Many Faculty Misunderstand What Enhancing Customer Service Means in the Classroom, and You May, Too 

University students studying with teacher

As a senior administrator in higher education for decades, I spent a great deal of time creating programs and policies that would enhance the student experience. This seemed natural, and it was done in pursuit of boosting student satisfaction and retention. As an instructor, however, reconciling “student satisfaction” within my classroom was not as straightforward. My goal as an instructor was to provide information and build knowledge for students, despite the fact that sometimes the outcome was disappointing for both of us. Since students pay for classes, but not grades, there was never an expectation that students would be universally satisfied. 

Enhancing the student experience and customer service on campus is often delegated to administrators and staff who develop policies, procedures, and programs for students that will act as guardrails at the edge of the enrollment cliff. However, many discussions over the years surrounding this important topic have often purposely steered away from the classroom— as though classrooms are shrouded under an invisibility cloak and are not up for discussion when it comes to customer service. 

On one occasion, I was meeting with a mixture of administrators and faculty, and I shared my belief that we needed to examine our efforts toward enhancing customer service around campus so that we could advance our retention efforts. One faculty member scoffed at this, saying, “We can’t do that in the classroom. This isn’t Disney World. Sometimes we have to say ‘no.’” I responded with agreement. “You’re right,” I said. “We aren’t Disney World. But even at Disney World, cast members say no to guests all day, every day. It’s how they say no that matters.” This was the first time I realized what the disconnect was—that many faculty assumed that bringing customer service into the classroom meant giving students everything they asked for. When in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Providing better customer service in the classroom has very little to do with grades; rather, it has to do with relationships. Here are five examples of how to enhance customer service in the classroom while maintaining the academic integrity that we all strive for:  

  1. What’s in a name? Shakespeare may have gotten this one wrong. Dale Carnegie wrote that “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” When possible, having faculty call students by name, even if they are reading from an attendance roster, enhances connections and shows care. 
  1. Use inclusive language. I’ve made lots of mistakes in teaching, and few—if any of them—relate to course content. I remember the first time I called a student “she,” and that student corrected me (and outed himself) in front of the class that his pronouns were, “he/his.” I also recall realizing that when I discussed gender roles, I used mostly heteronormative language. For example, when speaking with a young man, I might mention his “girlfriend” instead of using the term “partner.” Thanks to my third-grade teacher, I had been taught not to use terms like “mankind” in favor of “humankind,” “policeman” in favor of “police officer,” and “man the office” in favor of “staff the office.” At least I was doing all right in one area! 
  1. Trust. We’ve all had students who experienced deaths in their families, and not once have I ever asked for a copy of an obituary (as I’ve heard other faculty do). So, as long as a student’s grandmother hasn’t died more than once during the term, express your condolences, and ask how you can help. This demonstration of trust will go a long way. 
  1. Invite more conversation. Sometimes students want to chat before or after class, or in the hallway, for more time than is feasible. Invite that student to see you during your office hours (or use the more student-friendly term, “student hours”).  This will offer more time to properly attend to their needs and build the relationship along the way.  Offering “student hours” can also work for virtual synchronous and asynchronous classroom settings. 
  1. Show your human side. Although instruction time is precious, don’t barrel through content at the expense of showing your human side. Some of my favorite professors were those who weren’t afraid to share personal details about themselves: a funny story about a pet or child, an experience they had when THEY were an undergrad, or an anecdote about their favorite television show. Shared details like these make faculty more approachable. I especially remember one of my faculty members in grad school who sat in a chair in front of the class and had a conversation with us instead of standing up and lecturing the entire time. All of this humanized the faculty, which helped to enhance their connection with students. 

Being a member of the faculty isn’t easy. It takes knowledge, expertise, political savvy, and the ability to connect with others. Enhancing customer service in the classroom can facilitate all of these things while also building student trust and supporting retention. 


After 30 years as a senior Student Affairs administrator, Heath Boice-Pardee joined Academic Impressions as its first Head of Practice for Service Excellence to pursue his passion of partnering with campuses to enhance student experience and retention. Heath is co-author of the book, Elevating Customer Service in Higher Education: A Practical Guide, published by Academic Impressions. He also serves as President of the Association for Service Excellence in Higher Education (ASEHE).