Kelly E. Middleton
Why Customer Service is the Answer to Saving Public Education
In the past, public education thrived because it was the only schooling option for the vast majority of families. Few could afford private schools and other forms of education were either not yet invented or else were only used by a very small percentage of students.
However, in recent years, forms of education that directly compete with public schools have grown exponentially. According to "The Condition of Education," Homeschooled student enrollment doubled in just 8 years from 1999 to 2007. What was once thought a fad in education has become a steadily growing segment. According to the U.S. Department of Education research, homeschooling has seen a yearly increase in enrollment of 2%-8% in the last few years. State vouchers make private schools more affordable to middle class families who would have otherwise sent their children to public schools. And, in recent years, the rise of charter schools has allowed even low-income families to leave the public school system.
So we are seeing an exodus of public school students from all backgrounds moving to different schooling options. This has an environment where buyer bargaining power, or, the customers' ability to be picky about which schooling option they want to choose, is high when it has traditionally been very low.
For educators, understanding the impact of parents and students having high bargaining power is essential in order to stay relevant in today's highly competitive education market. Is anyone in your school district discussing how to compete with the other educational options? This is a conversation that I think all schools must have. When we look at how a customer's high bargaining power affects success in the business world, we see that the companies that survive and thrive in those markets are the ones who:
1. listen to and meet the needs of the customer best
2. create a brand that makes people excited to be a part of it.
This means, delivering exceptional customer service in every aspect of the school experience. Recently, I came across a company that helps schools achieve this goal. K12 Insight works with schools on issues like creating great first impressions on students, building meaningful relationships between staff and students and competing with the other forms of education. It seems the idea of public schools taking a customer-service oriented mindset has spread in the 11 years since my first book.
Forbes Magazine has even made the connection between the concept of customer service and the plight of public education. In an article from back in 2015, they outline several tips public schools can use to give better customer service. One that really struck me was the idea of how today's world has shaped the public to expect their experience with schools to mirror that of for-profit companies. They say, "You’re not being judged based on what’s always been 'fast enough for education'; you’re being judged, implicitly and unconsciously, based on the speed of amazon, Uber, and Starbucks." School leaders need to understand this and make an effort to adopt these companies' practices.
On K12 Insight's blog, TrustED, they discuss 5 reasons why public schools should adopt a customer-service based strategy throughout their districts. They report that 18 states are projected to see a decrease in public school student enrollment in the next 8 years. Furthermore, several New England states may lose over 10% of students. In a short video in the article, TrustEd suggests that "stronger branding and marketing, more program options and better experiences for students, parents and staff" will help public schools retain and attract students. In other words, if schools can respond to the changing market the way companies do when buyer bargaining power is high, they can compete and stay relevant. The answer is customer service. To learn more about the effects of increased competition on public education, you can read my book Competing for Kids.