Making It Right

Customer Service in Schools When There’s a Problem

By Brittany Edwardes Keil Last Updated: January 26, 2024

It happens all the time: A complaint comes in from a parent or guardian, and in the shuffle of various people trying to address the problem, something slips through the cracks. Maybe it’s because someone is out for a few days, or maybe the complaint was simply forgotten about. In any case, the result is the same: Your district now has an angry family on its hands.

Fielding customer service complaints isn’t new for schools, but the environment around it has certainly changed. Where families may have once felt satisfied with letting a school secretary know about a minor issue—such as an absence being incorrectly recorded—they now have higher expectations. Parents and guardians don’t just want their problems solved; they want to be made happy immediately. 

According to Veronica Sopher, a Texas-based school communications professional, shifts in technology have changed the way customers interact with companies. And when it comes to customer service in schools, your families and students are your customers. “We live in an Amazon Prime society,” Sopher explains. “When something happens, we want it fixed, and we want it fixed right then.” But for schools—who are rarely staffed with the kind of customer service personnel private companies can afford—immediate customer satisfaction is sometimes impossible. Thankfully, a few leaders in the industry are offering advice to help your team field even the most difficult customer service complaints.

Part of Something Bigger

First things first: Customer service doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s part of the broader customer experience. While customer service refers to the direct interactions you have with your community—often initiated by them when they have a problem—customer experience is something more. 

According to consulting firm McKinsey and Company, customer experience means “everything a business or an organization does to put customers first, managing their journeys and serving their needs.” This includes every touch point a stakeholder has with your district, from seeing a billboard on their commute to enrolling their kindergartener to voting in a bond referendum. 

Augie Ray is the research director for customer experience at research and advisory firm Gartner. According to Ray, one good way to improve customer service is to build positive and dynamic relationships with your audience. 

“Whenever I speak about customer service, I always ask my audience about their last flight—the worst part of it and the best part,” Ray explains. He says people are eager to volunteer their bad experiences—tepid food, a noisy seatmate, or a long wait on the tarmac. When it comes to discussing the good things about their last flight, the audience is a little quieter, but some moments do stand out. Audience members might mention a surprisingly nice conversation or an unexpected upgrade. 

But Ray is most curious about the one answer he’s never received. “In years and years of doing this, not one person has mentioned that their flight landed safely,” he says. “And yet, if you ask the pilots what their job is, that’s exactly what they’re going to say.” 

For most schools, making families happy is not the number-one priority, nor should it be. Just as a pilot’s most important job is to land the plane safely, your district’s most important job is to provide kids with a high-quality education. However, these days, a great education alone isn’t enough to keep families happy. They also expect their overall customer service experience with your schools to meet their high expectations. And in the age of school choice, keeping families happy is a necessity.

So—assuming you don’t have a customer service helpline monitored 24/7—what is the average school district supposed to do?

Tip #1: Be clear about expectations with your community.

It’s not your fault that people now expect their problems to be solved instantaneously, but it is a reality that you have to work with. This means it’s up to you to communicate clearly with your community about what’s realistic for them to expect—and what’s not. According to Sopher, this is the number-one challenge school districts must overcome to foster patience and understanding from their stakeholders.

“When we onboard families, we let them know that our staff works hard throughout the school day to build positive experiences for students,” Sopher explains, “but that means that we’re not always sitting in front of our computers waiting for complaints to come in.” Sopher knows that positive customer service in schools starts at enrollment—and maybe even before. When new families enroll, it’s important to set standards for how they can best interact with your district. 

For Sopher, it’s important to give your families realistic timelines for when staff members will get back to them. “I let them know that they will hear back from someone within 48 hours,” she explains. “But that means that if they email one person, they need to wait before taking it up another level.”

Sopher also communicates to families that the fastest way to get their problem solved is to work with the people closest to the issue. “If it’s an issue at the classroom level, a teacher can solve it within a day or two, and a principal can solve it within a week. But the superintendent won’t likely get to it for a while because they’ll have to investigate the problem first,” Sopher says. Families must understand that a little patience can actually result in a quicker resolution. 

For a society trained to “ask for the manager” when they want to get things done, this is quite a perspective shift, but it can help leverage your stakeholders’ desire for efficiency. If they know patience is the fastest way to get what they want, they’re more likely to be okay with waiting. 

Tip #2: Create systems that anticipate problems.

