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What first impression is your district making?

Less than five minutes. 

That’s all it takes for someone to form a first impression of your school or district. And we all know how powerful those first impressions can be — especially when you start thinking about critical areas like enrollment, staff recruitment and retention, family and employee engagement, and student success. Not to mention your overall brand. 

Whether that interaction is in-person, over the phone, or via email, you need to ensure it’s memorable for the right reasons. 

But too many school districts — more than 70% — don’t have a way to effectively measure the service they provide, let alone understand where they’re starting from.

What first impression is your district making? 

It can be tempting to assume you already provide excellent customer service. But that can be a risky assumption, especially when you consider families and staff have other options for where to learn, work, and grow. 

Creating positive customer experiences starts by understanding where you’re currently at. What sort of service does your district provide? Is that consistent across departments, schools, and key processes? Has it changed as a result of new challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, limited staff and resources, or remote learning programs? 

You don’t have to — and really shouldn’t — guess the answers to these questions. You need to investigate by taking a walk in your customers’ shoes and really understanding their experience.  

A new and innovative way schools are doing this is through secret shopping. Also known as “mystery shopping,” secret shopping is a well-known assessment method in the business world. In the K-12 space, it allows for school leaders to gather meaningful baseline data across touchpoints (including phone, email, and in-person) that can help them understand, measure, and improve customer service.

K12 Insight introduces the first-ever secret shopping program designed specifically for K-12 school districts. And it’s free. Learn more here. 

The secret shopping process is particularly revealing for K-12 school leaders wishing to understand where they currently stand and the first impression they are creating for new students, families, and employees. 

Because if there is one key takeaway from my recent research, it’s this: Too many school districts are not making a positive first impression.

A little email study

There are few district processes busier than enrollment ahead of back to school — or a more prime opportunity to create a positive first impression with prospective students and families. 

But what sort of impression are schools and districts really making during this critical time of the year? 

To find out, I shopped schools and districts (varying in size as well as ensuring a mix of public, private, and charter), emailing them as an anxious parent unsure if my children should return to in-person learning in the fall and, if so, where. I asked a few questions about the school/district, including safety protocols, to help me make the right choice for my children. 

Of the 40 schools and districts I emailed, only 15 responded within three business days (a 38% response rate), and by the end of one week I had only received one additional response. That’s well under half of those I reached out to — even after a full week had passed. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what impression those schools/districts left me with by not responding. 

But getting a reply is only part of it. The quality of the responses matters just as much — maybe even more so. 

Of the replies I received during that week: 

  • 5 were “pass the buck” replies, handing the responsibility of responding to someone else (only sometimes even trying to connect me with another staff member)
  • 3 were templated auto-replies (with no human follow up), often sending me several links that had nothing to do with the questions I asked 
  • 2 were out of office replies from staff members who would be gone at least another week from when I sent the email

And that’s just the surface. Digging deeper, there were emails that misassigned a gender-specific prefix (when I had only supplied a name). Some only answered a portion of the questions I asked or, in some cases, none at all. In one particularly shocking instance, I was actually discouraged from enrolling my child. 

What surprised me the most, though, was that no response — not a single one — made me feel like the school/district really cared about me or my family. I had clearly expressed anxiety over making the call to have my children return in-person in the fall and while some responses provided answers to all or most of my questions, none took the extra step to show they cared. 

These and other elements — no matter how seemingly small — determine a families’ first impression of your district. 

And of all the email responses I got, only one reply came close to making a positive first impression where I would feel confident recommending that district to a friend or colleague based solely on that email interaction. 

So, what first impression is your district making? Because it may not be the lasting impression you’re hoping for. 

Find out what first impression your district is making with The Ultimate K-12 Secret Shopping Toolkit. Yours for free — because truly understanding the customer experience in your district shouldn’t be contingent on pricing. Get your copy here. 

About the Author

Dr. Christine Wells
Dr. Christine Wells, NBCT, spent 16 years in K-12 schools as a teacher, instructional coach, building principal, and director for teaching and learning. She currently serves as Senior Director of Professional Learning and Research at K12 Insight.

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