Customer focus is just one aspect of Top Quality Management and refers to paying keen attention to improving customer satisfaction which is aimed at customer retention, increasing customer loyalty, while at the same time increasing profits in the business, company or organization. It is about incorporating the customer’s opinion into creation of a service or product and getting employees to look at the process of service or product creation through the eyes of the customer. Customer satisfaction does not come easy and calls for application of customer relations management. There is a common saying that customer is always king and true to it, businesses thrive depending on how well they treat their customers. Satisfied customers will not only keep coming back for more, but they will also bring along other customers, hence making the business popular and helping it to gain a competitive advantage over competitors (Adrian, 2010, p.1).
Definition of terms
In order to bring the meaning of customer focus and related terms closer home, this first chapter will look at definition of terms that will be referred to time and again throughout the paper.
Customer Relations Management (CRM)
Customer relations management is a term that is used in referring to a strategy that combines technological approaches and business strategies in trying to understand who a customer is, what they do and what their needs are, in order to create products and services designed to meet the specific needs of clients. Customer relations management in relation to customer focus serves to bring out the best in customer value and behaviour which in turn influences their loyalty to and satisfaction from the business, company or organization in question (American Association of School Administrators, p.1).
CRM is a strategy which, when well implemented, goes a long way in managing the interactions between a company and its customers, both existing and potential. CRM in relation to improving customer focus in universities plays a crucial role in understanding the customer in this case the student, and what their needs are, and tailoring the services (teaching services) to suit the needs of the client. The overall goals of CRM is to find, attract, nurture and retain customers at the same time reducing the costs of customer service without compromising the quality of services offered. However, implementation of CRM in a university setting cannot be successful unless the employees are fully convinced about the necessity of the organization’s alignment towards its customers. Employees have to do away with the mentality that their customers come and go and hence it does not matter much the quality of services they receive from the organization. If need be, there needs to be training for the employees in regard to how to deal with customers, whether it is for one time encounter or for a life-long process (American Association of School Administrators, p.1).
Top Quality Management (TQM)
In any business that hopes to stand out above the rest in the industry, Top Quality Management is a factor that they cannot afford to overlook. It is the broader component that encompasses customer focus and refers to a participatory management strategy that lays emphasis on total staff commitment and dedication to customer satisfaction, which is the whole essence of customer focus. TQM is a holistic approach that has helped bring down the top-down managerial systems and promote a more decentralised customer-driven approach to decision making and management. TQM approaches are developed around the assumption that 90 percent of problems arising in any business enterprise or venture are as a result of weaknesses in service delivery processes, and not necessarily as a result of employee mistakes or incompetence. TQM, when applied in the right way can improve efficiency and effectiveness in an organization (Brent 1995, p.41).
Customer satisfaction and loyalty
Customer satisfaction refers to a situation where the customer’s needs are met in a manner that is way beyond his specifications. It implies that a company or organization has got to go an extra mile to please the customer. In any competitive market customer satisfaction is a key differentiator and is a crucial component of business strategy.
This paper aims at establishing the importance of customer focus in education, especially at the university level. It seeks to understand how customer focus can be implemented in universities and the problems faced by students as a result of lack of customer focus, as well as to make a recommendation on what can be done to improve the situation (Bradshaw, 2010, p.5).
Importance of customer focus
In his book ‘Oakland on quality management,’ John S. Oakland 2004, p49 says that top quality management is a matter of delivering quality services and products to customers, based on customer’s specifications. In other words, it refers to fitness for purpose or use. This means that the company or business has to focus on the customer in order to be able to understand and completely be able to meet the specific needs. Strategies towards TQM should be guided by a number of factors that are directed towards upholding the reputation of the company. These aspects are; competitive elements of quality and reliability as well as competitive and affordable prices, the most important of them being quality, ability to remember that once an organization gains a negative reputation, restructuring it into something positive takes a very long while, reputation, whether positive or negative, has the ability to cross borders and the final aspect is that management of competitive weapons like quality can effectively be used to turn around poor reputation into positive one. When thinking about reputation, organizations are basically putting their focus on what they think their customers think about them. This said, when TQM is referred to, the biggest component behind it is customer focus.
How then is Customer Focus relevant to universities? Universities have over time been known to be the biggest producers of human resource, but unfortunately, students in universities are still faced with problems that are hindering them from attaining quality education that will land them the jobs they claim to be qualified for. The services they receive from the said universities do not meet the standards for fitness for purpose, the problem being that there are loopholes in issues like the range of assessment methods used to evaluate the students, the quality of library stock as well as the course subjects offered do not meet the required standards. This has become an issue of concern for many parents, educators, business and government leaders (Jennifer 2006, p.35).
