In the field of education, we often don’t think of ourselves as service providers. We just don’t relate what we are doing in education as being about customer service. Yet, we do have customers (students, parents, community members, other staff members) and we do serve them! We are each a representative of our school with every contact we make. They are our customers and, therefore, our very presence provides customer service.
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Now, in this age of school choice when there is more competition for students and quality staff, it is imperative that we take some lessons from the business world about how to provide good customer service and apply those best practices to our schools.
How are your visitors greeted when they come on campus? To become the school of choice in your community, it takes more than test scores or just being the closest school in today’s competitive education environment.
- Signs: Do the signs simply shout “rules,” or are they positive and welcoming?
- Parking: Is there marked visitor parking so parents can see that you are aware of their needs?
- Curb appeal: How does your school look? Clean? Clutter free? Windows shining? Office area organized and neat? Does positivity and enthusiasm show in your decor?
- First Contact: Who is the first person they meet? Is it a positive, smiling greeting or a “hey, I’m too busy to deal with you” type of response? Do they introduce themselves and ask how they might assist them?
If you aren’t sure, try what some schools are doing. To determine just how positive the first impression is, have someone act as a “customer service secret shopper” by visiting the school sites and recording the reception they receive. What grade would your school get, and how can you help improve your school’s customer service impression? Sometimes we don’t realize what a huge impact just one person (you) can make—certainly to the next person you come in contact with. Eye contact, a smile, and a greeting can make a lot of difference. It is easy for us to blame someone else for a school environment that isn’t as customer service friendly as it could be—but we can control our actions or reactions, and that might be the beginning of big improvements for all. Be the one to make a difference!
Let’s Go Back to Customer Service Basics
- Be Polite: The adults in the school system are role models for all of the students. Some students aren’t blessed with outstanding examples in their lives—but you might be that great example. The little things that some of us take for granted like saying “please,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “my pleasure,” and “may I help you?” is a great start.
- Tone of Voice: This matters in a phone call, a face-to-face conversation, and in our writing style. On the phone, smile and it will affect how you sound—try it, it works. In a face-to-face conversation, it is important to make eye contact and watch for the response when you speak. This will tell you how you are doing with tone of voice and can help you know whether to adjust. If someone is upset, raising your own voice in response will only make matters worse. In your writing, like in a note home to parents or an article for the website, be conversational, positive, and write the way you might speak (with correct grammar, of course).
- Be Helpful: Remember, parents often don’t feel positive about schools in general (often depending on their own childhood experiences with school), so you may need to overcome an initial negative attitude. They may feel unwelcome at the school. Offering to help someone who looks lost or providing information (even if it isn’t actually your job to do so) can go a long way toward creating a positive customer service experience).
- Consider providing “customer service” training to all of the staff, including your office personnel, bus drivers, food service team, custodians, teachers, administrators, and even crossing guards. It is a great topic for your next staff inservice. While you are at it, include the value of school marketing with this training because all members of your staff are marketers, whether they intend to be or not. Your school advocates, and staff who are advocates, are your best word-of-mouth marketers. Let them know you recognize and value them in that role.
Your School Website as a Customer Service Tool
All of the above also applies to your school’s website. And don’t think it just applies to your main office or district website (if you have multiple websites). Remember that once a student is registered, a parent seldom visits the district website but instead goes directly to their child’s school website or web page, so be sure your school’s site is:
- Welcoming: Including a welcome message right on the homepage—even if just a very brief message, letting visitors know where they are…which school, what grades, and that they are welcome here. This is like a warm, welcoming handshake, so don’t forgo this reception.
- Informative: Everything a parent commonly needs to know should be easily available here. We can provide you with the type of information that should be here—so if in doubt, please ask and we’ll provide you with recommendations. Also, consider just asking your staff what questions they have to answer most frequently (if they get asked the same question more than a few times, that information belongs on the website).
- Intuitive navigation. Can parents find what they need within three clicks? Is the location of information logical and intuitive? Remember, it is likely that the only website a parent is visiting regularly is their child’s school website. With that in mind, can parents find what they might need there? News current? Calendar current? Menus current? Is your school website design clean, inviting, and professional? Is your school website responsive and mobile-friendly?
- Positive in Tone: We always encourage a conversational and friendly tone (no jargon; never talk down to your audience; avoid passive voice; be cheerful and welcoming). Express your message in as positive a manner as possible—even for the “Thou Shalt Nots.” You can usually express even the hard and fast rules in a positive manner. Your website copy writing can have a significant impact on the impression your site visitors get about your school.
- Make sure any “form” that you would like to have filled out and turned in is available for either download or that it can be completed and submitted online. You want to make sure completing required forms is as convenient as possible. You are giving your customers’ needs a high priority and being considerate of their time and responsibilities. This is all part of the website services you provide as part of effective customer service with your customer in mind.
- ADA Compliant: Is your school providing an ADA compliant website? Can those with disabilities get to the information they need on your website? Not only is it the law, but it is the right thing to do since up to 20% of the general population have some form of disability. By making sure all of your school websites are website accessible, you create a level playing field allowing those who use screen readers or are visually or hearing impaired access to the information they need.
The goal is to engage your staff and students in creating a school atmosphere that shouts “Welcome!” In our increasingly technological society, our social interactions and simple acts of courtesy and kindness are more important than ever. Even one person’s attempt to provide crazy good customer service to those with whom they come in contact can radically improve your school culture and your school’s reputation and brand. Be the one!
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.