Superintendent Perspectives: The Customer Service Mindset

Guest Writer Dr. Katrise Perera, superintendent of Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon, shares why customer service is crucial—especially in times of crisis.

Before I took the helm as superintendent in Gresham-Barlow School District here in Oregon, I put on a baseball cap, T-shirt, and jeans to visit schools disguised as a prospective new parent. I walked right in off the street and started asking questions, pretending I was relocating to the area and wanting to learn more about the school for my children. But I really wanted to learn about the customer service in my new district—and I quickly found out that we still had some growing to do.

Without anyone knowing who I was, I visited the front offices of two schools at every level—elementary, middle, and high school—and, let me tell you, I did not have the warmest welcomes in the majority of them. Ninety percent of parents never go beyond the front office in their interactions with schools, so I knew right then and there that one of my top priorities as the district’s new leader would be to instill a customer service mindset in all our staff, especially those interacting with parents. I want our community members to have the best experiences possible when they walk into our schools.

In our busy day-to-day lives, being nice may not always be on your mind, but it’s critical to the success of your schools. If parents aren’t being treated with respect and gratitude, then how should they expect their kids to be treated? We’re here for the students, and we need to be there for their parents and guardians as well. Their interactions with our staff are their takeaways of what our schools are, of who we are.

Because we know a majority of parents interact with a school’s front office staff, we provide professional development for those staff members. We also seek out candidates for those roles who have a customer service mindset and traits that will allow them to provide good service to every parent or guardian who visits our schools.

Of course, it doesn’t stop at our front offices. Customer service is necessary at all levels of a successful school system. So we need to be strategic in making sure everyone, from principals to teachers to custodians, understands that we serve the community; they don’t serve us. We do this in Gresham-Barlow by maintaining a districtwide culture of customer service, providing ample professional development opportunities for our staff, and always keeping our students and their families first.

The Need for School Customer Service

Providing great overall customer service is vital to the success of any business, and the same is true of any school district. I’ve had the opportunity to see how customer service works in both settings, and we in the education field can take many lessons from the business world.

Shortly before starting in Gresham-Barlow, I served as National Director for Urban Markets at McGraw-Hill Education (MHE). You could say I was an army of one at MHE—my job was to learn how their products would help students, to leverage my connections to help open doors for the sales team, and to provide professional development to school administrative teams when necessary. My experience as a superintendent had afforded me the opportunity to be not only a rep for MHE, but a thought partner as well. Needless to say, I had my hands full. But through working with 70 different districts, I learned quickly that going the extra mile to take care of their needs built trust and loyalty, allowing both students and the company to thrive.

So what does effective customer service look like in your schools, and how can you measure it? Well, it isn’t all that different from the business world—the stakes are just a lot higher. Good customer service in schools is assessed by how well we meet a family’s needs or by how much we exceed their expectations. I believe successful customer service in education carries more emotional weight because of that student connection. A customer will never be as attached to a product as a guardian is to their child. As you well know, there’s nothing quite like an upset parent who demands to speak with the principal. It’s our job to make sure that parents leave with a positive impression of our schools, even if they’re here dealing with a difficult issue.

I cannot stress enough how important our communication with families is to the outcomes of our students. Communications and customer service go hand in hand. When I served as a principal, I began to learn the real value of communication. Once, a sixth-grader came to us with acute below-average reading skills. After assessing his skills and identifying his needs, my school staff worked with him one-on-one. His reading skills started improving; my staff went well beyond expectations in helping this student. However, the communication between the school and his family wasn’t as clear or consistent as it needed to be.

In focusing so much on this student’s academic needs, we didn’t consider the full needs of his family. We were asking to keep him after school and sometimes take up a portion of his elective class, but we weren’t communicating with his family as frequently or as accurately as we should have been. The student’s reading skills improved quite a bit, but because we didn’t have the communication piece in place, we came up short. In retrospect, we realized that despite his progress, we should have been more open with his family about our intervention methods. When you don’t give parents the full picture, they assume you’re hiding things. Our customer service missteps in clear communication caused concern and confusion that could have jeopardized the student’s progress.

