Education Opinion

Customer Service and School Improvement

By LeaderTalk Contributor — January 25, 2009 3 min read

“The school leaders who embrace, design and implement customer-driven systems will be the ones who thrive in the future.”

Ellan Toothman, 2004

Current improvement efforts in schools frequently look to business
models of successful change and leadership. Customer service is one
aspect of the business model that gets talked about more regularly and
is actually delivered to varying degrees in schools around the country.

What does it mean to provide good customer service? How do we ensure
service to our community on par with our expectations of service in
other sectors of our lives? What can be gained through a focus on
customers? Who are the customers?

For the purposes of this post, I am considering two distinct forms of customer service:

  1. Internal customer service - how we engage students and staff in the education process, both at building and district levels
  2. External customer service - how our schools and central office personnel engage the community

Internal customer service can go a long way towards helping us
understand the unmet needs of our students and staff and improve the
quality of our work as a result. External customer service can garner
community support in ways that empower our work and strengthen
partnerships that are beneficial for students. Few would deny these
positive outcomes, but how do we begin this work and is it really

As school safety became an urgent priority in our schools, districts
around the country conducted security audits to identify needs and
build support for the necessary changes. Nora Carr (2007) encourages a
similar “‘triggering event’ to break through staff denial” and
ultimately determine customer service priorities. She and others
suggest secret shoppers who email, call, and visit schools and district
offices to determine the level of service in place currently and how
best to improve. For internal customer service, I would recommend a
similar gathering of information through student interviews, panels,
and surveys such as the High School Survey of Student Engagement (or a similar tool for other grade levels).

Another important factor in considering a more thoughtful customer
service approach is the changing nature of school funding. As families
have more choices and can more easily enroll students across
traditional district lines, schools who not only meet academic needs
but are also responsive to their community will see the greatest
benefit. This competitive push has the potential to focus our work
around academic needs as well as community input. In this way, the
benefits and challenges of an educational community can be owned more
broadly and solved more collaboratively. In an era where family and
community partnerships are growing and reaping results, it only makes
sense to engage more thoughtfully in community service efforts.

What tools can we use to measure customer service?

  • online customer satisfaction surveys
  • parent/guardian/teacher/student exit interviews (real interviews, not just a piece of paper)
  • feedback cards in front offices and on desktops
  • secret shoppers

What strategies can be used to improve customer service?

  • training for all staff on customer service
  • establishment of first-contact resolution culture
  • empowerment of individuals, schools, departments to meet identified needs

This work is exciting and holds much potential. If you have a story or example of effective measures in action, please share.

Dave Dimmett

Carr, N. (2007). The customer service approach. American School Board Journal, 194 (9), 62-63.
Gagnon, E. (2009). A mystery shopper in the public school market. School Administrator, 66 (1), 42-43.
Toothman, E. (2004). Mention customer service...and then run. School Administrator, 61 (6), 35.

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.