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The HPMD Bullet
Fall 1996
Copyright 1996, HP Management Decisions Ltd., All Rights Reserved.
Vol. 2 Issue 1

Applying Customer Service Concepts
in the Public School by Mike Kelley and Ed Happ

Comsewogue is a school district on the north shore of Long Island, New York. Like many other school districts of average size and income levels, Comsewogue's school leaders face a number of challenges. A representative list would include: motivating students, supervising staff members of variable ability and attitude, satisfying parents, maintaining taxpayer support, preventing attrition to private and parochial schools, and dealing with the many societal problems that spill over into the schools. In short, it looks like a typical suburban school district.

Additional warning signals are on the horizon. National news articles continue to talk about the failure of public education, about drug and violence problems in the schools, and about the "dumbing down" of those that do graduate. Politicians talk about taking over local boards, introducing vouchers to encourage competition with private schools, and about doing away with tenure. Local press asks whether the taxpayers are getting their money's worth from the schools. Some even suggest that support for all governmental services be rolled back and that public school funding is the place to start. Everyone is getting into the act and second guessing the school boards, the administrators and the teachers who are charged with the responsibility of education.

Education today looks a lot like business did in the early 1980's. Business had just gone through three decades of working like mad, churning out products to meet undying demand. In the 50's and 60's demand for product was so strong that there was little need for cost control or quality measures. The engineers were king. During the 70's the cost accountants took over and made everything a little cheaper and of lower quality so sales could continue their frenetic pace. By the 80's, foreign competition and rising consumer expectations brought business-as-usual to a screeching halt. Clients began to insist on quality products, good service and fair price.


"The educational clients --the students and their parents-- are now insisting on the same thing: quality results, good service, and a fair price."


And they were putting their money where their mouth was. The educational clients --the students and their parents-- are now insisting on the same thing: quality results, good service, and a fair price.

Business has learned some essential lessons through the 80's and 90's in how to deliver high quality products, excellent service, and fair prices. The Customer Service movement, which marks its beginnings with the 1982 publication of Waterman's and Peters' In Search of Excellence, helped re-humanize the business transaction. It addressed the human needs and emotions of the client as a key to providing client satisfaction. No longer applicable were the old stereotypes of a cold, sterile, rational business transactions. Businesses that did not focus on clients' feelings and emotions lost clients.
Addressing the challenge

The Comsewogue Board of Education and Administration decided to take action to make the school district better than the average level they had been maintaining, and to head off other potentially negative forces. They knew that the collective knowledge, experience and cooperation of teachers, administrators, non-instructional employees, students, and parents were all invaluable to enhancing the quality of education and to ensure optimum use of community resources. So they are seeking to develop a spirit of partnership with all the players. Toward that end, they sponsored a seminar, facilitated by an outside consulting group, HP Management Decisions, Ltd. (HPMD), to get the ball rolling.

In preparation for the seminar, meetings were held with groups of teachers and administrators. One of the key obstacles uncovered early on was a strong resistance among teachers toward the business concepts of customer service. The primary objection was to the word "customer" and the co-requisite client-professional relationship. Many teachers simply could not accept viewing their students (and their parents) as clients. In order to engage teachers in a dialog about

"One of the key obstacles uncovered early on was a strong resistance among teachers toward the business concepts of customer service. The primary objection was to the word 'customer'..."

service concepts, Comsewogue leadership and HPMD decided to conduct a brief survey of community attitudes and expectations about service in the school district. The district sent questionnaires designed by HPMD to randomly selected students, parents, and non-parent residents to measure key service factors and levels of satisfaction. At the highest level, the survey concluded that:
  1. The community felt that the school district definitely had clients and the district's primary clients were the students and their parents.
  2. The quality of the service is very important to these constituents.
  3. The quality of the service being delivered is falling short of expectations.
    The beauty of such questionnaires is that they provide specific clues on where to start to improve service. Rather than being defensive about negative feedback, the forward thinking professional welcomes it as an opportunity to make their service even better. This was one of the appeals made to teacher's and administrators during the service seminar, when the survey results were presented.

    A couple of dozen teachers and administrators were selected to facilitate breakout groups and a special training session was held for them. While some were initially shy at public speaking in front of their peers, they quickly saw that the workshops were structured in an informal, conversational mode so that little pressure was involved. A great deal of participation and enthusiasm was generated in these practice sessions.

    Other than the work with the facilitators, no advance notice of agenda or content of the seminar was provided to the participants, in the thought that they would be more receptive to the concepts if they could see the whole presentation at once.
    The Seminar

    The seminar was held in February, 1996 for over 350 district employees, including administrators, teachers, teaching assistants, food service workers, custodial workers, and office personnel. In addition, two Board of Education members attended. The morning was focused on the environment external to education, specifically the business world and what it had learned about customer service. Studies were cited of improved profits, revenues, and repeat business generated by companies who were customer service oriented. Stories and other case studies were told of companies which had gone out of their way to accommodate clients and had built extraordinary service into their corporate cultures. The intention was to introduce client service concepts and practices first in an unthreatening environment, before applying the principles to education.

