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Beating the competition with customer service

Take a look at any of the latest education statistics and it quickly becomes clear: competition has come to K-12 schools.

Consider these numbers:

  • Between 2010 and 2015, U.S. charter school enrollment grew by 62 percent
  • 160 districts now have more than 10 percent of students enrolled in charter schools
  • At least 18 states project declining public school enrollment over the next 10 years. For more on these numbers, check out this video on declining enrollment.

Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) in Southern California has seen the effects of increased competition firsthand. Student enrollment has been in steady decline for nearly a decade, due, at least in part, to the fact that the city of Santa Ana has more charter schools than anywhere else in Orange County.

To stem the tide, SAUSD leadership knew they had to improve how the district was perceived among new and existing parents and community members. So, they worked to implement a system of strong customer service–and used those experiences to reshape the school system’s brand.

Refreshing the brand

SAUSD serves nearly 50,000 students. Ninety-one percent of SAUSD students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and 60 percent are English-language learners. Despite these challenges, SAUSD has seen a 9 percent increase in its graduation rate in the last six years. That rate now sits at 92 percent.

Despite this success, students and families continued to leave the district. Enrollment declines often topped district projections.

Three years ago, the district declared a “state of emergency” around its enrollment crisis and convened a task force of community and district stakeholders to tackle the problem.

The team conducted research into why families were leaving–including a continuous family exit survey led by K12 Insight (which publishes TrustED)–and examined the historical reputation of the district. Not surprisingly, they discovered that not everyone in the community had a strong perception of the district.

“We started building what we wanted people to think of when you said, ‘Oh, I attend a school in Santa Ana Unified,” says former Chief Communications Officer Deidra Powell.

So the district undertook a series of campaign-style grassroots strategies and traditional marketing efforts–from door-to-door canvassing to participation in school choice fairs to wrapping trucks to serve as mobile billboards for SAUSD schools.

“We just continued to beat the drum,” Powell says of the efforts. “Sometimes, we’d think, ‘We’ve done that so much.’ But it’s never too much.”

Making customer service a priority

While getting the word out about the district was important, messaging was only part of the solution. The district also sought to focus on improving how students, parents, and staff experience the school system. That means both supporting community members and actively listening and responding to their concerns.

Says Powell:

“We can’t just rest on, ‘Our product is great.’ And you can’t take for granted that parents are just going to be in your school district because they buy a house and your school is right down the street, anymore.”     

Enter SAUSD’s maniacal focus on customer service.

For the SAUSD team, great customer service in schools means three things:

  1. Ensuring that every parent, student, and staff member has an easy way to reach the district
  2. Creating a system that ensures the district always responds in a timely fashion
  3. Training staff to ensure that every response is always accurate, complete, and courteous

SAUSD has a goal of responding to every community inquiry within 48 hours and the district wants to ensure that parents and others are comfortable asking questions, on whatever channel works best for them. For example, a special Let’s Talk! button on the school district website lets community members ask questions directly.

For more on building excellent customer service in schools, sign up for the TrustED newsletter.

Access is obviously important. But how staff members answer the concerns of students, parents, and other staff is vital, says Powell.

“You have to train people who are the responders,” Powell says. “We invested a lot in the training of the people who are responding to the individual conversations, so that it’s not a burden to them.”  

Above all, Powell says, great customer service shows students, parents, and staff that you’re committed to hearing them out. “Listening is a big deal,” she says. “When you discount a parent and make them not feel valued–or that their voice is not being heard–that’s when things can get in not such a good place.”

Making progress

Amid its focus on customer service in schools, SAUSD is seeing signs of a turnaround.

The tremendous progress in the graduation rate over the past six years is a sign that students are more engaged.

More non-kindergarten students from outside the district enrolled at SAUSD in 2017-2018 than in the previous two years, a welcome sign that the district’s investment in branding and customer service is paying off.

For more on SAUSD’s approach to customer service in schools, check our full webinar here.

What is your school or district’s approach to customer service? What strategies do you have in place to retain and attract students? Tell us in the comments.