wider community.

    You can turn this around and say that “well, ANY educated person is ALWAYS better for society”, and point out that public institutions are funded by, well, the public so they should direct their energies towards outcomes that benefit the public good. These things are (obviously) true, but they are simply positive byproducts (so to speak) of the personal enrichment one gets through the process of obtaining a university degree.

    It’s analogous to tenure, in a way, viz. the public recognizes that if they give this profession a certain type of job security (even if it means that they can’t tell the academy what to do), it works out well in the end.

    Whether the students know what’s good for them is another matter, of course (unlike someone shopping for a new shirt, for example). But it is, in the end, all about them.

    • Massimo Says:

      Universities are designed to “improve” (in some way) the student, irrespective of the use to the wider community.

      See, I could not disagree more with that.
      It is precisely the perverse, deleterious argument of those who push for privatization of higher education, because mainly (or even only) the individuals who pursue it benefit from it, not society at large. Nothing could be more wildly off the mark, in my opinion.

      The main motivation for a country, a province, a city, society as a whole, to make higher education easily accessible to its citizens, are the tangible, measurable benefits to the whole community that derive from the presence of a highly educated citizenry and work force.
      It is beneficial to have artists, philosophers, scientists, because of the many contributions that they make in and outside their field of expertise, not because they themselves will be delighted to be artists, philosophers or scientists (not that I hope that they are miserable).
      It is not a “by-product”, it is the whole point. This is why leaving it in its entirety to the “invisible hand” would be a catastrophic mistake.

      Just my opinion, of course, which the blog’s owner kindly lets me express in here.

      • Isotopic Says:

        I’m a bit baffled as to how that could be twisted into an argument for privitization! If the community (or maybe I’m just thinking of the GoA) wanted to make higher education tangibly and measureably beneficial, they would turn it all into NAIT and eliminate tenure so that they could control the process. No government that needs to be re-elected makes an argument for putting money into gauge theory or postmodern critical theory over oil sands extraction.

        I think you give them too much crecit.

        I suppose I wasn’t clear. I don’t think it should be left to the invisible hand, nor do I think it should be left to the students or the community. I think it should be left to the academy to decide what to think about, what to research, and what to teach. It has served us, and the community, very well in the past, in the present, and hopefully in the future.

        @GMP: Surely not 15% at a Canadian institution!

      • Massimo Says:

        I’m a bit baffled as to how that could be twisted into an argument for privatization!

        Oh, it’s a baby step, and it goes like that: if a good is meant to benefit mostly, or entirely, a single individual, then the community has no business funding its production and/or ensuring its delivery — it should be left to the private sector and to market forces.
        Just like in a market economy the state has no business manufacturing and selling cars, consumer electronics, apparel and so on (all goods that are meant to be enjoyed by the buyer only), if it be resolved that education falls in the same category, namely it is a consumer good, there is no justification for public education. And it is not the rhetoric of the GoA, which I don’t really think buys into it, it all originated south of the border.

        The point of my post is, if we are going to adopt the market parlance and speak of “customers” in the context of public education, we better be sure not to get confused as to who the customers really are.

  2. qaz Says:

    At my university, we always say that students are the product, not the customers.

  3. GMP Says:

    public institutions are funded by, well, the public

    In reality, only about 15% or so of a typical public university operating revenue comes from the state. There is a lot of bamboozling by the state to be endured for the 15% of the tab.

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