'Service excellence' means treating staff as customers

Northumbria academic claims approach would raise workforce morale. Sarah Cunnane reports

May 27, 2010

A business scholar has called for the implementation of "service excellence" in higher education and urged universities to treat staff as "internal customers", not employees.

Hina Khan, programme leader for business creation at Newcastle Business School, makes the recommendations in a paper for the Education and Training journal.

She told Times Higher Education that she believed the time was right for universities to re-evaluate the way they thought about their staff, highlighting a mismatch between the drive to improve "student satisfaction" and the attention paid to staff morale.

"Treating academics as customers rather than employees would enhance functional and performance synergy," Dr Khan said.

She added that this would give universities "sustainable competitive advantage and greater internal and external customer satisfaction".

The paper, titled "Implementing service excellence in higher education", was co-authored by Harry Matlay, professor of small business and enterprise development at Birmingham City Business School. It asserts that academy jobs should be viewed as "internal products".

It also says that a strong institutional culture that values "internal customers" could help universities benefit from "a motivated workforce, loyalty, high performance, innovation and a distinctive institutional competitive advantage".

Dr Khan explained that it was important for universities to view staff as the "face" of their brands, and to provide training in communication and interpersonal skills to embed "service excellence" in the fabric of how institutions are run.

The paper contends that there is a lack of understanding about the needs of staff in many universities, and Dr Khan suggested that institutions should consider implementing staff-satisfaction surveys similar to those conducted among students.

"Nobody really tries to engage with the difficulties or problems that staff face. There are lots of gaps between service excellence given to staff and to students," she said.

The current approach adopted by universities was in contrast to the high-reward systems favoured by industry, she added, such as performance-related pay and bonuses. Dr Khan said that in some academic disciplines, such as accounting and economics, the absence of such benefits contributed to a dearth of skills, as professionals could find greater satisfaction, not to mention pay, elsewhere.

"As a senior lecturer, you fall into a pay band," she said. "It doesn't matter how many hours you work or how long you've been a senior lecturer: that's your pay."

Dr Khan denied that service excellence in the academy was an unwelcome managerial concept.

"It's not about form-filling or box-ticking, it's about delivering the best to internal and external customers," she said.

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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