Although many in K-12 are cautious of comparing education to corporations, schools are in the business of educating students and preparing them for life. And one of the most important parts of any business is customer service.
During the edWebinar “Building Trust: 4 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve the K-12 Customer Experience,” the presenters explained why school leaders need to include customer service as part of their strategic plan. They also offered four steps to start improving school-community relations right away.
The presenters acknowledged that schools will have a more difficult time figuring out what good customer service looks like for their constituents than in other industries. Students, parents, teachers, and community members not only come from diverse backgrounds, but they also have disparate, and sometimes competing, needs.
At the Seattle Public Schools, Heidi Henderson-Lewis, Customer Service Manager and District Ombudsperson, says they focus first on building healthy relationships with the Five R’s: Ready, Responsive, Respectful, Reliable, and Reflective. In addition, they focus on being proactive instead of reactive. Sharing information, no matter whether it’s good or bad news, before community members hear it from somewhere else can help the school maintain a positive relationship.
Similarly, in the 2019 State of K-12 Customer Experience Report from K12 Insight, researchers found that building trust is the most important foundation for a successful community relationship. Items like effective crisis communication and PR crises fell lower on the list. Interesting, though, is that many respondents feel that parents and students get better customer service.
Henderson-Lewis said all of their initiatives begin with the internal stakeholders. The employees need to feel the trust first and see it modeled so that they can give their parents and students an excellent customer experience.
Unfortunately, the survey also found that many schools are only doing a once-a-year check in on school climate. While this can be a good baseline, effective customer service should be an ongoing, two-way conversation.
Based on the research, the presenters offered four recommendations.
1. Tie customer service to your strategic plan: Have an actual document to reference on how you’re going to implement and improve customer service from year to year, and build indicators and outcomes that are realistic.
2. Response time: People would much rather get even a bad answer sooner; they’ll sometimes escalate an issue and feel worse just because they’re not getting an answer. Set reasonable expectations with families, even if you’re just telling them when you’ll have an answer. And then keep communicating your progress with them. When someone at the school doesn’t respond, it impacts all employees because the customer will keep moving the issue up the hierarchy.
3. Feedback score: It’s really important to ask for feedback so you can embody the idea of continuing improvement. If someone thinks you did a poor job, find out what you could do better. Moreover, this is part of changing your mindset around feedback and criticism. It shouldn’t be a punitive tool, but instead provide actionable advice.
4. PD and training: There’s typically a confidence gap in schools regarding customer service. After all, this was not a part of their training. Provide ongoing professional learning, and model it for them. When teachers can see it in action, they are more likely to embrace it themselves.
Above all, schools and districts should start working on customer experience improvement plans now.
“Customer service is ongoing, dynamic, and happening every day. And those experiences are really shaping customers’ thoughts and feelings about the district,” said Anna Salone, Strategic Account Executive, K12 Insight. “Something that’s really unique about school districts is our customers—our parents, students, community members—they’re repeat customers …The first experience they have can really set the tone for their entirety in the district. The time to get started is now.”
About the presenters
Heidi Henderson-Lewis is the customer service manager and district ombudsperson for the Seattle Public Schools in Washington.
Anna Salone has spent time as a classroom teacher at the elementary school level. She has taught kindergarten, second, and third grade. During her time as an educator, she participated in the implementation and training of a district wide ELA curriculum and was a part of opening a new elementary school campus. In her role with K12 Insight, Mrs. Salone supports school district partners across the country to get the most from the Let’s Talk! platform. She is passionate about education and enjoys helping school districts find better ways to engage and listen to their communities. In addition to Let’s Talk! implementation support, Mrs. Salone also works with other members of the team to deliver customer service professional development sessions.
About the host
Corey Murray is responsible for marketing strategy and content creation at K12 Insight. Before joining K12 Insight, Corey was managing content editor for McMurry/TMG (now Manifest), where he created and executed multimillion-dollar content programs for a range of corporate and nonprofit clients, including The American Association of Community Colleges, CDW, Ellucian, and AASA. Mr. Murray started his career as a journalist. He worked for seven years as editor of the leading K-12 industry news publication, eSchool News. Corey holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.
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