As educators, our focus is often on the task at hand: making sure all our students are being served. The other side of that coin, though, is making sure their families see how well we’re taking care of them. If customer service is always top of mind, we can get positive academic outcomes and earn the loyalty of our community. When schools embed customer service into their culture, they can make true progress.

Creating a Customer Service Culture

Building a culture of customer service is like any instructional initiative: You have to start at the root of the problem. Once you identify what’s keeping you from providing great customer service, you can build a strategic plan to implement with fidelity. When I say “implement with fidelity,” I mean that customer service can and should be measured in your schools. Begin with clear indicators of success. Prioritize time to assess progress, clarify expectations, and, of course, provide feedback and guidance.

Image: Facebook post from Gresham-Barlow that reads: 'Thank you, families, for sharing photos of your students participating in eGBSD! We’re excited to partner with you to bring this new way of learning to our school community! We are so proud of our students, families, and staff!' SchoolCEO then adds some commentary — 'To keep a districtwide customer service mindset in their schools, Gresham-Barlow centers communications around their most important customers: students. Here, they’ve invited families to share photos of their kids learning remotely.'

Effective customer service must be a collaborative effort. Each school, department, and individual has to understand their role in customer service to ensure consistency. As leaders, it’s just as important that we seek out resources and guidance, and model great service for our staff.

Establishing a culture of customer service and getting everyone on board are two different things. But there are ways to model that culture for your staff and to instill it in their daily mindsets. For one thing, it’s always important to set language and communication norms. We have to ensure that all our staff fully understand the information we’re communicating, that we define common vocabulary, and that our staff use that same language when communicating with our stakeholders. To help, we often provide a script or response statement for anyone communicating with the public on behalf of our schools. This way, our language and practices are as aligned as possible.

If we want people in our communities believing in what we do, we need to make sure our entire culture is centered around service. Some of these shifts in mindset can be frustrating to staff members, but as educators, we have to realize we’ll always be learners.

Developing the Mindset

Modeling and communicating a mindset of customer service is a huge first step, but you can’t overlook the value of professional development. To achieve excellent customer service, you need to identify and offer adequate professional learning opportunities to everyone in your schools who interacts with those you serve.

To get our culture up to speed, we partnered with an outside company for a series of customer service training sessions with our administrators and front office staff. The training was well received, and feedback suggests that parents now feel more welcome when they visit schools.

I also require my entire leadership team to substitute in an actual classroom at least twice a semester. When I first announced this new policy, it went over like a lead balloon. But when we are making big decisions that will impact schools, I believe it’s important that we keep a connection to the classroom. I started doing this as an assistant principal—covering for absent teachers’ classes—and it helped me stay student-focused as an administrator. Despite that initial hesitation, the substituting has been a success. Last fall, I had to sit down with a director and remind him that substituting five times a semester might be overdoing it.

No matter what leadership role you’re in, I think you have to be centered from the classroom outward. Even today, I love teaching. I like to think I never lost that focus. I want the leaders in my schools thinking outwardly from the classroom as well, always centering decisions around meeting our students’ most immediate needs. Without question, we are focused on keeping the classroom front and center, and we’re serving all our customers in the process.

Service in Times of Crisis

If we have learned nothing else this year, we all realize now that sometimes things are beyond our control. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great teacher. As in any crisis, schools have to leverage their established customer service to reinforce and restore the public’s faith and hope for moving forward. It isn’t an easy task. When the world is in a crisis, the prevailing response is usually confusion, panic, and high emotions. But if you’ve got a solid foundation of customer service, you’ve got a better chance at success.

Any change in normalcy will increase levels of anxiety, especially in schools, where a consistent structure is expected. Students depend on that structure, and so do their families. To best serve a community during a crisis, the school has to help families understand what changes are occurring, why they’re happening, and what outcomes are possible. If we can communicate these changes and allow for feedback, stakeholders will better understand what’s at stake and why certain decisions are being made.

