College Graduation: The Ultimate Customer Experience Opportunity

By Peter Bernstein June 08, 2012

This year, I had the opportunity to think a lot about college graduations. I went to my daughter’s from the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at the New School in New York City, where she received a well-earned master’s degree and an award. I also took an hour drive up to Middletown, CT for commencement and reunion weekend at my undergrad alma mater Wesleyan University. 

At one of them, I got to see the use of technology in real-time by the graduates and their proud parents including me and my wife. The other got me thinking about my pride in Wesleyan, how things have changed since my graduation and how graduations from the standpoint of administrations are brand stewardship moments extraordinaire. In the vernacular of our industry, they represent customer experience opportunities that need to be maximized, especially in a day where the value of a liberal arts college education is being questioned and the price tag for the top 30 private colleges and universities in the U.S. is topping $60K per year.

Proud Papa  

Let’s start with the easy one. My daughter’s graduation was amazing. Every graduate had a smartphone and parents had smartphones, tablets, cameras and video cameras. I saw young men and women get their diplomas, and before the third person behind them got theirs, Facebook and Twitter were alive with pictures and tweets. Before we left there were tons of videos posted as well. 

I was even told by one parent that they were using the Internet to stream the video to their folks. Wow! Social media at its best, making the entire customer experience inclusive and certainly creating tremendous joy and satisfaction amongst an intensively interested community. 

All I could think of was what a change from my parents taking pictures, waiting a few weeks to get the film developed and then using snail mail to send copies to people after triaging the results. I also remember my father’s eight millimeter video with no sound being subjected to everyone who visited our house for months. He by the way was also a Wesleyan grad, and used the video to show not just his pride in me but also of the school.

The alum and administration view

 I am going to show my age here with a point. My wife, dog and I went up to Wesleyan the day before graduation because my 40th reunion is next year. Many of my friends, who I keep in touch with via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, were in the class ahead of me, and I was hopeful many to whom I’m not connected would be in the parade of reunion classes.

I was somewhat disappointed that in what on its face looked to be true to form for classes who started college in the late 1960s, the 60 members of the class of 1972 who were attending reunion mostly did not make it to the parade. It turned out that most actually went directly from class seminar that preceded the parade to school's chapel (one of the few non-dog friendly parts of the campus) so they could be there to applaud Marc Kravitz.  He was being given a distinguished alum award. Kravitz has ALS. It should also be noted that there had been 7:30 AM breakfast at O'Rouke's Diner (which has been featured on the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives TV show).  And, reliable sources have informed me that several afternoon naps being reported. However, I was delighted to be able to exchange electronic contact information with those who did make the parade, and even picked up some valuable contacts from members of other reunion classes. I highly advise those looking to network to go to reunions, along with making constant use of your institution’s alumni directory. Wesleyan’s can even be sorted through its career services portal by industry type. Awesome. 

This got me thinking about graduation the next day from the administration’s perspective. Not only has Wesleyan been streaming commencement exercises for several years so friends and loved ones can experience the event as it happens or later, but its wireless coverage of the campus is such that connectivity for everyone at the outside event has great connectivity for all of the activities I described about my daughter’s event. 

Reality is that while including all interested members of the community and their loved ones in the event is a primary function, the value of the entire weekend of festivities – tours, incredible lectures, seeing old friends back on campus, and listening to what turned out to be several terrific speeches – is an invaluable sales tool. I was reminded that in 2008 when my daughter received her undergrad degree from Wesleyan, Teddy Kennedy was supposed to speak, as his step-daughter was graduating and his son was celebrating his 25th reunion, but his cancer kept him away. Then Senator and subsequently to-be president of the United States, at the last minute, volunteered to take Senator Kennedy’s place. 

It was a remarkable day, and thanks to the media attention – and the subsequent posting of the event not just on but on YouTube and elsewhere – applications soared the next year. This was a customer experience that turned those into attendance as well as those who viewed the proceedings into brand advocates. My alma mater is always ranked as one of the best private colleges in the country, and its place in the rankings along with its visibility to reach the valedictorians and salutatorians of the 27,000 high schools (most of whom have never heard of the place) is important. 

Plus, the school strives for diversity and international presence is important to its reputation, and I know from being an active alumnus how vital having a great website is to attracting applicants, as well as grants and alumni donations.

Making the customer experience matter

In short, graduations when looked at from a technology standpoint have lots of customers for whom having a great experience is important. Being a TexasEx and an honorary Florida Gator,  I appreciate in ways businesses should think about, how important the care and feeding of these networks are and the importance social media and communications technology in general has come to play in their vibrancy and impact. Indeed, in an increasingly competitive world for attracting top teaching talent, the best and the brightest, funding and alumni participation, it is almost impossible to imagine how goals could be achieved without take full advantage of technology. 

The bottom line here really is the bottom line. Socialization matters and getting the customer experience right in terms of using social tools correctly is something that deserves a lot of time, effort and tender loving care.

Edited by Braden Becker
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