Instructional Design

Instructional Design as Customer Service

By Zachary Fruhling

Long before I was an instructional designer, long before I was a digital content author and developer, long before I was a college-level philosophy instructor, I was a salesperson at RadioShack, from 1995 before I graduated from high school until 2001 after I graduated from college and left for grad school. This time spent doing sales and customer service has served me well over the years, and it has been applicable to every professional role I have had since that time.

Way back in 1995, then-president of Radio Shack, Len Roberts, had a slogan about customer service that has remained with me to this day. While the exact phrasing of the slogan has faded from my memory, its essence was this:

“There are only two jobs at this company: Either you serve our customers directly, or you serve someone who does.”

This slogan always struck me as particularly insightful, as it reinforces the idea that every role, regardless of organizational level or function, is essentially a support or customer service role. (Imagine what a wonderful working environment it would be if everyone viewed the purpose of his or her own role as making everyone else’s role and lives easier!)

It is an interesting thought experiment to apply this slogan to the joint worlds of higher education and instructional design. Every role in higher education has its “customers” (whether literal or metaphorical), the people for whom that role exists to serve, help, or support. Instructors, for example, serve the best interests not only of their students but also of administrators and their educational institution as a whole. Administrators, similarly, serve not only the interests of their institution, but the interests of students and faculty. And this reciprocal support relationship exists at any level and between every role. Custodial staff, for example, provide a safe, clean, and healthy environment to facilitate the goings-on of an on-ground educational institution. Students, faculty, and administrators can make the lives of custodial staff better by picking up after themselves and leaving classrooms and other facilities in a clean and orderly state. To put it simply, service relationships in higher education are inherently reciprocal, regardless of role, function, or level in an organizational hierarchy.

Applying this concept of reciprocal service to the world of instructional design, who are our various customers as instructional designers, whether external or internal, and how can we best support those customers to make their lives and roles easier? In turn, what other roles support the work of instructional designers, and in what ways?

Let’s first look at the various “customers” of instructional designers. The obvious customers are students, for whom our work exists to create the optimal, most effective, and most engaging learning experience possible. But instructional designers have other “customers” as well: course writers who need clear expectations about the work they are to produce in developing a course, instructors who ultimately must teach the courses that instructional designers develop, administrators whose program-level or institutional-level needs must be met by courses or programs they develop, and many other roles involved in developing, maintaining, and running online courses, from the person copying courses every term to the person enrolling actual students.

There are two important aspects to this customer service function as an instructional designer: (1) being aware of the various other roles that are affected by your instructional design work, along with how you can best support the needs of those roles, and (2) prioritizing the needs of those other roles as much as, or above, the needs of your own role and your own work.

To draw further upon the analogy with retail sales and customer service as models for this support function, an important aspect of providing good customer service is a willingness to stop what you are doing to help someone else in need. The same is true with the support function of instructional designers. As an example, I recently received a last-minute course update request from an instructor who realized that a textbook edition update was necessary for an online course, the Friday before the course was scheduled to start the following Monday. This was a fairly substantive course update that would take at least three hours to implement, and an update of this sort was definitely not what I had planned to work on or wanted to accomplish on the day I received this request. However, when I received this course update request, I immediately went into customer service mode (old habits die hard), stopped what I was working on, and spent the next three hours making the requested course updates.

The response of the instructor to this fairly minor sacrifice on my part (having to make up a couple of hours of lost work on other tasks) was disproportionate to the degree of the sacrifice:

“WHEW!! This is AWESOME!!! You are like MAGIC!”

Three hours of self-sacrifice, for the sake of providing a good customer service experience for someone whose work was directly impacted by my choice of what to prioritize, made me a hero for the day in the eyes of the instructor. More importantly, the issue and her pain point were resolved, and she could rest easily knowing the course start on Monday would go well without a looming textbook issue for her students to worry about. Now imagine how things might have played out had I chosen not to prioritize the customer service aspect of my role as an instructional designer over the other work of the day; the instructor’s perception of the experience might have been very different indeed!

Most instructional designers have similar stories of being a hero solving a problem for students, instructors, administrators, or other stakeholders, so stories of this nature should be familiar to instructional designers at large. The challenge, however, is to embrace this customer service aspect of instructional design work as inherent to the role of an instructional designer, not to play a customer support role begrudgingly, but instead willingly and with a proverbial smile.

So it is clear that instructional designers have various “customers” in the form of students, instructors, administrators, and so on. But how can people in those other roles provide reciprocal support for instructional designers, to “help us help you,” so to speak? Here are a few simple examples:

  • Course writers can be proactive about meeting deadlines, being responsive to feedback, and turning in professional-quality work, to avoid the snowball effect that late or incomplete work has on a course’s overall development schedule.
  • Academic programs directors and deans can be diligent about scheduling new courses or programs for development well in advance, and providing necessary resources such as selecting course writers, to ensure adequate development time and resources.
  • Instructors can look ahead to anticipate whether any updates are needed for a course well in advance of the course start date, to ensure adequate time for implementation and for clarifying any ambiguity in the update requests.

These are just a few of the ways that people in other roles in higher education can have a positive impact on the work of an instructional designer. But regardless of whether these items are applicable to your specific institution or role, the general principle is clear: whatever your role or function, at any level of organizational hierarchy, you can make a positive impact on those around you by adopting a customer service standpoint when thinking about your own role as it relates to the work of those around you.

The simple question “How can I help?” goes a long way toward building rapport and solving problems, especially if you are willing to stop what you are doing for the sake of helping others, getting them unstuck, or making their work lives a little better.

Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at

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