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Podcast: K-12 schools double down on customer service

TrustED podcast customer service in schools

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For many school leaders, it should come as no surprise: competition has come to K-12 schools.

The expansion of choice-friendly state and federal policies, coupled with an increase in private and charter school alternatives, have forced the nation’s public school leaders to rethink how they engage and retain students and families.

While great classrooms are essential, national education experts say they amount to a baseline. Schools that want to stand a cut above need to also focus on other metrics of success (see: community engagement and customer service).

In the first episode of our latest TrustED podcast series, we talk with former educator and researcher Dr. Joseph Goins, Carroll ISD’s Julie Thannum, and Guilford County Public School’s Dr. Nora Carr to help us understand why exceptional customer service is a must in today’s shifting education landscape.

Let us know what you think–and help us continue the conversation by leaving your comments here on TrustED, or on social media.

Want more on building a culture of customer service in schools? Sign up for the TrustED newsletter.

Episode 1 Transcript

This is the TrustED podcast. I’m managing editor, Todd Kominiak.

I just recently came across The Blueberry Story, a commentary for Education Week by Jamie Robert Vollmer–an ice cream business owner turned public schools advocate. Although it’s more than 15 years old, the story be more relevant in today’s education environment than even when it was written.

It’s a great story that you should definitely read in full. But I’ll summarize here.

Vollmer, representing a business group intent on improving public schools, was one day asked to talk to an audience of teachers during an in-service meeting. He boldly told the crowd of teachers: “If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long.”

Naturally, the teachers were not amused.

After his speech, one teacher rose to ask Vollmer a question. Keep in mind that Vollmer’s blueberry ice cream had recently been voted by People magazine as the best in the country.

“When you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?” the teacher asked.

“I send them back,” Vollmer quickly replied.

The teacher’s response would change the course of Vollmer’s life forever and turn him into an advocate, rather than a detractor, of public education.

“That’s right,” the teacher said. “And 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 attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, 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.”

That teacher was correct in so many ways. Schools are not businesses. Their mission–preparing our kids for the future–is one of, if not THE, most important undertakings in our society. And the challenges they face are often unmatched.

But, that doesn’t mean that schools can’t learn something from the way businesses operate. In fact, recent trends all-but-ensure that if schools don’t adopt some important business strategies, they very well may fall behind in an increasingly competitive education landscape.

Goins: You got private schools, you got Catholic schools, you got religious, and then charter schools. I’ve always told people, whether it’s right or wrong, you’re pro charter school or for charter schools, the reality of it is, you have these market forces on a public school system and parents have choices.

This is Dr. Joseph Goins, a former educator and the founder of NS4ed which provides research guidance, policy guidance, and practical applications around the intersection of education and industry. One of Dr. Goins main focuses is researching the ways market forces and market share are affecting schools–and how schools can stay competitive in this changing environment.

One need only look at some 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.

With increasingly choice-friendly federal and state policies and expanding school alternatives, parents have more education options than ever before to choose from.

Carr: Our district has had a very robust choice program for a number of years and so I think our schools that were quote-unquote the choice schools and certainly understood the importance of marketing, communications, public relations. Some of our traditional schools, though, I think perhaps took the students that came to them, not all of them, but there’s a tendency to take them for granted. You can’t do that now. Every single child, you have to assume, has a choice and that they will make those choices and customer service can make or break you.

You probably remember Dr. Nora Carr, chief of staff at Guilford County Public Schools in North Carolina, from our school safety series. Her district is no stranger to school choice, she says. According to Dr. Carr, those schools who don’t acknowledge that choice exits and that traditional public schools may have to shift their strategies accordingly, do so at their own risk.

Carr: I had a classic example with a very high performing school, one of the highest performing in the state–excellent quality, great teachers, wonderful school–would send my own child there in a heartbeat. They did not think they had to compete with these new groups coming into town, including one that was building across the street until they lost about 80 to 100 students. And suddenly we’re also losing teachers, we’re losing all kinds of families–parent resources and teacher resources because everything’s based on student enrollment. It was an eye opening shock to that principal that yes, marketing, PR, and reaching out to people–you can’t just assume they’ll come and sometimes they’re checking you out before they even knock on your door.

As I talked with leading education experts for this podcast, the discussion around how schools can deal with competition for K-12 students always came back to one key conclusion: schools have to look at their students, parents, and community members as customers–and develop a district- and school-wide culture of customer service.

One of those leaders was Julie Thannum, assistant superintendent for board and community relations at Carroll ISD in Southlake, Texas and a former president of NSPRA, the National School Public Relations Association.

Thannum: I think, first of all, that customer service isn’t something that everyone does well. And, I think, historically schools–and those who serve in those frontline roles of doing great customer service–they haven’t been trained well. And, they haven’t been given a lot of opportunities to have buy-in into the mission and vision of the school district. And, it comes across sometimes when our customers–who are potential parents, residents, even our own students–come into the school office or come into central office and they have an expectation of how they’ll be treated, and it doesn’t always necessarily always happen that way.

All the conversations I had recording this podcast kept coming back to this same idea: every interaction–both in person and online–that a student or parent has with your school frames their perception of that school. In today’s social media-fueled environment, perception is vitally linked to a school or district’s brand and reputation. And, though academic performance is a consideration for many parents, it’s usually not the No. 1 factor in parents’ school choice decisions.

Goins: You know, as adults, we kind of know the right thing to say. So, if I were to call a parent and say “How important are academics to you?” They’re all going to say yes. We asked a very specific question: Rate the kind of information you use in making your decision.  Academics and test scores did not score in the top five or six. It’s these other behavior attributes. I’ve often said, when Mom or Dad or a guardian drop off Billy in the morning, they want to know Billy’s safe, he’s cared for, does somebody love him and pay attention to him. Now, academics plays a role in it but again you would’ve expected that to be the No. 1 criteria. And it really truly isn’t–it’s these other things.

Thannum: I think school districts need to do a little better job, especially with the competition out there. We’ve always had private schools and homeschooling and things like that. Now, you’re adding more charter schools and open enrollment. School districts are really trying to put their best foot forward and show what kind of experience they can offer customers–students and their parents–that the district down the road may not be doing. And so, I think it’s good for all of us to stop and ask: “What is it that we’re doing? What makes us stand out? What makes this experience a positive one–or unfortunately sometimes, a negative one–when our customers walk through the doors?”

Carr: Too often, public schools, unfortunately, the experience from a customer service standpoint, we’re giving families and consumers, people with a choice, were treating them like the DMV–and it’s not the right kind of experience. I think we’ve got to flip that around but it takes training, takes awareness, takes standards and expectations, takes monitoring. Ultimately you can build a customer service orientation into your screening system for employees. You can start holding principals and other staff accountable for how they’re interacting with employees or how they’re interacting with parents, and meeting those standards. Building it in to the systems and structures of the school district and the school. You will see improvement.

In the face of increased competition and shifting expectations, how can schools put a culture of customer service into place? That’s next time on the TrustED podcast.

This is the first in a series of podcasts we’re doing on customer service in schools. As we shape this series, we want to hear from you. Let us know what you think about this and other episodes–and what you’d like to know more about. We’re on Twitter @K12trustED. We’re also on Facebook. And of course you can always reach us at k12insight.com/trusted. TrustED is a production of K12 Insight. For more, visit k12insight.com.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

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