Six barriers Universities face in improving customer experience

by Luke Williams - Principal Consultant |

Universities are amazing places full of some of the most interesting and passionate people. At their core, universities have a mandate to innovate, to push the boundaries of what is known and to make discoveries that will change the world for the better. Environments such as these would surely be the perfect hot-bed of customer experience innovation and enhancement - at least that’s what you would think.

In my experience, the reality is somewhat different. While there is no shortage of passion and dedication, universities often leave their students to navigate complicated processes with incorrect and out-dated information.

Whether it’s a cumbersome class registration process or confusion around the prerequisites of a course, even in some of the most prestigious institutions, antiquated systems and a lack of streamlining leave students struggling through the most fundamental administrative tasks. Sadly the horror story of students having to extend their courses by multiple semesters in order to graduate because of incorrect advice is all too common.

Despite this, many universities are deeply committed to improving customer service, so what is it that makes it so challenging to improve the situation? I have identified what is by no means an exhaustive list of barriers that befall many institutions.


  1. Not thinking of students as customers

    Digital disruption has challenged all manner of businesses by empowering customers, putting an emphasis on ensuring that their needs are met. A recent E-consultancy survey of over 1000 businesses found that 78% of them are trying to differentiate on customer experience.

    Universities have yet to feel the full force of this disruptive shift and are currently managing to maintain their virtual monopoly as the issuers of the credentials that students need to develop their careers and futures. While awareness is growing to the threat that disruption and new business models may, a level of complacency is still prevalent.

    In some universities this complacency can manifest itself as smugness, as if the university is doing their students a favour by granting them admission. So long as universities perceive that the governments that fund them largely protect their existence, the impetus to re-architect complex organisations around student experience and see students as customers whose experience is vital to their success will be low.

    On top of this, university reputation and rankings, the main driver of student desirability, are based predominately on research outcomes and not student experience, again lowering the incentive to invest in change.

  2. Lack of clear objectives

    Universities exist to serve society through both their research and teaching. While students make the assumption that teaching is the priority, in many cases universities are more focused on their research as for the most part it is research outcomes that drive rankings and prestige.

    On top of that, the way universities are organised often means faculty and department priorities are in conflict with one another. With so many sub-organisations all vying for funding and credibility, it is little wonder that for many universities defining a clear vision and purpose that all staff can rally around is virtually impossible.

    With this lack of clarity, prioritising students as customers and focussing on their end-to-end experience is very difficult for university administrators. Change management is difficult at the best of times, but when sub-organisations are not in alignment around the core reason for being, then asking groups of staff around a campus to stop or change the way they have been doing things becomes a costly and time consuming exercise.

  3. Academic freedom challenges coordinated initiative

    Academia thrives on challenging the status-quo by giving individuals the freedom to question just about anything. This is vital to the success of research, however when that academic freedom overflows into “administrative freedom”, the effort required to create the coordinated processes and initiatives that underpin good customer experience become exponentially more difficult.

  4. Data quality

    Seamless customer experience is underpinned by reliable and unified customer data. An organisation’s ability to take a unified view of each of its customers and determine how they are interacting with services and systems is vital in continually improving those experiences.

    Like many organisations universities are struggling to get a handle on the data they have available and bringing that together in an integrated and unified way. This struggle is compounded by legacy systems that don’t integrate easily, governance issues around data management and duplicated processes that produce conflicting records that undermine data quality.

  5. Silos and bureaucracy

    Having outlined my previous points, it should come as no surprise that the siloed nature of universities and the effort required to work with the many stakeholders involved in any university-wide initiative is a major impediment to achieving customer experience improvements. All too often “good” initiatives exist in select areas of a university – failing to progress to “great” institution-wide initiatives because of the effort and personal cost to staff that expanding an idea or process out across the whole campus would involve.

    In this environment, well meaning staff can become protective of their projects and what they have built again adding to the overhead required to implement institution-wide change. Establishing cultures that encourage collaboration as well as good governance, project integration and budget control are essential if university administrators want to take a view of their students that is not limited to specific faculties or departments.

  6. Budget

    The final and possibly the most crucial barrier to good customer experience is the lack of adequate funding. Universities are often under-invested when it comes to their core digital systems. The projected investment required to create the experiences that students are becoming accustomed to in other areas of their lives is quite staggering, let alone the funds that would be required to truly deliver on a digital vision of education that could revolutionise the way students experience their time at university.

    While universities can fathom building programmes that run to hundreds of millions of dollars, trying to gain the collective buy-in for similar figures to invest in something as intangible as customer experience or the underpinning digital and IT systems that are often so poorly understood can be a stretch too far.


Overcoming these challenges

With challenges as fundamental and systemic as these, can universities move towards improved customer experience? Certainly this is a question that Vice-Chancellors around the country and the world are grappling with.

While the effort should not be underestimated, the following are a few suggestions to get your institution headed in the right direction.


  1. Start with your customer

    As mentioned above, agreeing on shared objectives can be difficult in a university context. What is less difficult is to get staff to agree that improving interactions with students is crucial.

    Even with only a small overlap in mutual agreement a mandate to allow the voice of the customer to drive change will help to build a platform on which projects and initiatives can be evaluated and prioritised.

  2. Research your customer

    Universities are the home of research and it should not be a stretch to rigorously understand the needs of your students as customers. Getting an objective sense of what students need and want and clear visibility about the current gaps and perceptions should be a unifying force in helping staff to recognise the need for university-wide collaboration and garnering support to work together to improve things.

  3. Use data as an aligning force

    Aside from traditional focus groups, the insights that can be gained from the data sets you have available are a crucial step in getting stakeholders on the same page.

    Ultimately, a unified data layer that is able to surface a single view of the customer will drive a best-practice customer experience. That’s the goal. But start small; make use of digital analytics, CRM data, and student system data to understand your customer journeys and where there are measurable pain points.

    With data at the centre, fruitful discussion across the institution is far more likely.

  4. Work together to ruthlessly prioritise the needs of the customer

    Having identified the importance of the customer and upon gaining an understanding of what they need, it goes without saying that any unilateral approach to improve the situation is likely to fail.

    Collaboration is required at every point. A group of representative individuals that can work within the mandate of improving customer experience to ruthlessly prioritise the needs of the customer and generate the work-streams required to meet these needs has a far better chance of success.


While universities may have a few years before the real pain of disruption impacts traditional business models, the time is right to focus on the customer and ensure that your institution is meeting their needs.

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