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Schools Offering
Service With A Smile


Greetings, smiles, and eye contact may be standard customer-service training in the retail industry, but now it is moving into schools as well. Some districts are training all staff members, including administrators and bus drivers, to be more customer-friendly. Included: Tips for making your school customer-friendly.

While education is a profession that provides a service, most educators don't think of themselves as service providers who fulfill customer needs. Education consumers (students and, to some extent, their parents) should be willing, unquestioning, and appreciative recipients of the material schools provide, no matter how it is delivered, the traditional view has held.

Competition, though, for students and parent help in an age of school choice and limited time is prompting some educators to take a lesson in customer service from the retail field.


The customer service approach, and the move toward family-friendly schools, is being implemented district-wide or in individual schools. Often the approach starts with something as simple as reminding all staff members to greet visitors in a friendly way.



See the article at the end of this story for some customer service tips from school administrators.

"Educators are starting to realize the importance of families feeling welcome in schools, the impact of that on student performance, and the sense of community," said Dr. Sally Wade, director of the Florida Partnership for Family Involvement in Education, which offers customer-service training for school employees. "In the education environment of school choice, schools are becoming more cognizant of their reputation in the community and their roles. They can't be isolated in the community."

Wendy Katz, director of leadership development for the Sarasota (Florida) School District, agreed. "I'm not sure schools traditionally think of themselves as serving customers," Katz said. "But we're trying to create a culture around service. We want to think about everything in terms of relationships -- it's all about the child-teacher relationship."

In some cases, whole states are starting to re-think their approach to education "consumers." Judy Carson, an education consultant with the Connecticut State Department of Education, hired Dr. Wade to speak at a conference in October about building school-family-community partnerships.

Among the workshops the partnership offers are Opening Doors, a seminar for front office staff, secretaries and receptionists; and Creating Family-Friendly Schools, which is designed to help teachers, administrators, and support staff improve interactions between families and schools.

The fact that Dr. Wade had a seminar specifically for office staff was appealing, Carson added. "Clerical staff from my office went to the session and gave good feedback," she said.

"The conference was to highlight the importance of welcoming schools," Carson added. "We know from research that the degree to which a school is welcoming influences the extent to which parents become involved."


As part of its approach to becoming more friendly, the Sarasota district is examining how it can better serve internal customers (employees) and external customers (students and parents). "The more internal customers feel valued, the better they will treat people they serve," Katz told Education World. "We want people who come here to work to be so proud and happy that they don't want to leave."

Happy teachers often are more effective teachers. "We're talking about how to motivate people to give 100 percent every day and do the best for kids," she added.

For example, all employees are encouraged to send hand-written notes to recognize outstanding efforts of coworkers. "It sure feels good when people acknowledge what you do -- it builds loyalty and job satisfaction," said Katz. And it helps with parent relations. "How hard would it be if a teacher made one positive phone call to a parent a week?"

Administrators have been following the approach of Quint Studer, a company that instructs businesses in customer-service techniques. Office staff members and secretaries have been trained to be more aware of how they respond to visitors. That includes introducing themselves to people who are waiting, and estimating the length of their wait. As part of the training, office staff members were asked to think about the last time they had positive customer service and what they can do daily to create a positive memory for someone.


"We know from research that the degree to which a school is welcoming influences the extent to which parents become involved."

"I think people certainly are realizing that manners are important," Katz said. "At one level, it is a return to more traditional values... We're going through great changes today; in order for change to occur, relationships have to be improved."

The program is being piloted in ten of the district's schools this year, and the district's human resources and food and nutrition departments. In December, social workers, guidance counselors, and psychologists are slated to receive training in customer service.

School officials also are gathering data from last year to see if the training is making a difference.

"We're not asking people to do one more thing; just work differently," Katz added.


While customer service training certainly can be helpful, solid examples and endorsements from district leaders are critical to successfully implementing the customer-service philosophy.

"Without the spirit of truly wanting to reach out, it doesn't matter," said Tina Wirth, the Duval County (Florida) Public Schools community involvement supervisor. "The attitude has to come from leadership. You can't force it if there's no desire to improve."

The district has a new superintendent who is very focused on community involvement and "helping parents as stakeholders," Wirth added.

The arrival of a new superintendent, Dr. David Gayler, in the Charlotte County (Florida) Public Schools about three years ago also shifted the district's focus to customer service, according to Michael Riley, a district spokesman. "He [the superintendent] expects staff and leadership to treat people with kindness and consistency," Riley said. "The superintendent says we are here to serve."

As part of the Charlotte County initiative, administrative staff members read and discussed the book , engaged in leadership training, and then trained staff at school sites.

