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Customer Service and School Improvement

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"The school leaders who embrace, design and implement customer-driven systems will be the ones who thrive in the future."
Ellan Toothman, 2004


Current improvement efforts in schools frequently look to business models of successful change and leadership. Customer service is one aspect of the business model that gets talked about more regularly and is actually delivered to varying degrees in schools around the country.

What does it mean to provide good customer service? How do we ensure service to our community on par with our expectations of service in other sectors of our lives? What can be gained through a focus on customers? Who are the customers?

For the purposes of this post, I am considering two distinct forms of customer service:

  1. Internal customer service - how we engage students and staff in the education process, both at building and district levels
  2. External customer service - how our schools and central office personnel engage the community

Internal customer service can go a long way towards helping us understand the unmet needs of our students and staff and improve the quality of our work as a result. External customer service can garner community support in ways that empower our work and strengthen partnerships that are beneficial for students. Few would deny these positive outcomes, but how do we begin this work and is it really necessary?

As school safety became an urgent priority in our schools, districts around the country conducted security audits to identify needs and build support for the necessary changes. Nora Carr (2007) encourages a similar "'triggering event' to break through staff denial" and ultimately determine customer service priorities. She and others suggest secret shoppers who email, call, and visit schools and district offices to determine the level of service in place currently and how best to improve. For internal customer service, I would recommend a similar gathering of information through student interviews, panels, and surveys such as the High School Survey of Student Engagement (or a similar tool for other grade levels).

Another important factor in considering a more thoughtful customer service approach is the changing nature of school funding. As families have more choices and can more easily enroll students across traditional district lines, schools who not only meet academic needs but are also responsive to their community will see the greatest benefit. This competitive push has the potential to focus our work around academic needs as well as community input. In this way, the benefits and challenges of an educational community can be owned more broadly and solved more collaboratively. In an era where family and community partnerships are growing and reaping results, it only makes sense to engage more thoughtfully in community service efforts.

What tools can we use to measure customer service?

  • online customer satisfaction surveys
  • parent/guardian/teacher/student exit interviews (real interviews, not just a piece of paper)
  • feedback cards in front offices and on desktops
  • secret shoppers

What strategies can be used to improve customer service?

  • training for all staff on customer service
  • establishment of first-contact resolution culture
  • empowerment of individuals, schools, departments to meet identified needs

This work is exciting and holds much potential. If you have a story or example of effective measures in action, please share.

Dave Dimmett

Carr, N. (2007). The customer service approach. American School Board Journal, 194 (9), 62-63.
Gagnon, E. (2009). A mystery shopper in the public school market. School Administrator, 66 (1), 42-43.
Toothman, E. (2004). Mention customer service...and then run. School Administrator, 61 (6), 35.

8 Comments

Wow, what a blog!! How refreshing from the parent perspective to hear this type of customer thinking in regards to our schools. One of the key points that all schools are focused on is the parent/family involvement component.

The family is a critical component to any child’s life. When it comes to education, no greater statistic stands truer today than the achievement gap between students whose parents are involved in their education process and those who do not have that support. Personal responsibility, safety and education are key elements to bringing up the next generation.

After 10 years of experience leading a volunteer program in my children’s elementary and middle schools, Schools And Families Engaged (the S.A.F.E. TEAM on Campus) was launched in 2008 to meet the needs of schools and families. Many of the school's families do not know where to begin in school. Many parents today never had an example of their parents supporting the school let alone they may not have enjoyed their personal schooling experience. Why would they have a desire to serve? You only know what you have experienced.

Make time to check out our site www.thesafeteam.com . On the About SAFE page, click on the 40 Developmental Assets link. This will tie in all the benefits of families and communities supporting their students both in school and out of school.

I've worked at eight schools during my twenty year career, and it's been my experience that the secretaries can make or break the "feeling" of a school. Secretaries are often the first voice or face a parent sees, and if they're rude or abrupt or bad tempered because they're having an off day, the negative effect can be hard to undo. Having a pleasant, polite, "go the extra mile for a stranger" kind of secretary can work wonders on both internal and external customer service! Thanks for the thought provoking post.

I have to agree with both Scott and Janice. It is very nice, as a parent, to see serious attention paid to something as simple as the act of being nice. I cannot tell how many times I have screwed up my best, most patient, willingness to listen to what went wrong with my kid at school, only to be tried and tested by the first voice I heard when I called. School secretaries (and I would suggest bus drivers as well) carry a huge load of the responsibility for building relationships--yet I'll wager receive little to no training, and are seldom invited to the table for planning or evaluation. Left to their own devices they develop survival strategies that aren't always pretty.

Personally, my parents didn't provide much of a model for my current school involvement. It was the 50s/60s. They did what was expected--showed up on demand, paid PTA dues, baked cookies (that would be my mom) when asked and chauffered kids when needed. While I do these things as well, I find them to be not only pretty unsatisfying, but also nowhere close to meeting the need.

I think it will, in the end, take a certain amount of parent activism to arrive at the kind of involvement that Scott has been so fortunate as to build/experience. Sad fact is that many school staff also have only the experience of their parents to guide them--and are stuck in expectations that just don't fit anymore.

Oy vey. Now teachers will be evaluated based on a secret shopper's evaluation? This is a joke, right?

How about how teachers are serviced by parents? Should we evaluate that?

Do we really want competition to be based on how friendly the secretary is?

Good Lord!

tft:

I wasn't thinking so much in terms of competition as I was in making the educational organization run smoothly. If parents cannot get or share information without going through a gatekeeper who has defined themselves as protecting the school from bothersome entities (including parents), everyone suffers.

The more i think about it, the more your "customer service" meme bothers me.

It perpetuates the notion that teachers and schools are primary, not parents and families.

Until the public realizes that schools are not going to solve society's ills, I guess we will be bombarded by those trying to make a name or a buck with silly ideas of reform and makeovers that leave the underlying strata untouched.

Schools and teachers do not serve the public unless the public are serviceable! First things first!

Let's keep one thing in mind: the customer who primarily consumes the product of the American public school system is Corporate America. You could add the military, too, I suppose. We can tell ourselves that the children or the community are the primary customers, but that has been and never will be true. Corporate America has the lobbyists to make the fundamental changes that they want to see in public schools. Don't believe me? How many kids, teachers, adminstrators, and parents wanted to see high stakes tests take such a prominent role in schools? If you answered none of the above, you're right. But it doesn't matter. The true customers wanted accountability, and they got it.

Dave:

Schools, like many entities (government, health care, charities) have multiple constituencies. This does not mean that the basic principles of customer service cannot be applied. Even in a totally for-profit entity who is about selling a product to the public, there are internal and external customers whose needs must be considered.

Whether the military-industrial complex is the primary customer or not--is there any excuse for harboring an attitude that "the public" is "unserviceable," and whatever behavioral ramifications that entails?

BTW--I am a parent who favors testing (although I am deathly tired of hearing the works "high stakes" always appended before). I also believe in accountability, and consider learning to be a valid measure of what schools ought to be accountable for. I cannot recall very many teachers who opposed either tests, or accountability, as long as the stakes were only applied to students.

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