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Today’s education providers have a real opportunity to stand out by swiftly reconsidering their customer experience.

The education sector is struggling, and my house is a microcosm of it. Education providers – particularly post-18 – need to put themselves in their customer’s shoes, remembering that even without the pressures of school closures 2020 has been a tough year for many families. Many of us find that Covid creates anxieties and pressures we never felt before, especially when going to new environments; so starting at a new school or university is a big deal for a lot of people.

In our house alone, we have one child who finished Year 6 with a whimper, and is transitioning to secondary. We like our primary school but their efforts for this ‘priority group’ fell short: our daughter wasn’t allowed back at all since mid-March and had had very little in the way of school-ending activities or celebrations to mark a huge moment in her life. Other schools seemed to manage to have more kids back, to use outdoor space more, to be imaginative with silent discos and water fights that were Covid-compliant. Ours mainly sent online work, jaunty emails and a bit of year-end post, which is not the same. The new secondary school she’s moving to is a little better but still could do more to welcome them within Covid rules, we felt. These are emotional times, and emotionally-loaded messages stay with you for a long time.

Meanwhile our middle child received her A-level results recently without sitting an exam. Again communication from her college was patchy, end-of-school celebrating non-existent, and support for next steps hard to find. As for post ‘gap-year’ planning, with tertiary institutions dealing with this year’s A-level fall out and a lack of overseas students many are looking into a financial black hole.

And to cap it all, after a year of consistent staff strikes our eldest was effectively abandoned in mid-March this year by her university who made no attempt to move classes online or send coursework, and simply shut down for the rest of the year.

Meanwhile other near-identical universities moved to full online classes, set work and even had new kinds of final exams delivered virtually. Her university’s efforts to retain her as a customer were minimal, which is partly why she is transferring to another institution. Her efforts to transfer saw mixed results: despite seeming like an attractive candidate, with good grades, some universities never replied, one declined her outright without explanation, and another shifted her application down to repeating first-year without consulting her. Again, a hugely important time where communication from the institutions was not strong.

Like many industries, the education sector is in for a tricky time. There will be winners and losers, and sadly some will go out of business. I’m not a Vice-Chancellor, and could never be, but as a marketer and parent I believe institution leaders need to really look at the wider view, the way you’re seen by your customers and their families: your joining journey, the ongoing customer journey and the way you handle the end of a student’s experience with you, especially in these unprecedented times.

No one will get it 100% right but at a minimum these need to be top of mind:

  • Look at how your key stakeholders (parents and students) experience your brand in typical transactions with you, and remember how valuable they are to you
  • Think about your ‘customer journeys’ – how joined up is your on- and offline experience ? How are you catering for the many needs and issues your families have right now, from finance questions to shielding issues?
  • Look to your values – if you genuinely care about delivering top quality experiences, and perhaps social mobility and making a difference, then think about your brand, your tone of voice and personality. How should you act and react in today’s strange times? Brands, like people, are judged by their actions.

As large, perhaps traditional institutions, this will probably lead you into doing and saying new things (and perhaps stopping a few things) which will feel uncomfortable at times, but it is likely to surface many opportunities.

Thinking this way should see your institution emerge stronger and better ranked by students than some competitors.