We also have to be active listeners who are open to learning. This will allow us to offer empathy and ask for flexibility when we need it. In times like these, take a moment to reflect and ask: What can we do better?

It’s important to ensure that students’ physical and emotional needs are being met—even before their academic ones.Prioritizing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs allows for more effective applications of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We have to put people’s needs before our programs. We don’t know the mental and financial toll that crises like this take on many of our families, who are already dealing with more than enough. For me, responding to a crisis like COVID-19 has been about planning backward. Back in late March, we assumed we’d be remote until the fall, so we asked ourselves what we would need on day one in September, and planned backward from that. With the uncertainties affecting all aspects of the district, and every one of our stakeholders, we knew it was best to divide and conquer.

We created what we called rapid response teams—six cross-functional teams made up of administrators, department representatives, and teachers. Considering stakeholder input, each team strategically addressed a specific need, planning backward from the identified September readiness dates. These areas included health and safety; equity and learning recovery; distance learning; mental health and social-emotional learning; workforce and legal; and finance and cost control. Having these cross-functional teams to make decisions on the ground improved our output, helped us innovate new processes and procedures, and allowed for quick pivots where and when they were needed. As soon as we made the switch to remote learning, our rapid response teams were already troubleshooting, putting plans together, and making recommendations regarding professional learning opportunities for our staff.

Collaboration always plays a big role when serving others, and during a crisis, it is no different. The distance learning team worked with the equity team on developing the best possible instructional model for our students with special needs. At the beginning of each week, all the rapid response teams came together to review information and grapple with needs and resources. It goes back to good customer service: working together to make sure we’re meeting our students and families’ needs.

It’s been a long process, but tackling the challenges in small chunks has helped my team focus and weather the storm as we all deal with the pandemic. In any crisis, leaders need to make sure we’re taking care of our team so we can take care of others.

The Most Important Customer

It is our moral imperative as educators to ensure that we’re providing students and their families with what they need—otherwise, why are we here? It may not be easy, but teaching and learning are what we do best. Our community expects us not only to prioritize our students, but to model that priority in our behavior and communications.

Last spring, amid total remote learning, one of our more traditional veteran teachers witnessed something that gave her a new perspective. She was on a virtual call with a student who had been struggling academically when suddenly a verbal altercation broke out between two of the child’s family members. The teacher could see this on camera.

We now ask our students to use a digital background to ensure their privacy. But this situation gave our teacher insight into her student’s unique struggles. “What I took away was a whole new appreciation for this student,” she told me. “I feel terrible because I’ve chastised them a lot over the year.” She ended up apologizing to the student for not taking more time to get to know their situation, for not asking the right questions. Her new approach will be proactive, looking for ways to help students rather than reasons to punish them.

Images: two Facebook posts from Gresham-Barlow highlighting their staff's effort to support students and families, with the SchoolCEO caption,'With their #TogetherWeCan hashtag, Gresham-Barlow has been highlighting their dedicated staff as they navigate school closures, remote learning, school reopening, and a year like no other.'

A customer service mindset isn’t just about being polite and attentive when a parent shows up to school. It’s about giving our very best to the communities we’re charged with serving. It’s about asking the right questions and not letting the unanswered ones allow our kids to fall through the cracks—no matter the learning environment.

When I first considered moving to Oregon to take this superintendency, I was disturbed by the racial history of the state. Despite all that, I have been welcomed warmly as a woman of color and a leader in this community. So not only do I instill a customer service mindset, but I also lead with the idea that  our history is not our future. We can always work to be better.

After our teacher shared her story with me, she said something I won’t soon forget. “I will never ask another child, Why did you not do your homework?” she said. “I will only ask them, What can I do to help you?

When it comes to serving our customers—students and their families—perhaps it’s best to start by asking that same question: What can we do to help you?


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