Today’s students think and act like customers. Their expectations of their colleges and universities are shaped by their experiences in other industries, and interactions with companies like Uber, Amazon and GrubHub.

What these e-commerce market leaders have in common is that they all offer a consistent, convenient and user-driven customer experience. These are the characteristics higher education institutions, especially those trying to serve non-traditional learners, must make part of their ethos.

“Prospective students coming to our website aren’t comparing our registration system to other colleges and universities, they’re comparing it to the online shopping experience offered by Amazon and other online vendors,” said Mark Mrozinski, assistant vice president of workforce development and executive dean of community education at Harper College.

“Unfortunately, most online enrollment registration systems were built around the physical structure of the college or university, with an administrative focus in mind rather than the needs of the student,” Mrozinski continued. “The student navigated the online system just as they would if they walked on campus and you sent them from one office to another to another. There was no continuity of service."

Students as customers

It’s absolutely essential — and should no longer be controversial — to treat students like customers.

Students today don’t have time to navigate red tape. An internal study at the University of Maryland University College found that students are likely to drop out of their course or program after three bad experiences with administrative bureaucracy.

They have high expectations of the experience delivered outside the classroom and inside the classroom. “To be clear, ‘students as customers’ does not mean that the customer is always right,” said Heather Chakiris, Chief Student Experience Officer at UCLA Extension. “It means we don’t force them through arbitrary processes that are intentionally complex.”

Delivering convenience and self-service

Convenience and self-service are central to delivering a modern customer experience that meets learners’ expectations. Customers in any industry are likely to abandon a purchase if they can’t understand the website or easily take the steps needed to become a customer.

According to a Baymard Institute 2016 survey, 27 percent of e-commerce shoppers abandoned their cart without making a purchase because the checkout process was too long or complicated.

“From the time they learn about the program, to submitting an application, to registering for courses, students expect a seamless, fast and secure experience,” said Amy Chester, senior assistant dean at the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. “If they hit too many roadblocks during the registration process, it’s very possible the student will second guess the quality and may jump to a competitor’s offering.”

It’s critical for postsecondary institutions to provide students with the information they need to make an informed decision right up front. From there, an institution focused on a great customer experience must also offer a clear, sensible and secure online registration process that allows prospects to transition into lifelong learners.

This means providing learners the tools they need to manage and drive their own enrollment process, starting with a visual online shopping cart that’s easy to use and optimized to address the common behaviors of the modern consumer.

For example, one huge issue in the e-commerce world is cart abandonment. According to Baymard’s January 2017 data, almost 70 percent of customers abandon their cart before completing a purchase. For colleges and universities, it’s essential to face this fact and defend against the likelihood of a prospect adding items to their cart but leaving before completing the purchase.

“Follow the lead of Amazon and other online retailers by developing a shopping cart that incorporates visual cues,” said Chakiris. “If students abandon their carts without making a purchase, ensure your design requirements include automated reminders with calls to action.”

Adopting e-commerce practices

Offering a modern customer experience delivers measurable impacts for non-traditional divisions. By aligning the online course selection and checkout processes with e-commerce best practices defined by Baymard, we noticed some significant improvements.

According to an internal study we conducted across our partner institutions, continuing-education and workforce-development divisions saw 8 percent of customers recover their otherwise-abandoned shopping carts when prompted by an automated email reminding them to complete their purchase. This led to an average 17 percent increase in revenue over one year. What’s more, the abandoned shopping cart rate itself was 53 percent, which itself is significantly lower than the e-commerce industry average.

Ultimately, student-centricity today is more than just a catchphrase; it has to be central to every single aspect of how the institution operates. This includes the learning experience (where we’re seeing innovations like flexible modalities, responsive scheduling, and coaching taking center stage) and the customer experience as well.

“The rapid deployment of technologies that allow for immediate consumption of goods has flipped the script for consumers, including adult learners shopping for continuing education,” said Chakiris. “Adult learners may shop around, but when they’re ready to buy, your institution needs to be ready. If you’re not, another institution will be.”