    The essence of the morning subject was made personally real during the course of the two breakout workshops. Each group of ten or so participants discussed specific experiences that they had where they received terrible customer service (in the first workshop) or excellent customer service (in the second workshop). They analyzed what it was about the experience that made it feel the way it did. And most importantly, they displayed the same emotions that they had originally felt. It was clear that all could identify good and bad customer service when they saw it, and that everyone had high expectations of the quality of service that they deserved.


    "Since each of us has such high standards for the quality of service that we receive, will we apply those same standards to the quality of service that we provide? Certainly our professional integrity requires no less."


    The transition to the afternoon session was issued as a challenge. Since each of us has such high standards for the quality of service that we receive, do we apply those same standards to the quality of service that we provide? Certainly our professional integrity requires no less.

    The afternoon included stories of schools and other public institutions applying excellent client service ideas creatively. It also discussed the factors that result in more effective schools and presented studies that examined perception differences between educators and the general public. The focal point of the afternoon was the results of the Comsewogue survey of students, parents, and non-parent residents.
    The Results

    The results of the seminar were encouraging. A review of the before and after comment sheets from the participants showed an improvement in receptivity to applying the client service concept. Many in the audience expressed eagerness to break out into workshops immediately to address the details of the survey and start to develop action plans. (Action plans had been part of the original seminar agenda, but dropped at the last minute in favor of a series of follow-up meetings, to include other parties as well.)

    There was a stronger than expected reaction on the after-survey from some teachers against using the term "client" to denote the student - teacher relationship. They felt that using commercial terminology trivializes the depth and importance of the relationship. Some stated that they don't sell a product and that any such


    "There was a stronger than expected reaction on the after-survey from some teachers against using the term "client" to denote the student-teacher relationship."


    hucksterism is anathema to their profession. Their instinctive response suggests that teachers function professionally because they love their students and not because students are their clients. This of course fails to explain why teachers work hard for students they might not love, or even like. In addition, it may be that the old stereotypes of business being cold, impersonal transactions are still being applied, despite personal observations of what excellent client service can accomplish. The important thing to keep in mind is that the key measures of success in education revolves around how effectively the student is prepared for life and that the student and parent are key determinants of that success.

    There have been, in the past history of Comsewogue, events that have sewn seeds of distrust and resentment between administration and staff. While acknowledging the legitimacy of those feelings, responsible members of all parties in the district recognize the importance of building a future in which the spirit of partnership, cooperation, and teamwork replace the old way of doing things. The recent district leadership has taken a number of steps, including the service seminar, to address communication, teamwork and service. The continuing resistance to applying service concepts and the client- professional relationship in the school suggests the need for continual reinforcement, and continuing service programs.
    The Future

    The Board of Education has approved conducting another, more comprehensive survey in early 1997, to include Board members and PTA leaders, as well as a larger number of students, parents, and taxpayers. Follow-up questions engendered by the initial survey will be added to gain a clearer perspective. Prior to this second survey, several action steps are being taken to improve service to the students and parents.

    A core group of district staff representing all work groups is meeting to review the details of the survey and start to develop action plans. Selected parents and teachers will also be invited to participate. In addition, a task force has been assembled to address the specific issues raised concerning the high school.

    The results of the survey along with the initial action plans were presented by the core group to the rest of the district staff. Comments and constructive suggestions were invited and implementation ideas entertained. Shortly afterwards, the initial survey participants and the community at large were briefed on the results and the action plans for improvement through a district-wide mailing. Taking extra efforts to communicate the results was an important step toward addressing the communications issues identified in the survey.

    The concerns about instructional quality and staff motivation require further investigation. A multifaceted approach may make the most sense, including recruitment and hiring based on service skills


    "A change in culture to one that is centered on the clients of the district will require constant reinforcement."


    and attitudes, as well as promotions and special assignments based in part on exhibiting these characteristics.

    A change in culture to one that is centered on the clients of the district will require constant reinforcement. Creating "bump into" factors, to use a Tom Peters' phrase, will be an important element in effecting change. What this means is creating the frequent occasions for employees of the district to "bump into" service-in-practice experiences. Creating a program that identifies the examples of excellent service as they occur in the schools, and publishing the findings regularly, would be a major motivating factor. This would serve to create the Comsewogue "lore" of service stories similar to those we told about the business community during the seminar.

    This is a work in process. Much progress has been made. Much more is to come. Stay tuned.