While training your community can be helpful, it’s just one side of the equation. You also have to build capacity in your staff to know how to handle the inevitable problems that crop up. Sopher says that when preparing staff members at all levels to handle customer service complaints, she first makes sure that everyone has systems to help make customer service more manageable. After all, customer service is challenging, and given the sheer volume of families many teachers and staff members interact with, it can take lots of time. 

While some larger districts use internal ticketing software to manage complaints, smaller districts must rely on more decentralized processes. That’s why Sopher recommends two actions to every staff member: Check your email at least twice a day, and set up an auto-response for outside contacts that explains this practice. “Every single one of your staff members should have an auto-response,” Sopher says. “This way, families immediately know that their emails have been received and when they can anticipate hearing back.” 

The private sector is pretty good at this. Think back to the last time you emailed a company with a complaint. Chances are, you got some kind of response giving you an idea about when you’d hear back from them. The goal isn’t to automate every aspect of communication, but to make sure no one feels unheard. 

Take this scenario for example—a parent reaches out to a principal via email about a problem with the timing of soccer tryouts. The principal forwards it to the athletic director, who makes a note to talk to the soccer coach, who happens to be out sick. The problem is being addressed, but since the parent hasn’t heard back, they assume that their email was lost in someone’s inbox. So they needlessly escalate their complaint further—all because no one initially told them their email had been received.

Sopher also trains staff on one simple expectation: If they’re the ones families reach out to first, they’re the ones responsible for making sure the problem gets resolved—even if they can’t resolve it themselves. Sometimes, a parent might reach out to a teacher about an issue that a counselor can handle. Still, it falls on the teacher to make sure that the counselor takes ownership of the problem and, eventually, that it is resolved. “It’s easy for things to fall off someone’s plate as they shift ownership,” Sopher explains. “So we have to make sure we’re playing as a team.” 

Tip #3: Know what matters and what’s a distraction.

While happy students and families are important for every district, not every complaint is an immediate cause for concern. To know what’s actually a problem and what’s more of a distraction, you need to understand what matters to your community—and what doesn’t. 

“When I talk to companies, we talk a lot about figuring out which product complaints are actionable and which should be safely ignored,” Ray explains. “You want to find ways to move beyond the old adage, The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” For districts, this mindset can keep your staff from being mired in constant reactivity because it requires conversations and consensus about which complaints aren’t problems to be solved. This is especially true in an era where some complaints speak more to political distractions than what’s actually happening within a district. 

While some stakeholders may be resistant to not getting their way, saying simply, “We hear you, but we’re going a different direction,” is better than nothing. For example, let’s say a community member complains that children are playing too loudly at school bus stops in the morning and asks that students wait in their parents’ cars until the bus arrives. District leadership decides that, instead, the most appropriate approach is to simply ask bus drivers to remind students to be mindful of their behavior at bus stops. If the community member is notified that their problem was taken seriously, they are more likely to accept the resolution, even if they disagree with it. 

Allowing solutions to be owned at the lowest level possible also builds a culture of trust within your district. More often than not, it’s the principal who can make the final decision when an individual family is unhappy with a situation. Families should understand when a final decision has been made, and that they aren’t likely to get traction if they try to push the issue farther up the chain of command. For example, if a superintendent has built the expectation that all concerns about grades should be handled at the school level, they will need to stand behind whatever decision a principal makes in regard to that issue. Districts should think carefully about what decisions they’re comfortable with staff members owning at each level and how to ensure that everyone is on the same page. 

Strong customer service in schools builds strong school cultures.

As every teacher knows, no issue with a student or family is truly resolved until everyone involved can have a restorative conversation that sets the tone for a return to normalcy. The same is true when it comes to customer service concerns with your school families.

Continued communication is powerful, especially when people don’t expect it. Create a practice in your district where any parent who complains receives a follow-up at some point later on to see if the solution is still working. This communicates that you care all the time—not just when they’re bringing something to your attention. 

If you scroll through positive reviews about good customer service experiences online, you’ll notice that most of the anecdotes praise companies for having resolved problems well. In fact, according to a study from the Journal of Marketing, nearly 25% of the positive experiences customers cite with companies stemmed from an initial failure on the company’s part. Sometimes, recovering well after a failure generates more goodwill for your brand than if there had never been a problem in the first place. 

This means that issues brought to your district’s attention aren’t just fires to be put out; they’re opportunities to positively impact how someone thinks and feels about your schools. They’re touch points. If your district’s goal is to get to a place where no one ever has a complaint, you’re probably not going to get there. But you can make it your goal to resolve every customer concern in a way that builds a stronger brand for your district. 

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