Part of every successful business is listening to its customers. A business is only as successful as its most satisfied customer. This is why companies invest in focus groups, surveys, and secret shoppers. The companies that are fortunate enough to beat the odds and stay in business have one thing in common. They truly listen to what their customers have to say. It is not as simple as saying, “we send our customers a survey after every transaction” or “our last focus group provided positive feedback so therefore, we must be on the right track.” Customers speak in various ways and the businesses who truly care look beyond the words to learn how they can improve. It is easy to listen when the anticipated feedback is positive. Everyone wants to know that they are doing a good job; however, the most effective companies focus more on the negative.
In a recent article I read, the author was recounting and comparing two experiences involving returning items purchased online. There were comparisons made on the overall ease of the experience, the number of steps involved, and how much effort was expended to complete a “free return.” One company’s return process was painful and exasperated an already difficult situation. The second company acknowledged that it may not always be successful, but that their customers were important, by implementing a thoughtful process designed to retain good will. Although the item purchased by the author did not meet her needs, the hassle-free experience left a lasting impression. Ultimately, the second company had won over another customer, not through its products, but through understanding the customer’s perspective and developing a process that alleviated the pain.
The criticism surrounding higher education focuses on specifics like accessibility, diversity, and affordability, but what everyone is really saying is that higher education is not listening. Higher education hears the complaints, sees increasing drop-out rates, and laments low enrollments. The problem is not in hearing. The problem is with the lack of listening for understanding. Everyday students are communicating their needs, concerns, and frustrations, but their words go unheard. We are all guilty of contributing to the problem. We think we know the issues. We think we are providing solutions. We think we are addressing the concerns. We think we are making a difference. However, with every drop-out, every barrier, every “no” that is spoken, students are seeing their academic dreams crumble. The problem is that we think we know.
We are not taking the time to understand the obstacles students overcome to make it to a 11:00am class. We are not taking the time to understand the personal hardships that caused a working mom of three kids to request a leave of absence. We are not taking the time to remediate the working adult student who knows they squandered opportunities to earn a degree earlier. We are not taking time to see that the first generation college student is struggling to understand terms that we all take for granted. In the end, we are not taking the time to understand.
Higher education is facing intense scrutiny, but we must stop and ask ourselves, how much of this did we bring on ourselves? Did we become too busy catering to tradition that we failed to see each student as a human being who faces difficulties, failures, and insecurities before they decided to follow a dream they thought was out of reach? When these students reach out, we need to ask if we are doing everything possible to make their lives just a little easier. We should put ourselves in their shoes. Higher education brushes off outcomes assessment processes and institutional effectiveness as compliance buzz words. These are not just empty words. They are processes designed to push us to see beyond the rote mechanics and challenge us to see if we are really listening to students. Change in higher education will not be a result of federal regulation or a politician’s campaign promises. Change in higher education will come when we start listening for understanding. When we take the time to focus on the “experiences that cause pain” and provide thoughtful solutions for the students we serve.
“Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.”
~ Alan Alda