Arguments against Applying a Customer-Service Paradigm

Cynthia Demetriou, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“Customer service is a series of activities designed to enhance the level of customer satisfaction-that is, the feeling that a product or service has met the customer expectation” (Turban, Lee, King, & Chung, 2002, p. 87).

There has been a recent buzz about applying customer-service principles to higher education, particularly in academic advising and in support of student retention. The Journal of College Student Retention recently published an article on applying business-marketing strategies to retention initiatives (Ackerman & Schibrowsky, 2008). Several of this year's National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) regional conference presentations across the country focused on utilizing a customer-service approach to improve adviser-student interactions. Many of these presentations will likely be given at the fall 2008 NACADA national conference as well. From a professional perspective, applying customer-service principles to academic advising requires our immediate attention and must be critically examined.

The academic advising profession has developed significantly since the early 1990s. NACADA has grown to more than 10,000 members, and the profession as a whole is at an important juncture. The body of literature and research on academic advising is also growing rapidly. The terms and definitions we use, particularly at this critical moment of growth, to define ourselves as advising professionals and to characterize our profession are of the utmost importance. If we want to continue this growth in a way that strengthens the practice of advising in higher education, it is critical to develop our own models as opposed to borrowing models from the business world or other professions, particularly when those models are not well suited to elucidate the fundamental tenets of our work. Developing our own language, models, and perspectives is essential to strengthening the profession's foundation as well as supporting future research and identifying best practices.

Simply stated, the term “customer service” should stay in the business sector. In the quote at the start of this article, Turban (2002) defines customer service as “a series of activities designed to enhance ... satisfaction” (p. 87). Satisfaction is not an appropriate gauge of quality in higher education. In business, the customer is always right; however, in education the student is not always right. In fact, often the greatest learning experiences for students come from situations in which they experience considerable dissatisfaction.

Customer service requires the presence of both a product line and financial incentives for exceptional service. In education and advising, the product is an oft intangible, value-laden process traversing an individual's lifespan (Lawrence, 1995). The service providers in this field of work do not receive financial remuneration for improved service. While there are substantial benefits to purposely examining and improving the quality of service that students receive, there are too many differences between the business world and our service providers (advisers) and fundamental product (education) to apply this term to academic advising.

Academic advising and successful retention efforts are intricately linked (Nutt, 2003). As is true for academic advising, retention should not be about customer service. Retention work is about understanding the multiple interacting factors that cause failure to persist. We need to address these multiple factors and how they coalesce to prevent student success. From this knowledge and understanding, we can improve the quality and complexity of our service. This is different than providing customer service, which is defined as seeking client satisfaction. Nationally, colleges and universities are creating policies to increase retention and expand access. These policy decisions must be grounded in aspirations for educational excellence, not obtaining student satisfaction.

Globally, there is concern about commodifying education in today's society (Naidoo & Jamieson, 2005). Undeniably, business plays a prominent role in today's higher education systems. The premise here is not that business structures should be removed from higher education; but, rather that while functioning in complex institutions that engage in the buying and selling of goods to turn a profit, we should carefully choose the words and phrases that define our profession and our work within education. Naidoo and Jamieson (2005) find that “the essence of commodification is that it necessarily involves a great deal of standardization of knowledge” (p. 45). Let us not slip into this standardization. Let us not accept the standardized terms of another profession and try to apply them to our own. The language we use is important. It is more than just determining the nomenclature of our profession. The terms we adapt and utilize in our daily work seep into the philosophical underpinnings of our profession. For example, if tomorrow we began calling our students “clients” instead of “students,” then slowly our understanding of the individuals we serve would change. Instead of seeing these individuals as distinct persons engaged in academic as well as personal exploration, study, investigation, and thoughtful examination, and capable of metacognition and profound human change and development, we might view the collective group we serve simply as patrons of goods and services. Similarly, if we regard advising and educating as providing customer service, slowly the complexity and nuances of our work could be whittled down to a simplified standardization measured through satisfaction.

The quality of service we provide to students is important. It is also important and desirable that students ultimately gain a sense of satisfaction from the educational experience. Still, the term customer service is incompatible with academic advising. It is essential to come up with our own terms and definitions that fully embody what we do and what we mean when we say “quality service,” not what the business sector means when it says “customer service.” This article does not attempt to determine what that term should be, rather it argues against the application of the term “customer service” to academic advising. This article does hope, however, to conclude with one example of how an idea from a different discipline can be reshaped and molded to meet the needs of our professional work in a way that contributes to our profession's language and foundation.

It is undeniable that we live in an interdisciplinary, dynamic academic world. It is not only desirable but essential that we look to other professions to define ourselves; however, it is pivotal that we then redefine the knowledge we gain from other disciplines to appropriately suit our distinct selves. A fine example of how this recently has been accomplished in our profession is Bloom and Martin's (2003) application of Appreciative Inquiry to academic advising. Bloom and her colleagues explored approaches to Appreciative Inquiry, which is generally used in various business sectors, and then explored the application to academic advising. Ultimately, while preserving essential principles of the original theory, the team added new elements from academic advising so that the new theory required a distinct name: Appreciative Advising (see While to some this name change may seem minor, it is very significant. The name change/new term denotes a new practice—a practice that grew from an established theory but is different. As advisers and educators, we may practice things that seem quite similar to customer service, but it is not customer service. As was accomplished with Appreciative Advising, we must examine the elements of customer service, examine how these elements are different when seen through the lens of advising and practiced in higher education, and then define what it is we are truly doing.


Ackerman, R., & Schibrowsky, J. (2008). A business marketing strategy applied to student retention: A higher education initiative. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, 9(3), 307–336.

Bloom, J., & Martin, N. (2003, August 29). Incorporating Appreciative Inquiry into academic advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 4(3). Retrieved August 13, 2008, from

Lawrence, F. (1995). Preface. In B. Rubin (Ed.), Quality in higher education (p. vii). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Naidoo, R., & Jamieson, I. (2005). Knowledge in the marketplace: The global commodification of teaching and learning in higher education. In P. Ninnes & M. Hellstén (Eds.), Internationalizing higher education: Critical explorations of pedagogy and policy (pp. 37–52). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Nutt, C. L. (2003). Academic advising and student retention and persistence. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved August 13, 2008, from

Turban, E., Lee J., King D., & Chung, H. (2002). Electronic commerce: A managerial perspective (International ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall International.

About the Author

Cynthia Demetriou is a retention coordinator in the Office of Undergraduate Education at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She can be reached at

Published in The Mentor on September 30, 2008, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at
Privacy and Legal Statements | Copyright | © The Pennsylvania State University | All rights reserved