Strengthening the Customer Focus in Schools:

Customer expectations are changing...


Linda Vining





Have you noticed that the nature of interactions with your customers is changing? Families have become increasingly selective and individualistic in their needs and expectations.

One principal described enrolment interviews as 'an interrogation worse than a final university exam'. He described parents bouncing questions back and forth, comparing his school with others and confident children throwing in penetrating questions that add to the cross examination. Enrolment officers everywhere report the same pattern.

Major shifts in consumer expectations can be identified at the national level as well as the local level.

At the national level, parents are expressing a desire for greater involvement in decision making. They want a voice on school councils. Minority groups, such as Aboriginal people, want representation on selection panels.

In the current climate of teenage unemployment and tough competition for tertiary entry, parents want an education that will equip school leavers with skills to find a job and enter a career.

Parents expect the school environment to be secure, where the teachers are in control and bullies don't rule. They want schools to have strong measures to deal with violence and racism.

The high incidence of youth suicide and the stress associated with examinations has put the spotlight on the counselling role of schools. Parents want schools to teach students how to manage stress and interpersonal relationships.

With an increase in single parent families, parents are looking to the school to provide a greater level of pastoral care. Parents want role models, help with values education and sex education. Parents often need to be educated themselves to understand the developmental stages and personality changes of young people.

There is a demand for greater choice (as seen in selective and specialist high schools) and information to enable parents to make informed decisions.

Identifying Customer Needs

Traditionally, schools have offered courses based on their internal point of view of what customers needed. But recent market research reveals that the assumptions that educators make about the important elements of the education service can be wrong.

A school planning its orientation for entry to Year 7 decided to check its assumptions with a questionnaire to Year 6 students and parents.The school asked what the students and parents wanted to know about secondary school and what they hoped to gain from their orientation program.

To their surprise, staff discovered that the school handbook, which in the past had consumed vast resources, did not rate.

Year 6 wanted to know who else was going to be in the class? Who would be their teachers? Where would their rooms be and what would they be doing on different days? How much homework would there be and how many assignments would they have?

Students had valuable ideas on how this information could be conveyed. One girl suggested a short biography and a photograph on each member of staff who would take Year 7 so that the students and parents could recognise their teachers on the first day and know a little about them.

Understanding the education process from the customer's point of view can make a powerful difference to the way things are done.

When the needs of Year 9 and 10 students and parents at a high school were surveyed they said they most wanted instruction in critical legal issues for school leavers. They identified common concerns about support for victims of assault, rape and racism. The rights of the individual, alcohol and anti-social behaviour were high on their ideas of a relevant education.

As a result, the school formed a joint initiative with the district law society and students, parents, and staff attended sessions.

Recently I organised a school fundraising dinner. The next day the school distributed by mail a short evaluation form with a pre-paid envelope. The response was excellent and the feedback gave valuable insights. People like to be asked what they think. This is your market research.

If you regularly solicit opinions from your audiences and evaluate what they say you will understand them better and develop knowledge of what works and what doesn't. You will pinpoint the vital areas for improvement and have evidence to prove it.

Adding Value To A Basic Service

At the heart of a school are its customers - its students and parents. No matter how good you think your school is, the customer must perceive the quality.

Having identified expectations how can a school add value to its service and take its customers beyond mere expectation to a sense of delight?

The following anecdote which I call A Present for Mothers Day was repeated to me by a parent and illustrates the point.

A young lad had lost his blazer. Days of searching failed to find it. The boy was looking glum when the deputy principal stopped to enquire. Together they searched all the usual places for the blazer to no avail and the boy went home blazerless and upset. Much later when everyone had left school, the deputy thought of yet another place. There it was.

That night he rang the mother at home with the good news. He was rewarded with the grateful comment 'What a great Mother's Day present'. That story, with embellishment, was repeated by the parent many times in many places.

A simple tale indeed, but it took a teacher's time and effort and it echoed 'a caring school - a personal effort beyond expectation'. With customer service it is the little things that can mean a lot.

Communicating Quality Service

Every person in the school has a role to play in the delivery of excellent customer service. So often schools talk about a caring environment where the individual is paramount but they fail to convey the message beyond the rhetoric.

The question of how each staff member can increase and improve their personal interactions with their customers needs examination and discussion as part of staff inservice training

Other bridges to your customers are through your regular newsletters, local press, speeches and annual reports. Use them to assure your customers that you understand their expectations, that you are adaptable, flexible and responsive to their needs.

I phoned the principal of a catholic primary school and was told she would be out of her office all day - she was supervising the combined school while staff were at an inservice day. Later she told me that her parents hate pupil-free-days so the school makes special arrangements for their pupils. No parent is inconvenienced, no child is left unattended at home. Most importantly, the arrangements were carefully outlined in a letter to parents so that they appreciate the value-added service they were receiving.

Quality must be spelled out. It must be perceived from the viewpoint of the customer. A customer focused school follows three basic steps. It identifies customer needs, it decides how to satisfy them, it then communicates that the school understands the needs and is responding to them.

Whether you like it or not, in a competitive environment, how you market your product is as important as the product itself.

Linda Vining is the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools. She conducts a series of school seminars on Marketing The Modern School. Phone (02) 9683 6725.


Does your school have a customer focus?

Non Customer Focused School

Prospective parents receive a list of school features

What works for the staff and principal is forced upon the customer (for example, pupil-free days)

Short term focus

Staff responsibility does not extend beyond technical competence

Opinions of customers is not sought

Customer Focused School

Focus on customer retention, as well as recruitment

School is described in terms of benefits for students

Customer needs are surveyed

Long term relationships are important

Customer satisfaction is the concern of all

Complaints are taken seriously



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