Recently, I have been reflecting on the most important changes colleges and universities must make to adapt to students behaving more like shoppers in the higher education marketplace. However, before I get to that, I must say I worked in retail for about 15 years and I am not suggesting we view students as shoppers purchasing commodities.
What are shoppers looking for in general?
- They want to shop efficiently. They want the information beforehand so they can make an informed purchase decision. To modify a logistics definition, they want: the right product, at the right place, in the right condition, in the right quantity, at the right time, for the right customer.
- They want to discover new things and have a variety of items to choose from.
- They want technology and convenience, but not at the expense of good customer service. Those self-checkout lanes, barcode readers or scan-able coupons that don’t always work are annoying.
- They want to satisfy their “basket of goods” requirements, not just an individual product.
So, if students are behaving more like shoppers in the higher education marketplace, what should institutions do? Here are three major changes all colleges and universities should consider:
1. Pre-Enrollment Information
First of all, colleges and universities need to recognize higher education is a big-ticket item. How many of us have walked into a car dealership and plunked down money for a vehicle on a whim? Shoppers tend to do a lot of “homework” online before purchasing bigger-ticket items, and unless they are advised or guided by a salesperson at the retail floor (or online via chat), they will stick to their initial purchase decision.
Higher education institutions typically focus on selling with a Point of Sale (POS) strategy, which is much more effective at impacting purchase decisions in the impulse and habitually purchased or less-frequently purchased categories (think cough/cold remedies). Higher education institutions must provide potential enrollees with the information they need much earlier in the purchasing process.
Higher education institutions must adapt their online presence to be student-centered, not built around existing hierarchical categories or structures that are simply duplicated online. The depth and breadth of options (areas of study) should be clear to the student, and complementary subjects and programs should be laid out so it’s easy to see what is available. Shoppers won’t stand for out-of-stock items. If students can’t find the course or program they’re looking for at one college, they’ll look elsewhere. If there is an opportunity to connect directly with the prospective student via live chat or videochat, that would be ideal. At a minimum, social media conversations should be monitored so student advisors can step in at the appropriate time and provide advice on making the best academic purchase.
2. High-Quality Service and Learning
Quality is important. Shoppers are not just buying on price. They want a good experience that will also give them a solution to their problem. Look to the automobile industry once again for examples of how companies can generate long-term brand loyalty based on post-purchase services. Providing customers with dedicated service centers and trade-in value generates a great deal of return business.
Quality is also critical for an institution’s reputation. Colleges and universities should strive to maintain their positioning in the marketplace and not succumb to the pressure to have a high graduation rate at the expense of quality graduates. The communication has to address the quality of the institution. If a college develops a reputation for being “easy,” the perception of its quality suffers. Employers will not hire graduates from “low-quality” colleges and the institution’s graduation rate will ultimately suffer, as students will stop “shopping” at those institutions. Post-purchase service would include helping students develop the soft skills key to employability, facilitating a strong alumni network and ongoing assistance with career development
3. Meeting Students’ Needs with Programming and Tools
Before the Internet, students — like shoppers — had their experience managed for them. Stores were located in particular areas, only open at certain times and carried a limited assortment of goods. Colleges were located in particular areas, only open at certain times and offered a limited assortment of courses.
Now, students manage their own experience. They attend online or offline, take courses during the day, evening, weekend and pick and choose from a wide array of courses. Colleges that aren’t providing this type of programming may suffer from decreasing numbers of shoppers.
Higher education institutions are using technology to help streamline processes and reduce the costs of providing support. They have automated registration, email and learning management systems. Some of these technologies are clunky, outdated and do not work well with modern devices. For example, most students are tethered to their smartphones but many colleges don’t have mobile-friendly websites. Some systems work only with a particular browser or operating system. This is not shopper-friendly. It is similar to stores emailing customers coupons that have to be printed out for use in-store. How is this good service?
Students are looking for a group of courses or a program that satisfies their requirements. Stores are responsible for researching the market, understanding trends, regulations, legislation and bringing in products consumers value. Higher education institutions have to ensure they do the same thing. Institutions have to be more flexible than they traditionally have been. Intra-institutional silos must be broken down in the name of student choice, access and convenience.
Ultimately, the main change higher education institutions must make as we enter the new era of postsecondary education is the transformation to a student-centered focus. Institutions must aim to provide their students with all of the information they need, flexibility to explore the entire institution and the support necessary for them to achieve success.
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