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Cultivating a Culture of Customer Service: School Podcast #3

When it comes to customer service in schools, kindness and etiquette are important, but that service-with-a-smile approach only goes so far.

To truly meet the needs of their staff and in their communities, a growing crop of school district leaders are taking a systemic view of customer service.

In the last episode of our podcast series on school customer service, school leaders and researchers from across the country reveal what it takes to put a system of customer service to work in your schools.

We also continue conversations from previous episodes with Dr. Joseph Goins, Dr. Nora Carr, and Julie Thannum.

Take a listen–and let us know what your schools are doing to make customer service a priority for students, parents, teachers, and staff.

Haven’t heard the first two episodes of our customer service series? Listen now.

Episode 3 Transcript

Previously on the TrustED podcast.

JULIE THANNUM: I think sometimes people confuse good customer service with “The customer’s always right.” And, I know there’s a philosophy there, but I think in the school business we want to treat people with respect. The customer always deserves respect, always deserves your attention. I think it’s training and teaching people how to have empathy. How to listen. And then to anticipate and meet those needs. And it may not always be saying, “Yes” and giving them what they want, but it means answering their questions and getting them to the right person.

This is the TrustED podcast. I’m managing editor, Todd Kominiak.

This is the third and final episode in our series on customer service in schools. In our last episode, we took a look at the little things schools can do to earn community trust.

From everyday greetings in the office to email and phone etiquette to ensuring that questions are answered by the right person in the district, school leadership and staff should constantly be asking themselves one simple question: “Is every one of my interactions with students, parents, community members, and other staff, accurate, complete, and courteous?

In our final episode, we’re going to take a look at how school districts are turning this simple question into systematic, measurable strategies.

According to Dr. Nora Carr, Chief of Staff at Guilford County Public Schools in North Carolina, strong customer service cultures require both buy-in from staff along with ways of measuring progress.

DR. NORA CARR: First, you have to be aware of the importance of it. And you have to buy in what matters because if you understand the why and then the how and the practical ways to do it, it flows from that. If you don’t buy into the why, it won’t work. We have provided a fair amount of training for principals and staff, we’ve enlisted school marketing academies, we’ve set customer service standards on the timing we expect people to get a return phone call, to get an email.

GOINS: Again, it really is about a school and a school district saying we’re going to be client, customer service focused from top to bottom. Wherever you are in that continuum of those services matters. If everybody were to be focused on that in a school how welcoming that would feel.

You’ll remember Dr. Joseph Goins and his research on customer service in schools from our previous episodes. For Dr. Goins, it’s vital that schools develop processes for actively reaching out to and following up with families.

GOINS: How do we create a process where we’re intentional. We’re doing this stuff on an ongoing basis to which part of the consistent pattern that parents should expect. I am a parent as well as a researcher, but as a parent I get very frustrated because there’s not that constant communication we’re talking about.

CARR: Everyone can get better at customer service. Within our own school district, we have 126 schools and we have multiple departments and central office positions. It’s something we’ve been tackling for a while but we’re going to continue to have to work on it. We have customer service success stories and some I would put more in the nightmare category–so we’re a work in progress like everybody else. What I can tell you is that when schools and departments get the reputation of being responsive, of being caring–even not giving the parents answer they want, giving them an answer and the answer and being consistent, it does make a difference and we have seen schools turn their enrollment numbers around using multiple strategies. Customer service is a piece of that, it’s not the only strategy but it’s certainly a piece of that.

A growing number of school districts are implementing more comprehensive systems of engagement and customer service that go beyond basic etiquette or kind greetings, by using technology and systems of measurement to improve accountability among both leadership and staff. For many of these districts, customer service is not only a way to improve community interactions and relationships, it’s also a strategy for tackling specific issues faced by their schools.

MARY NASH-WOOD: We’ve been working hard to improve outcomes for students, not only academically, but socially. We believed for the longest time that as long as we put our best foot forward that that would be able to be showcased to our family. Little did we know on the horizon was a growth in private schools, a growth in charters schools, and virtual schools—all with their own marketing teams and individuals  trying to vie for the same families.The reality was we weren’t doing great in terms of meeting all sectors of individuals. We weren’t meeting our stakeholders where they were. People couldn’t connect with us. They saw us in many ways as an ivory tower.

This is Mary Nash-Wood, director of communications and strategic initiatives at Caddo Parish Public Schools in Shreveport, Louisiana. Increasing competition led district officials to realize that they needed to make a concerted effort to engage community members and show the value of their schools.

KADEN JACOBS: So everybody kind of has a day that they wish they could forget, and I certainly remember mine.

This is Kaden Jacobs, director of communications at Richmond County School System in Georgia.

