Archive | School-Community Relations RSS feed for this section

Customer Service and Schools: What Apple, Wegmans, and the Ritz-Carlton Can Teach School Leaders

18 Mar


I’ve noticed in my short time as an administrator that a majority of the complaints and negative feedback that get to me about teachers, the school, the division, and education in general really are not about what the teacher, school, or division are doing: they are about poor customer service that parent, student, or community member received.  It is not that the teacher isn’t teaching, it’s that the teacher has not been responsive or helpful.  It’s not that the school is a failing school, it’s that the person answering the phone at the school was rude or…was not helpful.

It has really hit me in the past couple of years how much education has become a customer service-driven industry.  Like a business, schools and teachers are being evaluated by the public by results.  Parents aren’t waiting for the school newsletter nowadays- they are expecting instant updates on their Twitter feed. I remember when I was in High School, my parents saw my report card 4 times a year.  Now, most parents can check their child’s grade in real time on the school’s website.

Don’t get me wrong, these are good things.  Being able to engage the public- specifically parents and students- in the national education dialogue is crucial.  But it also makes customer service increasingly important.  The following are some observations I have had, along with related examples from customer-service juggernauts.  (Customers, by the way, are usually our parents and students- but can be anyone in the community needing to conduct business with the school.)

Customer Service Solution #1: Empower and train employees.  If we build confidence and ability in them, great customer service will follow.  Many teachers are still in the one-room school house mentality, desiring to close themselves off to the outside.  They want to shut their classroom door  and are resistant to let parents in on the experience.  After all, they are the ones who spent years studying educational philosophy and academic content.  They are uncomfortable with the notion that anyone outside could question their methods and experience.  And yes, a lot of this is defensiveness from past experiences of being attacked or over-burdened, and leaders have to acknowledge that.  However, the first step to establishing great customer service is to let the “customers” know they are welcome.  When I think of this problem, I think about Apple.  Their confidence in their product is so strong, that they specifically designed their Apple stores for customers to come in and try everything they produce.  There is no guesswork- if you want to try the new iPad 3, you can just go in and…well, try it.  I am finding as a new administrator that the teachers who are confident in their abilities have no issues talking to parents about why they graded something a certain way, or how assessments are designed, or even with having parents come in and watch them teach!  Those teachers who are closed off, for the most part, are closed off because they aren’t confident.  Parents and students get frustrated with the lack of openness, and go up the chain.

Customer Service Solution #2: Value the feedback, even negative feedback, of the customer:  Education is  a people-driven industry, and therefore there are no perfect schools, administrators, teachers, students, or parents. So, first of all, we need to all work together when something is wrong.  Parents and students are met with resistance when a culture exists that says people who come to our schools to complain or ask questions are the problem.   Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden once said of teamwork, “Consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and consider the feelings of others before your own rights.”    Wegmans Food Markets has the saying in customer service, “Everyday you get our best”- they are not claiming that everything will always go perfectly when you shop there, but are up front about always striving to do the very best.  They accomplish this through the same concept I brought up in #1- their people are empowered to make decisions, and that empowerment comes with confidence and training.  In Shifting the Monkey, Todd Whitaker talks about treating everyone as if they are good.  If we can honestly do that, it goes a long way in allowing our public to feel schools are a place where their input is valued.  Wooden, Wegmans, and Whitaker seem to value the practice of removing our own emotion and truly listening to those who come in our offices.  When I am listening to a long complaint from a parent or student I always say something like, “Listen, we are always trying to improve.  In the short term, we’ll come up with a plan to solve this problem, and in the long term, your feedback is valuable to help us meet that mission of continuous improvement.”  It always calms the other party down- they have been valued.

Customer Service Solution #3: The Ritz-Carlton Model.  The Ritz-Carlton is known all over the world as the class of the hospitality industry.  I had a professor in my Ed Leadership program at UVA who always said he subscribed to their model of customer service.  It’s basic and simple- you can order room service from the bell hop.  You can ask the valet for towels.  In other words, every employee of the hotel is trained to assist no matter the query.  The school I work at is one of the largest in Virginia.  Not every parent, or student, knows that even though their student falls in the section of the student body I am responsible for, I do not supervise their Foreign Language teacher.  Or that if they have a question about the School Nurse, they should contact the Office of Student Services at the division level.  Or if they have a complaint about transportation, I may have never even met their busdriver.  You get the idea.  But one thing I do know is that every single human being on the planet resents being transferred and passed around because “That’s not my area”.  So even if something comes to me that I don’t (or can’t) handle, I try to assist.  If I can’t give you the answer, I will at least give you everything you need to find it, and assist you and follow up with you after the fact.  We need to be flexible with questions we receive in the modern American public school, and we have to understand it is a place that is often intimidating and confusing to those who don’t make their living there.

These are only 3 ideas about how to build great customer service in your school.  I know there are more out there and would love to hear what you do to make sure your customers are taken care of.