Great Customer Service vs. Personal Responsibility


This post is based on one of Christine Frazier‘s writing prompts, in which she suggests writing about the most common question you get in some aspect of your life.

As a college teacher, one of the most common questions I get occurs when a student misses a class and he or she will send me an email asking “Could you tell me what I missed?”, or its more annoying variant “Did I miss anything important?”

It has become even more frustrating in the past few years to get such an email. I have all of my classes video-recorded so that after class students can bring up any class on their computer and watch it at their convenience.  All the students are aware of this option, yet they still send emails asking what they missed.

I’ve often been tempted to either not reply to the email or to respond with some sarcastic comment, but I bite my tongue and send a reply that lets the student know what was covered in class and reminds them about the availability of the video recordings.

One of the the reasons for responding this way is because of all the books and blogs I read that stress the importance of providing great customer service. If I view my students as customers, then it seems reasonable to assume that it is my responsibility to provide them with great customer service. That’s why I have all my classes video-recorded, that’s why I get their tests back to them the next class, that’s why I answer such emails in a polite way.

But at what point does providing great customer service interfere with the idea of personal responsibility? At what point does wanting to do everything for your child interfere with the child learning to be independent?

I struggle with such questions. When I read the words of Seth Godin, I get pumped up about providing extraordinary customer service. But then I’ll watch a Larry Winget video and it’s all about taking personal responsibility, which I am also a big believer in.

So what do I say to a student who stops by my office and tells me he missed the previous class and wants to review a problem we had gone in over in detail during that class?

The Seth Godin side of me wants to do everything I can to help the student, the Larry Winget side of me wants to tell the student to go figure it out yourself.

I see potential merit in the idea that telling the student to figure out the solution on his own is perhaps the best form of customer service I could provide in the long run. However, to me it still begs the question at what point does telling someone to take personal responsibility replace the need to provide great customer service.

What’s the best way to teach someone to swim; do you just tell someone to jump in the water and figure it out on his own, or do you offer some basic lessons beforehand?

Or what do you do if you are a waiter and you serve a customer his meal and then a minute later he tells you he did not realize  that his cheeseburger came with pickles on it. Do you simply apologize and tell the customer that you will get him a new burger with no pickles right away, or do you tell the customer that the menu clearly states what is on every burger, and he is going to have to live with that decision?

I think many of us would answer that of course you would provide someone with swimming lessons as part of helping that person learn how to swim and that you would replace a customer’s burger if there was a problem with it, even though it was not the restaurant’s fault.

But is there some magical line that gets crossed at some point and we say that customer service ends here, you’re on your own now?

Any insights would be appreciated – or is this something I have to figure out by myself?

6 thoughts on “Great Customer Service vs. Personal Responsibility

  1. Whatever happened to students asking their friends what they missed? Perhaps they think they’re showing more initiative and motivation if they ask the teacher. As a parent, I struggle with this from the opposite point of view when one of my children acts irresponsibly (forgetting to hand something in, turning up late). Should I side with the teacher who is telling them they risk being expelled or make excuses for them (thus enabling them to dodge responsibility). I want my offspring to act like adults, but if I don’t stand up for them, they might be forced to leave education, negatively affecting them for the rest of their lives. If they can only get dead-end jobs, they are unlikely to be able to afford to go to college as mature students. It’s much less likely here than in the USA, anyway as we don’t have the same tradition of working your way through college.

    I don’t know what subject you teach or how old your students are, but I would take a tough but fair approach and have a standard email response: “You can view the class here [link]. If you still have questions, you can send me another email / talk to me after class / come to my office at . . . ” That way you’re encouraging self-sufficiency yet offering your personal assistance for those who need it.


    1. Thank you for your comments Sarah. It’s tough being a parent sometimes, isn’t it? I also like your suggestion for a standard email response in such situations, since it seems to offer both customer service while encouraging personal responsibility.


  2. You are not trying to help the customer with the burger grow as a person, you are merely giving him a burger (with some customer service). But the job as the teacher is to help the students grow. So yes, you may need to let them learn the hard way sometimes, but be there for support when needed, just like a parent:) Yes, you want to give good service, but sometimes the best way isn’t always the easiest way.


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