What Does Customer Success Mean for a Professor?

A professor raises funds, manages projects, and publishes about it. Next to teaching, university committees, self-administration, recruiting and hiring, people management, peer reviews, community leadership, etc. Fundraising is called sales, if done by a company. Now, companies have something called customer success. What does this imply for a professor?

Customer success means making sure that whatever a stakeholder pays for is achieved, at least to such a degree that the stakeholder comes back for more. Companies want customers to renew their subscription, and professors want to raise more funds from sponsors, because they delivered in the past.

If the stakeholder is a public sponsor, life is fairly easy: The stakeholder wants reports and demos, but usually not a lot of hard deliverables. Basic research sponsors (DFG) are easiest, because all they want is publications. Applied research sponsors (BMWK) a bit less so, as they can require a fair bit of reporting. Companies can be significantly more demanding, which is why many professors don’t like being paid directly by companies. But even then, the research funds often come from research departments, which are cost centers and are expected to spend the money, with only high-level goals.

So, customer success is another job function that demands time from a professor. First, it means good project management, because I usually can’t wholly delegate this to a Ph.D. student I hired for the project. If things go wrong, I have to jump into action, which means I need to stay on the ball. Given the pressure to raise ever more funds there is no other way to scale this but to establish a project management hierarchy. Which makes a professor even more of a science manager than they often already are.

I’m honestly curious. I never heard a colleague talk about customer success, maybe because it is an industry term and professors like to demonstrate distance. Still, we have to do it. I wonder how others are mounting this challenge?

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