JACOBS: It was the opening of my first school year in 2015. We had implemented new changes for our transportation system, and on day one we received over 3,000 calls from parents. We had tried to set up a call center to make sure that enough people could answer the phones. But with that volume of calls we left thousands unanswered and we had to call people back. It was truly a nightmare.

The headline that always sticks out in my head–and unfortunately I couldn’t find it–but it said, “Richmond County Schools botches transportation on first day.” It was the headline of the local newspaper. And it was such a bad day, I think botches was actually a kinder word than they could have used back then.

But after this kind of day, where there’s so much chaos we all sat and felt, there has to be something better. We’ve got to communicate better. We have to be more efficient. And we have to make sure that we serve our community. And if we can do those two things. We can eliminate a lot of the issues and we can make our community happier. So we started to look for ways to do that, and solutions to do that. And really improve our customer service across the entire district.

Klein Independent School District in Texas stepped up its customer service efforts in the wake of the horrible mass shooting at Parkland High School. Here’s superintendent Dr. Bret Champion.

DR. BRET CHAMPION: Post that event, that terrible tragedy, there was just this—palpable is the word that comes to mind—just this palpable need for people to hear and to understand that our students are safe. And that was for our employees, that was for our parents. There was this urgency around it. Obviously, this is something that we talk about all the time. But in the face of that tragedy at Parkland, there was a real need to be able to communicate. Not just to push our message out, but so many people in the district were getting questions and trying to understand how all the pieces fit together?

To help build cultures of customer service, each district turned to Let’s Talk!, from K12 Insight which produces TrustED. A custom button and form enables community members to send inquiries directly to district officials. On the backend, the technology immediately logs the feedback and routes it to the right person in the district to respond or to collaborate with other team members on a more timely and accurate response.

A special Critical Alerts feature lets district staff flag messages based on keywords of concern to the district. The system also allows users to pull in messages, social media posts, and phone call notes and transcripts all into one universal inbox.

A data dashboard helps district leaders measure and improve the quality and timeliness of their replies, and build trust with the broader community.

NASH-WOOD: Just an inside note: This ended the ivory tower mentality because our experts are responding directly to the family.

And, what we’ve really been impressed with in it as parents reach out they’ve loved, so far, how quickly they receive a response and the professionalism of it that they’re telling their friends. It’s become a grocery store conversation in the aisle to say, ‘Hey, you have that issue. Why don’t you use Let’s Talk! on the district’s website? You’ll get an answer in a couple of hours.

At Richmond County, Georgia Kaden Jacobs says the fact that 10 percent of messages received over the last year through Let’s Talk! were compliments is a clear sign that things are turning around. But one story in particular helps illustrate the progress Jacobs and Dewayne Porter, the district senior director of transportation have seen over the last several years since implementing Let’s Talk!

JACOBS: What actually happened was a student threw a binder out of the bus window and it hit a passing car’s windshield and cracked it. They sent a message through the social media page

So, they said they were a community member and the page gave them some options. One of those was transportation concerns, because we know that our community does provide us a lot of feedback. So when he clicked on transportation concerns it took him to that custom form. And he was able to say, “Hey I was on this and this road, here’s the bus number, here’s what happened.” And literally that next morning Mr. Porter and his team were able to get in touch with the man, help him though the situation, work with him to get his windshield fixed and all those things.

So we stayed off off of the news, which is always a plus. We helped a community member with an issue that they had, that was genuinely our fault. And everyone left the situation happy.  

There’s a lot of utility to the Let’s Talk! system and to having the ability to get that instant feedback from folks and be able to correspond with them right away.

According to Justin Elbert, community relations manager at Klein ISD, Let’s Talk! has helped the district build trust with the community around safety.

JUSTIN ELBERT: Like any school district, we have multiple platforms, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all those places. The thing is, anybody can contact you on any of those platforms, but we’re not all watching them the same way. We’ve kind of pushed Let’s Talk! and Keep Klein Safe as a place that we’re there if you need us, and I think that’s key. That’s how you build trust in your community. You give them a place to talk and you give them a voice and then you do answer them. Sometimes, they don’t like our response. But they respect the fact that they got a response.

As we close out our series on customer service in schools, it’s important to note that many school districts are just beginning the process of creating a strong customer service culture. We’ll continue to check back in with more school leaders on their progress and we’ll be sure to report on new successful strategies we hear about.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear more about the steps your schools are taking to make customer service a priority. So be sure to reach out. We’re on Twitter @K12trustED. We’re also on Facebook. And of course you can always reach us at k12insight.com/trusted. TrustED is a production of K12 Insight. To learn more about Let’s Talk! and the other work the are doing with districts throughout the country, visit k12insight.com