Excerpts from
Customers vs. Products: 
Adopting An Effective Approach to Business Students

 Charles Emery, Ph. D. 
 Tracy Kramer, Ph. D.  ->
<- Robert Tian, Ph. D. 






This paper addresses the question:  Are students products or customers of educational institutions? The authors posit that the different philosophical approaches produce distinctly different educational effects.   This paper will examine these two different approaches; compare the advantages and consequences of each approach, and suggest more effective ways for business educators to conceptualize their roles.




Customer-Oriented Approach


Many business schools today have adopted a customer-oriented approach, insisting that professors treat the students as their customers. This approach subscribes to the old marketing maxim that “the customer is always right.”  On the surface, this approach has great appeal. 


One extreme example of the customer-oriented approach was discussed by Bagley and Foxman (1997).   In this case, the instructors and students were told that


because the students were “buying” the course, they had the right and the responsibility to state what they wanted from the course and how they thought they should get it.  ...the primary role of the instructor is to ensure that the self-proclaimed needs or expectations of each of his or her “customers” are met. 

(From "Customers vs. Products" by Emery, Kramer and Tian)


 We understand there may be short-term economic advantages for schools that adopt a “customer-oriented” or a “for profit” approach. 


These financial benefits are typically short-term and are far outweighed by the potential negative consequences associated with the student-customer approach. 


Students derive satisfaction from less coursework, easy testing, and higher grades.  At many colleges and universities, students have developed attitudes of entitlement: they are entitled to good grades from courses that are offered at times to fit their schedules and for which attendance is optional.

(From "Customers vs. Products" by Emery, Kramer and Tian)

These students believe that if they pay their tuition, then passing the course is a guarantee and they expect to receive an A or B, regardless of their performance. 

(From "Customers vs. Products" by Emery, Kramer and Tian)


By placing a strong emphasis on students’ evaluations of teaching effectiveness in professorial performance reviews, business schools deans have conceded too much power to the students.  In general,


only those professors that are “easy” will receive the high evaluations necessary to ultimately obtain tenure.  Those professors that offer rigorous, academically challenging courses will suffer by comparison with easier peers.  …. we find students buying their education and shopping around for classes and majors; our goal as educators becomes attracting and retaining students for our courses.

(From "Customers vs. Products" by Emery, Kramer and Tian)


 ...Resources follow students, and departments are rewarded in direct proportion to the number of students (customers) who choose to attend (buy) their classes ….classes become popularity contests.  Pedagogy becomes entertainment ….” (Franz, 1998, p.63).  In order to survive, many professors are forced to do what Peter Sacks (1996) calls dumbing down the curriculum. 


... the business schools should not allow students to dictate what topics the curriculum should include or what grades they should receive.  ...  If students decide what they need to learn and how to measure learning effectiveness, how can we assure educational quality?  Students cannot define the learning objectives without guidance and faculty cannot objectively measure learning without pre-established objectives.  Therefore, it is particularly crucial in professional preparatory programs that trained scholars develop both the learning objectives and the measurements of effectiveness (Albanese, 1999).


Grade inflation and an increase in student complaints are also possible negative outcomes of a customer-oriented approach.  Because they are so highly valued at customer-oriented schools, the evaluations from students about teaching effectiveness inevitably lead these professors to pandering to student requests.  The average course grades have continued to climb over the last decade as professors either strive to satisfy both students and administrators or to avoid grade challenges filed by students. ...  On the other hand, the students were encouraged to discuss any problems directly with the department chair, rather than with the professors.  This eventually created a situation in which students fabricated problems, the administrator continually supported these claims of unfairness, ...


 The greatest risk of a customer-oriented approach to business curriculum is the perpetuation of the commoditization of a college education.  Too often today, students believe that any type of college degree will satisfy their needs.  ... To these students,


learning is not a valued outcome; only documentation of completion is valued.  Quality education involves an ongoing process, heavily dependent on the student's willingness to participate in learning. ....   

(From "Customers vs. Products" by Emery, Kramer and Tian)

The "customer is always right" mindset may potentially lead faculty to pander to students' desires, to the disappearance of rigorous and challenging instruction; to confusion and conflict regarding students' needs; and potentially to the decline of areas of scholarship that have little value in the minds of the students.

