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Schools Aren't Businesses, But Customer Service Matters

In 2002, Jamie Robert Vollmer wrote an Education Week article called A Blueberry Story, detailing his experience delivering a speech to encourage teachers to run their school more like a business.

Vollmer was the head of an ice cream company who had just received People’s award for “Best Ice Cream in America.” After finishing his speech, a particularly clever teacher asked him how he would react if he received an inferior shipment of blueberries (the main ingredient of his company’s ice cream).

Naturally, as a business man, he responded that he would send the blueberries back. The teacher’s retort has since caused this story to go viral:

“We can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted,  exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

While well-intentioned, there is a flaw in this logic when you consider that in this equation, students could also be considered the consumer–even the product. Students aren’t just blueberries, they’re the ice cream: the finished product of what happens when you put all of those materials together to try and make something great.

It’s true, schools aren’t businesses, but they can learn from their customer service approach.

Need more convincing? Here’s three reasons why school leaders should consider a customer service approach in their districts.

1. Public schools no longer have a monopoly on education. Families have choices, from magnet schools, to charter schools, to private schools, to homeschools.

When Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) in California declared a “state of emergency” around its steadily declining enrollment, administrators partnered with K12 Insight to develop a family exit survey and streamline communication between the school and home.

So far, the district says its commitment to listening and customer service is working. More non-kindergarten students from outside the district enrolled at SAUSD in 2017-2018 than in the previous two years.

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2. In a technology- and customer service-driven world, the reality is that parents and students expect their schools to be more responsive.

Amazon. Uber. Netflix. Today’s leading brands offer consumers similar advantages: speedy service, innovative approaches, and the ability to provide instant feedback.

It’s no wonder that parents and students expect similar service from their schools.

Understanding what students want, and providing better service was one reason why administrators at Virginia’s Rockbridge County Public Schools reserved computer lab time for students to take the district’s Comprehensive Plan and Priorities Survey.

The results helped administrators understand how students felt about their school environment.

For example, students reported that learning a second language was their third most important priority for success. Furthermore, students expressed concerns about drug and substance abuse. Again, a customer service approach, and commitment to listening, helped administrators understand and address potential issues in their schools.

3. Customer service can help schools transform culture and climate, especially when it comes to safety.

It’s no secret that a positive school climate is vital to student success. In fact, a recent study from the University of Chicago found that school climate is perhaps the most important factor in student achievement.

A customer service mindset can help lay the foundation for a respectful culture focused on meeting the wants and needs of all students, staff, families, and the surrounding community. This is especially true when it comes to student safety.

That’s why the School District of Osceola County in Florida created Keep Osceola Safe, an online portal, where students, parents, and staff can go to read important safety information, ask questions, and report concerns. Available 24/7, the site ensures that administrators can respond quickly to students and parents. The best part? Students and parents say they feel empowered to contribute to important discussions on safety and climate in their schools.

Is your school or district committed to creating a culture of customer service? What strategies have you used to improve customer service and listening in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Kaity MummaKaity Mumma

Kaity, a former K12 Insight summer intern, is a fourth year PhD student in Applied Developmental Psychology at George Mason University, where she earned her MA in 2017. Her line of research focuses on long-term effects of attending preschool programs, quality in early education, and the achievement gap. She can be reached at kaitymumma@gmail.com.