In 2018 the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in the United Kingdom reported that complaints made against universities totalled 1,635, a rise of 8% on 2016. In the Guardian article that reported this, it was noted that poor facilities as well as poor teaching and supervision constituted the bulk of complaints against UK universities.
In Africa the situation is no better and students have complained, for instance, that in the law faculty of a prominent university, they were barred from using the elevator because it was for faculty only.
International students wonder why African universities spend several thousands of dollars on tarring streets and creating gardens when students have to endure poor sound quality in lecture rooms, chairs and tables that threaten the health of students, and halls of residence that are besieged by break-ins and thefts and in the vicinity of which international students are sometimes physically attacked.
Students are external university customers, groups of people who receive goods, services or ideas from universities for an agreed consideration which is usually monetary. They include both local and international students.
Other external stakeholders in African universities that complain about poor service delivery are alumni who say universities rarely check on them after they graduate, and when they couple this with the poor experiences they received while enrolled in these universities, they become unwilling to give back because the universities have failed to develop strong bonds with them.
On the industry front, corporate entities – another external customer – sometimes complain that graduates being produced are not fit for purpose. They are unhappy about the long periods they have to spend training such graduates before they can begin to work at productivity levels that justify the salaries being paid to them.
Instead of these African universities taking these concerns as critical customer feedback, they rather hit back by arguing that they are just engaged in generalist training and that it is the job of the corporate sector to shape the graduates into what they need them to be.
Internal university customers – defined as all university employees who interact to provide goods and services to external customers – also complain. In the case of academic staff, the issues are usually about poor conditions of service, poor sound in lecture halls, poorly furnished offices, lack of space in which to interact with students, excessive workloads and the general lack of appreciation for the sacrifices they make.
Administrators complain about the lack of adequate working tools, with computer and air-conditioner replacements taking up to a year because of cumbersome procurement practices.
The list of internal stakeholder poor customer delivery complaints in Africa is near endless and it is often argued that if so many African universities do such a poor job of satisfying their internal stakeholder audiences, then external stakeholders stand next to no chance of receiving excellent customer service.
Internal and external stakeholders in African universities all seem to have problems with the level of customer service being delivered to them. Yet in the face of these poor customer service routines, dwindling income and poor alumni patronage, very few universities in Africa have well-developed and full-blown customer service units with clear customer service delivery mandates and customer service policies.
In the few cases where customer service policies exist, they only sit on paper and are not interwoven into the performance management plans. The implication of this anomaly is that when it comes to performance appraisal, customer service delivery does not feature at all, and in these circumstances university employees have no motivation to become customer service champions.
In the light of COVID-19, African universities would have to go beyond normal service delivery to satisfy their various internal and external stakeholder audiences. If African universities were not taking customers seriously before COVID-19, they have no option but to do so now.
The reality facing African universities today is that they are contending with bigger global university brands like the (UK) Russell Group and (US) Ivy League universities and must therefore step up their customer service game to attract financial resources during COVID-19 and beyond.
The ‘3Rs’ spell out some immediate steps to improving service in African universities.
1. Recognise that digital is the new normal
Prior to the onset of COVID-19, digital platforms, artificial intelligence, machine learning and social media all seemed like fads and optional avenues for African universities. In the new normal, however, African universities will now have to start developing customer service policies and strategies that place a lot more emphasis on digital rather than physical service delivery.
University customers may not be able to interact physically for a long time to come, so university senior management should immediately start developing service blueprints on the basis of digital service delivery.
2. Reassure and inform
One of the first and most critical steps in influencing customer behaviour positively towards universities is in the delivery of clear and timely information.
This would serve to reassure internal and external customers that the university understands the extreme stress they are having to contend with, the various modifications to their buyer journeys, their new and heightened expectations of service excellence in these trying times, and communicate the university’s capacity to meet these expectations.
3. Revisit the basics
Great customer service is a function of a welcoming environment, knowledgeable staff, prompt communication and after-sales service.
In respect of a welcoming environment, it would be advisable to conduct a quick audit of all your digital interfaces. Is your website attractive enough and COVID-19 compliant? Do you advocate any safety tips in these pandemic times, and do you explain the safety measures you are taking in order not to put customers at risk?
Do your digital interfaces explain modifications to your customer buyer journey? Is your website visually appealing and aligned to your corporate brand? Is there alignment between the social media interfaces you are using and the targeted demographic you are trying to reach? In the new normal digital age in which we are operating, these are key questions to answer in respect of a welcoming digital environment.
In what is a stressful and frightening COVID-19 era, there would be nothing more frustrating to a customer than dealing with ill-trained university staff who lack the initiative to find answers to their questions. Customers want knowledgeable and digitally savvy university staff to assist them expeditiously with all their service challenges.
Communication is key to achieving exceptional customer experience delivery. Prompt university communication to both internal and external customers should be clear, reliable and accurate, and this will be vital for organisational success in these trying times.
And, a final thought: alumni matter for African universities, so university after-sales service would involve the development of strong digitalised alumni management systems, replete with tracer studies, to create better emotional bonds with university alumni and make them contributors to the fortunes of African universities.
Professor Robert Ebo Hinson is head of the department of marketing and entrepreneurship at the University of Ghana and a research associate at the University of the Free State Business School in South Africa. This is the second in a series of articles by Professor Hinson on African universities and their marketing propensities.