Welcoming parents and community members as they come into the schools is a key part of the customer-service approach. "We focused on receptionists and secretaries, greeting people and phone service," Riley told Education World. "It's about trying to direct parents promptly to the proper person. We've also done a lot of training with bus drivers, and also food service employees. We stress greeting children, and making eye contact as kids come on bus. We are a community, and when we deal with the community we need to be on the same page."

"Without the spirit of truly wanting to reach out, it doesn't matter. The attitude has to come from leadership. You can't force it if there's no desire to improve."

District maintenance people also are encouraged to employ customer-service behavior when they travel to schools. "It's about reflecting out positive attitudes about the schools."

In Duval County, the district had received a grant to create a family-friendly program and most schools participated, Wirth said. Even though the grant money ran out, the philosophy has been maintained throughout the district.

"I often speak to schools about being family friendly, which includes building community involvement and parent involvement," Wirth said. "The ability to build those is only as good as the reception you have. We encourage schools to engage parents in the most comfortable way for them."

School leaders often don't realize that they have to overcome negative feelings many people have about school systems, she added.

"For many administrators, it's hard for them to remember that the last impression most parents have of school before they were parents was when they graduated -- and a lot of people were ready to graduate," according to Wirth. "So you're not just starting at a neutral point; a lot of times you're starting at a negative point."

Administrators sometimes are wary about parents and community members becoming too comfortable in the schools, but these knowledgeable volunteers can become a valuable part of a school's team, Wirth said.

"You have to ask, 'How important is it for schools to have people peering over their shoulders?'" she noted. "That makes some administrators nervous. But once outsiders become insiders, they can be defenders. Then volunteers will rush to defend the school or the administration if something happens."


Some administrators have taken it upon themselves to change the school climate. The desire to keep ahead of the competition and win allies prompted Brian Flynn, principal of William monroe Rowlett Elementary School, an arts and communication magnet school in the Manatee County (Florida) School District, to make his school more appealing to consumers.

"Since this is a magnet school, we need to attract students," Flynn told Education World. "I wanted the school to be family-friendly. I believe it is important -- if we want kids and parents to want to drive 30 minutes to come here, we have to make them feel special."

The school competes with 31 elementary schools and six magnet schools for students.

As part of that effort to attract students, school staff members read a book called . Office staff members are encouraged to smile, and the school tries to hire people who are warm and inviting, he said. "We definitely want to ensure we make a good first impression."

Faculty and administration also try to learn students' and parents' names and strive to respond to parent requests within a day. "It helps people to feel valued, even if they don't like the response," Flynn noted.

"Some people feel nervous in schools; we want them to feel comfortable," he continued. "We want a place where parents feel comfortable. We encourage parents to volunteer and come to eat with their kids."

Whatever the approach, customer-service advocates stressed that it is important to get all school staff involved.

"The issue is that being welcoming is everyone's business: teachers, administrators, office staff, even bus drivers," said Connecticut's Carson. "Everyone is the face of the school."


Customer Service Strategies for Schools

Making schools more welcoming can start with something as simple as reviewing the atmosphere for building visitors, said Tina Wirth, the Duval County (Florida) Public Schools' community involvement supervisor.

While schools are more cautious about visitors now, they still can be welcoming without compromising security, some educators said.

"First impressions in schools are similar to customer service in retail," Wirth said. "Look at how visitors are greeted. What about signs in the school? Do they shout rules? Or are they positive?"

When she walks into a school, Wirth said, it can take up to three minutes for her to be greeted by a staff member, which can create a bad and lasting impression for visitors. "When that happens in a school, they've lost a sale," Wirth said.

All school staff members also need to know who their customers are. That is one of the first activities Dr. Sally Wade, director of the Florida Partnership for Family Involvement in Education, assigns participants in her seminars for school employees. (She said she heard about a case, for example, in which a school board member walked into a building and couldn't get anyone to make eye contact.) "The quality of an organization is gauged by the satisfaction of engaged customers," she said.

Dr. Wade also discusses five dimensions of customer care:

  • reliability
  • responsiveness
  • to feel valued
  • empathy
  • competency

"We also talk about communicating and listening, especially in difficult situations," Dr. Wade added, and "how to apologize when you are at fault or just feel the need."

Among the strategies Connecticut office staff members learned at one of Dr. Wade's seminars was the importance of acknowledging people when they come in, even if you can't help with their question. "Just let them know you've seen them," said. Judy Carson of the Connecticut State Department of Education.

Also, use the time while parents are waiting to make a good impression. Sarasota School District staff members are encouraged to talk to waiting parents about the experience of their child's teacher: "Your daughter or son is so lucky to have Mr. or Mrs. Jones; she or he is a very strong writing instructor."

Reshaping customer service attitudes also can be fun. "Perhaps you can have a contest to see who made the most significant changes in school culture," noted Wirth.



Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 11/28/2005
Last updated 02/24/2009