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3 signs of a bad school customer experience

school customer experience

I’ve been around enough K-12 schools as an educator and researcher to get a sense of what school leaders worry about most.

There are the day-to-day concerns: Are the buses arriving on time? Are students safe and secure? Are there any potential PR crises we need to keep an eye on?

Then there are the deeper, long-term issues that school leaders must grapple with: How do I improve student academic and social outcomes? How do we attract and retain talented teachers and support staff? How do we stay competitive against a rising tide of school choice alternatives? How do I build stronger relationships between our schools and the communities we serve? 

This last concern is something I’ve really been diving into over the past few months. Our 2019 State of K-12 Customer Experience Report–which surveyed over 500 school leaders from across the country–finds that building community trust (90%) and engaging external stakeholders (81%) are among the top strategic priorities for school leaders. 

When I’m asked how school leaders can deliver on these priorities, I always start with the same answer: Focus on the customer experience.

Students, parents, and internal staff need to feel welcomed and listened to. They deserve to have their concerns answered promptly, courteously, and accurately every time. That’s the core of a positive school-based customer experience. 

Technology, training, and best practices can help, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach–no cookie-cutter blueprint.

A wake-up call

I’ve seen some customer experience horror stories in my time: from hundreds of unanswered phone calls during a transportation system breakdown to a single Facebook post devolving into an allout PR crisis to teachers seemingly talking prospective parents out of sending their kids to their district.   

I’ve also seen district leaders use incidents of poor customer service as inspiration for cultural transformations in their schools.  

Take El Paso Independent School District in Texas, for instance.

When Juan Cabrera was named superintendent at El Paso ISD, he and his wife went to a district elementary school to enroll their youngest child. They went into the school without an appointment and the school secretary—unaware of who Mr. Cabrera was—turned them away rather than allowing them to see the school principal. After they left, the secretary passed Mr. Cabrera’s information on to the principal who immediately recognized the name of the incoming superintendent and quickly raced out to the parking lot to invite them back in to tour the school.

For Mr. Cabrera and Melissa Martinez, chief communications officer at El Paso ISD, the story was a wake-up call. In a district facing stiff school competition, the experiences and perceptions of students and parents couldn’t be taken for granted. I love the simple philosophy that Martinez and her team follow: “Marketing gets people in the door. The customer experience keeps them there.” 

Since this incident, the team at El Paso has made customer experience a priority–partnering with K12 Insight to implement customer experience workshops aimed at changing district culture around customer service–and backing that up by tracking key metrics around customer experience. 

 “We’ve seen the change already,” Martinez tells us, “it’s a much more welcoming environment. Everybody understands now that we want to have that sense of an open-door policy.”

Signs your customer service isn’t working

Not everyone has the same “aha” experience as El Paso. But, our State of K-12 Customer Experience research identified some key warning signs–as well as some recommendations for improvement.  

1. Your district takes an ad-hoc approach to customer service.

Consistency is key to a strong customer experience. If every interaction your stakeholders have with your district is different, you open yourself up to more potential negative experiences.

Recommendation: Implement an intentional system for addressing customer responses.

In our research, participating school leaders agreed that the school experience suffers without a replicable system to address stakeholder questions, concerns, and other issues. They system doesn’t have to be complex, it just has to be consistent. Start small and then scale out. 

As Dr. Nora Carr, chief of staff for Guilford County Schools in North Carolina told us, “Districts should start simply and begin with the central office. Then, bring the improvements to each school.”

2. Your district doesn’t have ways to effectively measure customer service success.

Without specific measurements to track the customer experience in your district, you can’t improve it.

Recommendation: Determine an objective method for measuring district effectiveness.

Annual school climate and culture surveys are great for taking a snapshot of community perceptions of your district. According to our research, this is also the primary way school districts measure the customer experience in their schools. But customer experience is dynamic–and it requires means of measuring effectiveness at multiple levels and touch points throughout the year. That’s the only way to get a timely and accurate picture of the entire school customer experience. 

3. Your district fails to get customer service buy-in at all levels.

You can do all the training and implement all the technology you want, if your staff isn’t bought into the importance of customer experience in your schools the initiative will fail.

Recommendation: Cultivate a culture of customer service excellence.

In our State of K-12 Customer Experience Report, school leaders largely acknowledged that improvements can only be made when a commitment to customer service becomes part of the broader school district culture. This culture starts at the top (i.e. the superintendent and district office), but it extends to individual schools and even into classrooms. 

According to Dr. A. Katrise Perera, superintendent of Oregon’s Gresham-Barlow School District, this customer service culture can set a district apart from the competition. “Since parents now have many options for their children’s education, we need to set ourselves apart. Everyone offers core content, but not everyone provides good customer service.”

For more of the findings from our State of K-12 Customer Experience report, visit k12cxreport.org. If you have questions, or would just like to talk through your customer service approach, email me at shelby.mcintosh@k12insight.com.

About the Author

Shelby McIntosh
Dr. Shelby McIntosh is a former educator and school researcher living in Texas. She is currently Vice President of Client Success for K12 Insight. Contact Shelby: shelby.mcintosh@k12insight.com

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