My career in K-12 education has provided many unique vantage points to observe our public schools–first as an educator, then as an administrator and superintendent, and now as a trusted advisor for current school leaders.
While I’ve held many positions, one thing hasn’t changed: My conviction that effectively engaging with internal and external stakeholders is vital to success in schools. Today, we simply call this the customer experience.
Something that has changed is the urgency around ensuring strong K-12 customer service—which is a result of increased school choice and competition, rapidly shifting enrollments, and dwindling resources for America’s educators.
What’s also changed are the tools and strategies available to provide exceptional customer service in schools. Sadly, recent research shows that many school leaders are either unaware of or ill-equipped to successfully use these new approaches.
New priorities, new strategies
This summer, the team at K12 Insight kicked off the first-ever State of K-12 Customer Experience Report which surveyed over 500 K-12 leaders on their approach to customer service in schools. The full report is available for download, so I won’t give everything away. But let’s just say I wish I had this data when I was a superintendent.
Initial findings show that the vast majority of participating school leaders see building community trust (90%) and engaging external stakeholders (81%) as top priorities. But, only half feel their districts have access to the training, technology, and resources needed to deliver on those priorities.
As a result, school districts often rely on what my colleague Dr. Shelby McIntosh calls “old-school” strategies for measuring and improving community engagement and customer experience in their districts. While the majority of school leaders we talked to rely on school climate and culture surveys to assess customer service, far fewer are utilizing new forms of training and technology that could potentially transform how their community perceives their schools.
Implementing a new customer service strategy isn’t easy. I know from experience. But there are a few lessons I’ve learned over the course of my career that have informed my work as a school leader and now as an advisor. I hope you find them useful.
Investing in customer service now will save you resources–and headaches–over time.
Tight budgets are something every school leader must face. So, naturally, you’re probably questioning whether using precious budget dollars on something like new customer experience technology is worth the investment. Trust me. It is. Technology that streamlines community inquiries, gets them in the hands of staff members who are best suited to answer them, and helps track how–and how quickly–questions get answered will help improve efficiencies, saving precious time and resources for your school district office and other departments.
Real-World Example: On the first day of school in 2015, Richmond County School System in Georgia received over 1,000 phone calls from parents and community members about transportation-related issues—and administrators struggled to keep up, prompting negative press stories and unhappy community members. “We’ve got to communicate better. We have to be more efficient,” says Kaden Jacobs, the district’s director of communication, reflecting on his thoughts during that time. So, the district invested in K12 Insight’s community engagement and customer experience platform Let’s Talk!. Over three years later, Jacobs reports, “It’s a lot calmer up here in the central office than it was when I got here. Our parents aren’t nearly as upset. The perception in the community has changed.” Read the full story.
Let data lead the way.
K-12 customer service is all about how students, parents, internal staff, and other community members feel when they interact with your schools. But your district’s strategy for improving that experience can’t be dictated by feelings or hypotheses–it has to be backed by data.
- What types of inquiries are you receiving?
- Are they questions, concerns, suggestions, threats, compliments?
- What topics are community members asking about the most?
- Are they satisfied with your response?
- How quickly is your district responding to inquiries?
The answers to these questions are important data points that can inform how you improve the customer experience in your district. You should ensure you have a system in place that allows you to easily gather and manage this key data.
Real-World Example: When Dr. Curtis Jones, the 2019 AASA National Superintendent of the Year, took over as superintendent at Bibb County School District in Central Georgia, he knew that trust between the school district and the community had become an issue. Dr. Jones made open communication, community engagement, and customer service priorities for the district. His team employed Let’s Talk! to help. One specific data point that Jones was very focused on was response time. As Dr. Jones says “Let’s Talk! allowed us to have a way of saying, ‘If you send something to us, we’re going to get back to you within 48 hours. And, you’re going to get the answer from someone who is closest to the problem.’” Today, the district’s average response time is 24 hours and the average feedback score is 8.6 out of 10. Read the full story.
Back up any new customer service initiatives with ongoing training and support.
No matter what approach you take to improving the customer experience–whether it’s adopting new technology or implementing new staff protocols–it won’t be successful if it isn’t backed by comprehensive, ongoing training. I’ve seen far-too-many customer experience strategies fail because leaders never achieved buy-in from the people who would actually be doing the work. Before you implement any new initiative, make sure you have a plan in place for training your staff and helping them understand the “why” behind your approach.
Real-World Example: Over the past year, my colleague Dr. Christine Wells, has been leading a new form of professional development in school districts across the country. These interactive workshops are focused on helping teachers, school staff, and administrators understand the importance of customer service in their districts while providing practical steps for making it a priority every day. So far, Dr. Wells and her team have trained around 5,000 front-line leaders. A participant in a workshop held at Harrison School District 2 in Colorado said one of her biggest takeaways was the importance of “Slowing down and taking a moment to understand where my ‘customer’ is coming from during my interactions so that I can be a service hero for them to and from school.” Learn more.
Forget the trolls. Start a real conversation.
I’ve talked with many school leaders who fear that a customer service approach will open their districts up to trolls, chronic complainers, or unnecessary controversy. I can assure you, it’s just not the case. In fact, it very well may help turn trolls into supporters. In August 2019, for instance, the ratio of positive experiences versus negative experiences as rated by community members using the Let’s Talk! system was at least 6 to 1. That doesn’t mean everyone who used Let’s Talk! was happy with the answer they received, but the vast majority appreciated the fact that they had a way to easily reach out and receive a polite and timely response. By creating a positive customer experience, you make lasting connections and build trust with members of your K-12 community–whether they be internal or external customers.
Real-World Example: At Ft. Bend Independent School District in Texas, executive director of human resources Gwyn Touchet needed a way to improve how her team responded to staff questions and concerns. Frustrations among internal customers were growing due to the HR team’s inability to keep up with a flood of inquiries. So Touchet and her team launched Talent Connection–powered by Let’s Talk!–to streamline the process. The online portal, accessible through the district website, allows employees and prospective employees to submit questions to the HR department about specific topics, such as onboarding, employee records, or benefits. Because of this new emphasis on internal customer service “the frustration on our customers’ part, from long response times or misinformation has subsided,” Touchet says. “We’re able to provide an exceptional experience, and our customers view our department more positively now.” Read the full story.
Want to talk through how you might use these lessons at your district? I’m always happy to chat. Simply send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.