Students are not customers

Chicago GSB’s Dean, Ed Snyder, says that students are not customers and nor should they be. So many business schools — probably MBS too — has had to justify larger fees but also increasing competition by telling students that they were customers rather than students. This has been a real problem:

One problem. The model is corrupt and corrupting. Treating students as customers doesn’t help them develop. Do we really want to tell them that they are customers―and that they are always right―when we are in the last, best position to influence their overall academic, ethical, and professional development?

Of course we shouldn’t. What other responsibilities should we abdicate?

One dean I knew quite well tried to salvage the customer model by saying that their MBAs were “students in the classroom, but customers outside the classroom.” Nice try, but it doesn’t work either. When it comes to a career, if a student doesn’t represent himself well when interviewing for jobs, then the school’s relationship capital suffers. If a second-year student doesn’t help her first-year colleagues evaluate early career option steps, then the whole community loses. In fact, the customer model fails on all critical dimensions for similar reasons.

Instead of the customer is always right, we ought to go with a version of you get what you put into it. If we do, then the interesting and important question becomes how can we get our students to put more into their MBA educations?

My answer is that we should engage our MBA students with a combination of “stretch and support.”

– We should set high expectations of our students. When they meet them, shine the light and recognize them. When they don’t, kick them in the butt.

– We must care deeply about our students, their experiences, and what they are trying to achieve. This naturally leads schools to support them day-by-day and in truly profound ways.

If we get the right balance of stretch and support, then we move to a more productive equilibrium, in which students put more in (because they feel both challenged and supported) and they get more out of their experience.

No one should think that I advocate a return to Stalinism. Abandoning the customer model doesn’t reduce the pressure to innovate. It doesn’t prevent us from investing in global career support. However, getting rid of the customer model does mean that every time our students refer to themselves as customers, you can avoid the trap and instead move to surer, higher ground. It causes our jobs to shift toward setting expectations and asking more of your students. This approach takes some repetition―like a few thousand conversations―but these are the right conversations for deans and students to have.

And, as one of my faculty colleagues reminds me: “There isn’t anything wrong with the teacher/student relationship. It’s only been around for two or three millennia.”

Here, here. I agree, students are not customers. Yes, the pay and so in economics terms look like that but, in reality, they also produce. Once they have committed to pay and walk through the lecture theatre door, a fundamental transformation as occurred. Their interests and those of professors and administrators should be aligned. However, they are not because the customer-mind set continues.

I actually think that the appropriate metaphor — if we need one — is that students are employees. We need to compete for employees and so that works but when they work the goal is productivity. That means tough classroom experience and taking orders if need be. There is no service entitlement but then again even employees can demand good administrative treatment and favourable workplaces. The work should be tough but the workplace should be comfortable. That is the mix we should be aiming for.

4 thoughts on “Students are not customers”

  1. to say students are not customers is a complete distortion of reality. The school offers a service: education, and parents/students consume it.

    using the corny ‘customer is always right’ line is utterly ludicrous…and not even relevant.


  2. I share your and Snyder’s concerns about students’ customer mentality, but I share David’s view that students are definitely customers buying a service. To suggest otherwise is to fall into an equally abhorrent mentality – the community is our customer mentality – which carries it’s own ‘always right’ idea. Academics have tendencies towards that approach. So do lawyers.

    (The fact that students’ behaviour can reflect on the uni and their colleagues is hardly a disproof of their customer status. The same can be said for MacDonald’s customers who hog tables or riot on the road outside.)

    The problem with the student-teacher relationship isn’t what the students think about themselves. It’s what they think about teachers. I suspect that they think of teachers as their employees, hence attitudes like seeing the teacher’s ‘job’ as ‘getting students through the exam.’ As I always tell my students, that’s their job.

    Rather, my view is that students are customers, the university is the seller, but teachers are the product. If students don’t like the product – because, say, the teacher expects them to do work, etc – then they should complain to the uni, not us, or perhaps they should recognise that they bought the wrong product. It’s like buying a Big Mac and not liking how unhealthy it is. You could blame the seller or you could blame yourself. But, unless you’re an idiot, you can’t blame the hamburger (though, perhaps, the seller could be persuaded to switch products.)


  3. Even if you regard students as customers, and I’m not sure I do, there are substantial reasons to suggest running universities based on a student=customer model could be sub-optimal.

    Off the top of my head, you could argue that while in order for that market to clear efficiently, the customers would need to have adequate information about the degree they purchase; but students may not be in the best position to choose the subjects, or even the study techniques, that really would help them.

    For example, some student feedback and recommendations I have seen while teaching are particularly helpful and valuable – others are less so. Comments or feedback like “the exam should be entirely multiple choice”. Even if large numbers of students wanted this (and I would hope that most would recognise it’s better for their learning to not rely solely on multiple choice!) I wouldn’t want to adopt such an assessment system in order to satisfy the always-right customer.

    Reacting to the demand from students for specific course structures and assessment styles without careful consideration can quickly result in a lowest-common-denominator approach, rather than a best-possible-education approach. Striving for excellence takes a back seat to striving for customers, when purusing excellence in the first place should creation the relationship capital, reputation and prestige that can secure business for an institution.


  4. There are lots more reasons that the “student=customer” model is wrong or useless.

    Here’s one. Even if they are customers, they are buying a product whose value they won’t really know for 20 years. Also, few will have the opportunity to compare it with a competing education, and few will have the need to buy another one if they liked it. So, if education is a product, it’s very much different from the typical things that people buy.

    Companies normally succeed or fail based on repeat purchases. If you’re selling widgets and you don’t make your customers happy, they’ll simply go elsewhere for their next widget and you’ll go out of business. This kind of model doesn’t apply well to educations.

    In the larger sense, though, students are not employees any more than they are customers. Nor are they products of the University. They share some properties with all three, but it’s a bit silly to try to force education into an industrial model.

    It is good to be reminded that students aren’t customers, though. Students are students.

    I wonder if the world would be different if we said that “employees are like paid students.” rather than the reverse…


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