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John P. Updegraff, Auburn University


John Updegraff.jpgAdvisors on many campuses have noticed a shift in the traditional student-advisor relationship so that students on many campuses now are treated as if they are clients in higher education. The use of “customer service” techniques in academic advising is controversial because of mixed perceptions regarding the definition of the word “service.” Many advisors fear the adverse effects this shift could have on the student-advisor relationship.


The disagreement with customer service stems from the fear that the academe will turn into a business (Customer Service Survey, 2008). It would be naïve to state that business plays no role in higher education; however, advisors must examine our profession in a context relative to the roots of education. Simply put, colleges are not the same as businesses (Raisman, 2002). Academic advisors are not bankers, investors, or financiers, but we do provide a service to students. The division regarding customer service can be narrowed down to the definition of the word “service” as it applies to advising. It can be assumed that students would benefit from the use of some customer service techniques as they apply to institutional retention efforts and the offering of quality service to our students. But, it is the business connotation of “service” that is unpleasant to many advisors.

It is undeniable that we face a new breed of students who have new expectations of advisors. Today’s students have been the recipients of targeted marketing their whole lives; they come to college quite savvy in consumer affairs (Raisman, 2002). Dorsey (2004) noted while many advisors accept “collegiate policies and procedures without question” and may be “satisfied with minimal advising services,…today's generation of students has different expectations” (¶ 2). Now, college students come to advising appointments with a “drive-through restaurant” mentality: they expect quick answers, quick service, and question institutional academic policies (Dorsey, 2004, ¶ 2). Current students perceive themselves as customers because they feel they are spending their valuable tuition money at our institutions. They expect quality service in return. If they receive satisfaction from the tuition they spend, it in turn makes their college experience more enjoyable (Demetriou, 2008). Contrary to popular belief, the customer is not always right in regard to the kinds of matters discussed with an advisor.

How do advisors meet the service expectations of students while remaining true to our student development roots? We must first reframe our view of current students. Students today are not the same as those from a decade ago. Acknowledging that student expectations have changed will allow us to make necessary adjustments to our advising techniques in regard to service (Dorsey, 2004). Advisors do not have to become customer service professionals with this acknowledgement; instead, this acknowledgement allows us to slightly modify the approach we take to the delivery of quality service.

Today’s students expect to have a relationship with their institutions. They can connect through social organizations, academic clubs, intramural sports, or institutional personnel. Students judge the quality of their college experience by the quality of the relationships they make at the institution (Raisman, 2002). Academic advisors do not just handle academic matters, but also frequently serve as retention agents as we help students sort through issues. The level of service advisors provide is essential to college retention efforts, because advisors provide the “only structured service on the campus in which all students have the opportunity for on-going, one-to-one contact with a concerned representative of the institution” (Habley, 1994). While there is no clear answer to the question of how to serve our students better, the service we provide is the relationship we have with our students.

The traditional method for cultivating the student-advisor relationship does not have to change, even though students are changing. The way to serve students is as simple as treating them the way we would want to be treated. As long as advisors keep clear of the business connotation of the service provided, then the “philosophical underpinnings of our profession” will be preserved (Demetriou, 2008, ¶ 7). Fine-tuning our approach to the expectations of students through the use of advising assessment tools, such as satisfaction surveys, can help us collect feedback about how to improve service levels. Innovations such as online appointment systems, advising chat rooms, and the use of social media in advising have increased the accessibility students have with their advisors.

Simple advising techniques can also increase the level of quality service. The use of active listening and leading questions during advising sessions is important to validating student concerns and problems. Also, the attitudinal approach we bring to every advising interaction tells the student whether or not we care. Students want to feel they can trust an advisor with their problems; our responses to their concerns help them determine their level of trust in us. It is important that we not prejudge any student and keep our ability to address their needs unclouded. Additionally, conscious acts like demonstrating empathy, encouragement, sincerity, and compassion help preserve the fundamental aspects of the student-advisor relationship.

Furthermore, there must be a mutual understanding between advisor and student that all student expectations may not be able to be met. The student has responsibilities equal to those of the advisor in the establishment of the student-advisor relationship. There must be an emphasis on shared communication and student responsibility. This will help advisors cultivate the teachable moments, emphasize important life skills, and nurture a student’s potential for success.

In the end, “service” is not about changing the way advisors do their job. It is about changing the perception of how we view “service” in relation to the new expectations students have of us. Advising is still teaching; our caring attitudes should be perceived as the “most potent retention force on campus” (Noel, 1985, p.17).

John P. Updegraff
Academic Advisor
College of Liberal Arts
Auburn University; Auburn, AL
[email protected]



Demetriou, C. (2008). Arguments against applying a customer-service paradigm. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from www.psu.edu/dus/mentor/080930cd.htm.

Dorsey, R. L. (2004). Improving advising through a customer service initiative at the  University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from www.psu.edu/dus/mentor/040212rd.htm

Habley, W.R. (1994). Key concepts in academic advising. In Summer Institute on academic advising session guide (p.10). Manhattan, KS: NACADA. Retrieved from www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/retentionquotes.htm 

Raisman, N. (2002). Embrace the oxymoron: Customer service in higher education. Horsham, PA: LRP Publications. 

Noel, L. (1985). Increasing student retention: New challenges & potential. In L. Noel, R. Levitz, D. Saluri, & Associates (Eds.), Increasing student retention (pp.1-27). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Updegraff, J. P. (Surveyer). (Nov. 2008). Customer Service Survey [Survey results]. Retrieved from www.surveymonkey.com/ through the use of NACADA Regional Listservs.

Cite this article using APA style as: Updegraff, J.P. (2010, March). Surviving the semantics of customer service: Where does it fit into academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 33(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2010 March 33:1


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