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  • Writer's pictureKelly E. Middleton

Only 15 Cents Short: Why Does Customer Service Elude So Many in Public Education?

Updated: Oct 22, 2018

Recently, a public school in Florida made the national news when a mother reported that her child was denied lunch for owing 15 cents on her account. Not only did the student have to surrender her lunch, but the cafeteria worker threw the food out right in front of her and she had to go the rest of the day with nothing to eat.

It's stories like this (and there are many, including throwing out food of special needs students) that make me think that so many who work in public education are missing the point of the job. Of course, it's easy to single out this one cafeteria worker, but what it really comes down to is that the school leaders failed to ensure that lunchroom workers had been trained on how to handle an outstanding balance in a customer-friendly way. There's no excuse here - students are short money at every school every year, so there should be protocol in place for when it happens that ensures students are treated fairly and not sent back to class without eating. This is the heart of the issue and one that we see replayed in so many areas of public education on nearly a daily basis.

So why does the concept of customer service elude so many educators? It starts before even working in education: no one is trained in customer service. Whether you go to school to be a teacher, administrator or any other position in education, rarely does that training entail an intentional focus on the principles of customer service. We can't blame educators for not doing what they haven't been taught, right?

In my opinion, this is a cop out. If the general public can see a problem with a story such as the one above (where a worker was only following protocol, we must assume), then school leaders have no excuse for letting this happen on their watch. In fact, once word got out about the student not having money for lunch, rapper T.I. was so upset that he decided on the spot to pay for her meals for the entire school year. A fund was even created by a civil rights group that will allow any student at the school who is short money for lunch use funds from the account to pay the remainder of their balance.

It's this kind of injustice caused by schools that makes me question just how important the students are in public education. Until school leaders across the country buy into the reality that they need to value and implement customer service strategies throughout their schools, we will continue to hear of this lack of quality care that, as T.I. says, "deters kids from coming to school."

If pubic schools can implement school-wide customer service training programs, like those outlined in my book Competing for Kids, we will see less instances of public relations disasters like throwing out a kid's lunch for being 15 cents short. Just look at how the best companies handle customer relations. When a company values and practices giving great customer service, that commitment is reflected in the way the company is perceived and reviewed by the public.

Southwest Airlines is a great example. Co-founder and former CEO Herb Kelleher made it his mission to make the company about customer service. We can see it in the many glowing reviews of the airline in a time when airlines are under great scrutiny by the public. Even their crises are learning opportunities for other companies, as we saw in 2016 when their computers malfunctioned and over 2000 flights had to be cancelled. They responded quickly and appropriately and the disaster was averted as best any company can hope for with such a massive equipment failure. It's no wonder that recently, Southwest stock was reportedly up 7.6% in the last month. Their commitment to giving great customer service puts them head and shoulders above the competition.

Speaking of the competition, American Airlines has been panned for it's stinginess with adding any new bells and whistles. In an article comparing American and Southwest, business magazine Inc. reported, "Recently, American's president Robert Isom confessed that the airline wouldn't improve things for customers unless it could make a profit from that particular thing." This is hardly the attitude of a company that is putting the customer first. The article goes on to highlight the true difference in the airlines by stating what they perceive to be the missions of the two companies: "For American, it's What Can We Get Away With? For Southwest, it's How Can We Keep Them Coming Back For More?" Enough said.

So, whether we are talking about an airline or a school, the proof is in the publicity. When public education can value customer service nationwide and train staff to reflect those values, we will begin to see a positive shift in the general perception of public schools based, in part, on success and fail stories.

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