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Building Community Trust: 4 Strategies for Schools

There is no single definition of school success. Though our minds tend to conjure an iconic image. You know the one—engaged student sitting attentively, hand raised, eager to participate.

But how do we deliver students, ready and willing, to this point? Quality teaching and learning is an obvious and necessary contributor. But a new report suggests that the customer experience—that is, the feeling that students, parents, teachers, and others get when they interact with your schools—matters too, perhaps more.

This was among the key lessons gleaned from three months of intense research conducted this summer as part of the first-ever State of K12 Customer Experience Report, produced by K12 Insight, with support from the National School Boards Association and the National School Public Relations Association. 

More than 90 percent of school leaders told us that building trust and providing exceptional customer experiences were critically important to school success. Yet, just over half said they felt confident in their ability to do these things well. Turns out, many of them weren’t doing this work at all.

In a recent talk about the findings, Lesley Bruinton, public relations coordinator for the 11,000-student Tuscaloosa City Schools, said most school leaders can’t be blamed for having a misshapen view of customer service.

While training courses and certifications from the likes of Disney and Ritz-Carlton have become popular, Bruinton said that school-based customer service is less about making people happy, and more about earning their trust.

Think of it this way:

As a school leader, you can’t exactly give me a free pizza if I disagree with your assessment of my child. What you can do is listen to my concerns, respond in a timely and authentic way, and clearly explain your rationale. 

“True engagement only happens when you’re able to listen to your stakeholders, and make better decisions to serve their children,” explains Bruinton.

So what does exceptional customer service in the context of your K-12 schools actually look like? In her talk, Bruinton and Dr. Shelby McIntosh, lead researcher on the State of K-12 Customer Experience Report, offered four key markers for sustained success.

1. Tie customer service to your strategic plan

“If you have a goal, and you don’t write it down, how committed are you?” McIntosh asked the audience. Without fail, she said, school districts that successfully adopt a mindset of customer experience start that process up front, in their strategic plans. 

“It can’t be something that is merely said in passing,” explained McIntosh, it needs to be documented as part of a broader strategy for improvement.”

2. Zero in on response times

“I can’t emphasize enough how important this metric is,” said McIntosh. While it’s natural to assume that pleasing your stakeholders, or telling them what they want to hear, would be the most important factor, research suggests response times are more important than whether people agreed with what you told them.

“The idea that we’re asking people who have an opinion that’s different from that of the district, that can sometimes be tough for school leaders to hear,” explained Bruinton, adding, “It’s true: You need to grow a thick skin if you are going to do this work.”

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3. Create a dashboard to measure your effectiveness

If you’re going to get serious about improving the customer experience, you need some way to effectively measure your progress.

“Tracking that feedback keeps your finger on the pulse of what is going on,” said McIntosh. By tracking metrics like response times and feedback score, you get a clear picture of the climate in your district. 

People won’t always like what you have to say. Translation: You won’t always get a perfect score, says Bruinton. “What matters is the quality of your response.” Think of each interaction as a learning opportunity for your staff and develop a system that lets you easily monitor their contributions and progress toward your district’s goals over time.

 4. Provide training & PD

While school district leaders list trust and customer service as top strategic priorities, they admit that districts don’t always support front-line staff with the tools and training they need to succeed. 

“We don’t expect all our children to learn the same way. Why would we expect our staff to learn the same way?” asked McIntosh, suggesting that school districts provide custom training programs for teachers and administrators who need it. 

Want to learn more about these recommendations or the State of K-12 Customer Experience Report? Join us Nov. 6 at 4 p.m. EST for a free webinar, featuring Heidi Henderson-Lewis, customer service manager and ombudsperson for the Seattle Public Schools.

Register here