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The two most overlooked words in K-12 education

As schools return to in-person learning, school leaders look for quantitative metrics to help measure the impact of customer service.

The phrase customer service is not part of the natural vocabulary for most school leaders.

In places where it is, evidence typically amounts to anecdotal stories or tales of happy or, more often, unhappy customers.

But as schools transition back to in-person learning post-pandemic, the importance of customer service as a discipline with measurable indicators is coming into vogue.

Qualitative vs. quantitative

Where feel-good stories and emails used to be the only barometer for effective customer service in most schools, educators are increasingly taking a more quantitative view of their relationships with parents, students, teachers and staff.

It’s all about the data, and new ways of using it.

Specifically, when a parent or staff member has a question or concern, school leaders want to know how long it takes to respond. They want to know if the issue was resolved — and how parents, students and staff would rate or categorize their experience. Perhaps more important, they want to measure the impact of those experiences on the ability of teachers and staff to effectively do their jobs.  

Despite a rising demand for customer service analytics, evidence suggests the majority of school districts still do not have reliable systems by which to measure the impact of these efforts on reputation or performance. In a recent view of more than 500 districts, K12 Insight found that fewer than a third of school districts applied quantitative metrics to their view of customer service. In the rare cases where metrics were used, it was often part of a one-off departmental effort, not a holistic system-wide effort.

So, what does this look like, done right? 

It starts with a dashboard — and these 3 indicators

At minimum, your school district should be able to (in real time): 

  1. Quickly see how many stakeholders contacted you or your staff with a question, comment, or concern
  2. Easily determine, on average, how long it takes your team to respond and effectively resolve issues
  3. Deliver a score — a reliable measure by which to easily determine the quality and impact of their efforts on stakeholder confidence

School customer service at scale

Picture a 10,000 student district. On any given day, more than 4,000 customer service interactions take place across your system, at least 10% of which could be categorized as high-risk or high-reward. For every 10,000 students you add, you can double the number of interactions.

The hardest part of the job isn’t teaching and learning. It’s fostering the relationships, public support and employee morale that school leaders need to drive their most ambitious and community-dependent programs forward. 

School leaders who take a more quantitative approach to customer service say they are able to compete more effectively for students and families, improve teacher and staff retention, reduce time spent talking down frustrated parents, mitigate costs from potential lawsuits and FOIA requests, and streamline communication and operations in nearly every department.

Consider this in terms of savings. Depending on the extent of the request, an FOIA request can take hundreds to thousands of hours to fill. In one estimate, a school district in Virginia estimated that a particular parent request would take 10,000 staff hours, at a cost of $624,000. 

As schools continue to navigate the challenges and pitfalls posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of potential lawsuits looms large, especially in areas such as special education. One estimate said the cost of a school district lawsuit can exceed $100 per student. In a 10,000-student district, that amounts to a $1 million.

Why customer service — why now?

Research shows that inbound questions and concerns are up 190% compared with pre-pandemic levels. The events of the last 12 months have fueled a permanent surge in the volume and type of questions and concerns fielded by schools, courtesy of parents and staff. 

The average parent and student has been forced to endure more change in one year to their educational routine than in the previous two decades combined. Even as schools transition back to in-person learning, continued uncertainty in other aspects of their work and at home adds to the tension.

To the extent that your school or district can provide some sense of consistency, be it in transportation, food services, registration, graduation — really, anywhere — you have an enormous opportunity to engender trust and lower the temperature with your external community.

The same is true internally, with teachers and staff. The shift toward virtual and hybrid learning created untold stresses for educators. Add to that the increase in questions from parents and students, many of which had nothing to do with teaching and learning, and it’s no wonder that teachers are feeling burnt out. 

One Education Week study found that 81 percent of teachers and staff said their jobs had become more stressful since the pandemic. The reverse is also true. Districts that showed caring for teachers were able to boost morale and elevated their desire and ability to rise to the challenge. 

A silver lining amid chaos?

While the science of customer service is new to many schools, existing frameworks can help speed the transformation.

Your information technology department likely already uses some form of IT service management to field technology-related requests, from broken laptops to internet connectivity and passwords.

With careful refinement and an intentional shift from internal to external service, the same basic framework can scale to help your district adopt a more metrics-driven approach to customer service. 

Hundreds of districts, big and small, have started this journey in recent years. For them, the rollercoaster of the pandemic was made more bearable by a clear view into what people needed on any given day or in any given week.

This knowledge has enabled educators to lead, instead of playing catch up. At a time of intense change and uncertainty for schools, a commitment to customer service and service management can make all the difference.

See how two districts — Dallas ISD and Osceola — are using a commitment to customer service and service management to drive re-entry and recovery for their communities this spring. Join us for a national conversation. Register here.

About the Author

Corey Murray
Corey is executive editor of TrustED. Email: cmurray@k12insight.com.

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