I am often surprised by the lack of training everywhere I go. Whether it's a business, public school, doctor's office or place of worship, I find that it's the training of employees and volunteers that makes the difference between a thriving organization and one that is merely treading water. Sometimes I receive poor customer service at restaurants -- and these employees even depend on service for their income. In my experience, public schools are just as guilty of giving poor service, as our untrained administrative assistants (also known as secretaries, front office staff or receptionists) answer every phone call and greet all the customers who enter the building.
Bad customer-service training and monitoring of office staff are two of the major reasons people have negative perceptions of our public schools. Remember, a bad first impression can have a lasting effect on our customers. Sometimes, we never recover from those mistakes.
Not only do our administrative assistants hold the power of the first impression, they are frequently the only contact parents and the community have with the school. Since the vast majority of communication between our school and our customers goes through administrative assistants, it stands to reason that they sure as hell better be trained in customer service. I am sad to say that in many public schools or districts there are no official training programs for these positions. In many instances, people are turned off by a school as a whole without knowing, firsthand, the quality of instruction taking place within the classrooms. In fact, I've personally experienced just how this opinion plays out for some parents.
In my first year as a middle school principal, I had an exchange with a parent that would influence my overall customer-service philosophy for the next 20 years. A parent came up to me to say she did not like my school. Of course, I inquired as to the reason for her opinion. I'll take any chance I can to have a "do over" with a parent's first impression of my schools! After talking with her for several minutes, asking her about certain areas that perhaps we may have been lacking good customer service, she didn't have a single complaint.
Finally, she came out and said that the only instance where we fell short was the way she was treated by a former administrative assistant several years ago. Apparently, she'd called one day and been talked to rudely by one of our front office employees. She was instantly turned off by our school and kept that opinion for many years. Eventually, I was able to convince her to give us an opportunity to change her opinion of our school, but I lamented all the time she'd spent with a bad taste in her mouth from that one experience.
Stories like these make me shake my head, but I shudder to think just how many times students, parents and community members interact with our administrative assistants each day and perhaps have similar stories but never tell us. How many people have had negative interactions with front office staff and never report them, then retain that image every time they think of our schools? How many leaders are just too weak to confront and better train those employees? I would say that once you train it is easier to confront as there are no more excuses. We must ask ourselves, as school leaders, why are we allowing poorly trained personnel to be on the front lines of our organizations? The only way to solve this problem is with customer service training.
In my book, Competing for Kids: 21 Customer Service Concepts Public Schools Can Use to Retain and Attract Students, I list some key components of what makes a great administrative assistant (secretary). These are qualities on which I believe school leaders should train all front office staff. A few examples include:
answering the phone with a smile on your face and a smile in your voice
speaking enthusiastically to visitors and while on the phone
owning their mistakes instead of passing the buck or making excuses
making an emotional connection with guests by engaging in small talk like haircuts, clothes, shoes, family, sports, music or other interests
always looking for ways to "wow" our customers
being in the moment with each guest and make eye contact when speaking and listening
While this list is nowhere near exhaustive, you can get a sense of the type of training office personnel should receive in order to give the best possible customer service to students, families and the community. I encourage school leaders to think critically about the roles of their administrative assistants and brainstorm qualities desired in their customer service training. In doing so, you'll ensure that your front lines employees are consistently making positive first impressions on guests.