Implementing customer focus
Stakeholders have explored new ways of improving student performance especially at the university level, where a big proportion of students with poor performance are placed. It is after witnessing the success that comes with customer-oriented business approaches that resulted into improvements in service delivery and better customer awareness in other businesses that educators and other stakeholders in the field of education have come together to try and implement the customer-oriented approach into education systems. It has come to the realization of education stakeholders that parents and students need to be treated as valued customers who are constantly seeking services from universities as organizations.
One of the key scholars who discussed the core importance of customer focus and its application in the school setting was Deming (1958 p.45). He reviewed the important aspects of customer focus movement and carefully related them to education. He was of the opinion that there should be a partnership between the government and the education system in order to improve education. He stressed on the importance of students being treated as customers, their importance in the whole system and the quality of education offered to them being based on the requirements of the jobs the students seek after graduating. Deming argues that consumer research should be done every one in a while and findings used to consider the most important strategies in implementing quality and customer focus movements, with the belief that appropriate responses to customer needs can go a long way in guaranteeing customer satisfaction. Feedback from customers should be the basis upon which teachers can achieve their educational goals where students are concerned, while at the same time increasing their own job satisfaction.
A research study carried out by one Coulson (1996 p.57) showed that teachers have a positive attitude towards the concept of customer focus, and this would form a good basis on which to start the implementation of customer focus. Despite the increased levels of awareness among teachers, parents, students and community leaders are still critical of the quality of university education.
The implementation process of customer focus is as simple as having the customer in mind in all levels of policy and decision making as well as incorporating them in the simple day to day activities that are rather taken for granted or as obvious. Some of the steps that would make the implementation process as easy as it sounds are;
Encouraging face to face dealings
According to Adrian Thompson 2010 in his article ‘Customer Satisfaction in 7 steps,’ face to face dealings are the most crucial part of interacting with a customer. However, he acknowledges that it is not always easy to have a one on one interaction with clients at all times. However, in his findings, Adrian discovered that customers find it easier to work with a person they have met in person, rather than one they have only spoken to over the phone or communicated with over the internet. Face to face dealings provide one with opportunity to know their customer in person and to take time to understand what it is that the customer really needs since feedback is instant.
Responding to messages promptly and keeping clients informed
We all know that it is quite annoying to keep waiting for a response for days on end. When it comes to customers, nothing annoys them more than to be denied immediate feedback, especially to information considered really important. Even though dealing with customers queries within few hours may not always be possible, but it is always advisable to at least call back or send an email and let the customer know that their concern has been received and is being worked on. Even if the customer may not receive a response right away, it is only fair to let them know that their request is being worked on. This way, the customer is likely to stick with you and not move their business elsewhere (Arthur and Carrie, 2009, p.76).
Being friendly and approachable
Have you ever considered the truth in the saying that one can hear a smile through the phone? It is very important to be friendly and courteous, even to customers who cannot see you physically. Make them feel that you are there to help them out and to respond to their needs accordingly. Always keep a clear head and respond to your clients needs to the best of your ability as politely and courteously as possible (Schmoker and Wilson 1993, p.46).
Having a clearly defined customer service policy
In the universities, having policies that are well formulated on the services that are offered to students and what course of action the customer (student) can take in case the quality and standards are not met is very crucial. This goes a long way in helping the students realize that their interests are held dearly and safeguarded and that they can always achieve the best they want to. This is especially in regard to library stock, quality of lecture notes and grading of assignments. Policies should also clearly define what happens in case the first course of action taken does not work, and they should not merely be policies, but must be felt to work practically (William, 1996, p.113).
Customers hate to be disappointed and so when a business or organization promises something, it should honour that promise and be sure to deliver. In the case of universities for example, suppose the promise to upgrade the library stock, or increase the number of lecture hours for a given discipline, they should see to it that this is done within the shortest time possible and if not, the students (customers) should be updated on an ongoing basis on the progress being made (Robert, 2004, p.74).
Impacts of customer focus
As earlier mentioned, focusing on the customer while designing or delivering products or services means that processes used in ensuring customer satisfaction are generated from the feedback that the customer gives to the organization regarding the said processes, services and products. When customers are put at the centre stage during implementation of service delivery, positive impacts are bound to be felt and these include a change in for example the library’ s mission, planning and policies, which become focussed on supporting the customers’ need in terms of information and communication, since all written documents acknowledge customer focus as the driving force.