Customer Service and School Improvement
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:
- Internal customer service - how we engage students and staff in the education process, both at building and district levels
- 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.
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.