(From "Customers vs. Products" by Emery, Kramer and Tian)



Product-Oriented Approach


As discussed, business schools must anticipate the needs of the business world, taking a long-term perspective and striving to meet both expressed and latent needs of real business communities.  ....  This requires business schools to mold students into qualified employees through serious education programs that take the society’s needs into consideration. To meet these criteria, business schools must take an approach that differs from customer approach and design more rigorous programs, thereby creating various brands in terms of education quality and specialty. 


 Notturno (1997) defined the product approach in the college settings as the deliberate attempt to design a system whereby  students begin as natural inputs and work their way through a program of study from which they emerge as more knowledgeable and capable individuals.  Students can be defined as products along the following dimensions: 1) their transformation through the educational process is the focus of all of the resources committed to the educational process (the college or university) and 2) they are one of the means by which the external environment, namely corporate employers, evaluate the school and its merit as a potential supplier for future human resource needs.

(From "Customers vs. Products" by Emery, Kramer and Tian)

When a college or university adopts the product approach, it must ensure the quality of their product by designing policies and procedures that focus on producing and packaging a product that meets the needs of their market and by monitoring the process throughout the system.  Faculty in a product-focused school then become the engineers, the producers, and quality controllers of the system.

(From "Customers vs. Products" by Emery, Kramer and Tian)


  As engineers, professors must carefully construct meaningful and updated course syllabi that can be viewed as the product design.  As producers, they need to carefully deliver the course content and lead the students step-by-step to master the course concepts and theories.  As quality controllers, they function as gate-keepers, objectively measuring students’ achievements, passing those qualified products, and refining those less qualified products until they meet the performance criteria.  


The product approach demands that business schools... assume the responsibility to train students to become qualified products that can meet the criteria of various industries. With this approach, students must adhere to the regulations and the criteria of the education programs in which they are enrolled, and allow the instructors to model and reshape them according to the society’s needs.  The measure of a program’s success will be the extent to which it prepares them to be more employable in terms of knowledge and skills. 


Administrators must help students understand that only by doing rigorous assignments can students be well prepared to face the challenge later.  Likewise administrators must entrust and support professors’ ability to define learning objectives and develop the coursework necessary to help students to master the course concepts and principles.      

(From "Customers vs. Products" by Emery, Kramer and Tian)



 AACSB (1999). Achieving quality and continuous improvement through self-evaluation and peer review: Standards for accreditation: Business administration and accounting. (Adopted 1991, revised 1993, revised 1994, reprinted 1999).  St. Louis: AACSB.

 Albanese, M. (1999) Students are not customers: A better model for medical education. Academic Medicine; 74(11), 1172-86.

 Bagley, J. P. & E. R. Foxman (1997). Students as customers in the classroom.  Great Ideas for Teaching Marketing. http://www.swcollege.com/marketing/gitm/gitm04-9.html. South-Western College Publishing.

 Bailey, J. J. & B. Dangerfield (2000) Applying the distinction between market-oriented and customer-led strategic perspectives to business school strategy. Journal of Education for Business. January/February, 183-187.

 Boex, L. F. (2000) Attributes of effective economics instructors: An analysis of student evaluations. Journal of Economic Education, 31(3), 211-228.

 Boyce, T., Henry, P., Shrivastava, P., & Tian, R. (2001). Gender roles in consumers reference group format: A case study in the Erskine college cafeteria, paper will be presented at the 2001 International Applied Business Research Conference, Cancun, Mexico, March 14-21.

 Emery, C. R. (2001) Professors as customers. In J. Hair (Ed.). Great Ideas for Teaching Marketing, 6th edition (in press). New York: South-Western College Publishing.

 Frantz, R. S. (1998) Whatever you do, don’t treat your students like customers. Journal of Management Education. 22(1), 63-69.

Gordon, B (1998) Students as customer. Creating a learning college, St. Louis Community College. http://www.pbs.org/als/revolution/person/archive/10.html. South-Western College Publishing

 Jones, R. (1997) Kids as education customers. Education Digest, 62(5), 10-16. 

Notturno, F. L. (1997) Students as products. Great Ideas for Teaching Marketing. http://www.swcollege.com/marketing/gitm/gitm15-1.html. South-Western College Publishing

 Sacks, P. (1996) Generation X Goes to College. Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing.

 Tian, R. G. (2000). Understanding consumer behavior: Psycho-Anthropological Approach. North American Journal of Psychology, 2(2), 27-33.







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