Here’s a posting with an elephantine gestation. It was started in repsonse to Don’s considerations of teaching, children and parents in relation to customer service. But it became too long, too personal and too late to be part of that original discussion.
I was interested to read some of the impressions people seem to have of customers and customer service: customers are often seen as demanding, unreasonable, self-important, pompous, selfish; customer service providers can be either subservient artificial toadies, or else monosyllabic spotty drop-outs in a McJob. This dual negativity is particularly prevalent in the UK – in the USA and on the continent it’s possible to see, say, waiting tables in a restaurant as a far more respectable career. Perhaps there is an echo here of British class sentiments from a time when who-served-who defined society?
I feel these cliches of customer are no more relevant today than the image of teachers all wearing corduroy elbow patches. In some contrast to guineapigmum, I don’t have a problem with seeing my parent-self as a customer, maybe because I’ve worked as a manager responsible for customer service, including in some pretty non-standard environments.
Like Don, I feel there is a strong correlation between the tenets of customer service and many of the good practices of a teaching environment. Good customer service is genuine – less “false sycophantic grovelling” and more Unconditional Positive Regard. My experience of UPR comes via the work of Carl Rogers who also stressed the value of empathy: making the effort to consider the situation from the other’s point of view. From my point of view this might involve the schools and teachers looking at situations and asking “How might this make parents feel?” (Don picked up on this very idea while I was busy writing this posting!) Unfortunately, I’ve had a few too many experiences recently where there is no sense that any practical consideration is being given in this way.
Someone mentioned the line “The customer is always right”, which does seem to emphasise the image of kow-towing to unreasonable behaviour. Instead, I’d proffer “The customer’s perception is always valid” – which encourages looking from the customer’s point of view. I’ve written elsewhere about how a recent uncomfortable situation with the school was considerably improved when I received a phonecall from a teacher. She didn’t change the situation, but her genuine appreciation of my circumstances helped me to feel my concerns were validated. Nothing had truly changed, but I felt more positive.
Jan Carlzon introduced the concept of ‘moments of truth’ having gained a reputation for turning around the fortune of a large airline company by focusing on customer service. He recognised that it’s often the little unplanned interactions and experiences which mount up to create someone’s impression of an organisation. Attention to detail and constructive vigilance can at the core of making great moments of truth – and these are also key skills displayed by so many education professionals: a good combination. I can’t find a single decent link to the workplace philosophies of Jan Carlzon, but there’s an interview here.
Don considered the idea that the customer relationship with children can be seen as a journey – that’s a fine model for the situation with parents as well. From the first visit to put down your child’s name on the roll, the first hesitant familiarisation and induction events, right through to the final day, there’s a real chance for growth and development – but only if there’s a chance to recognise parents as individuals and meet their needs. And parents’ needs may be as specific as their child’s, and may have a real impact. Here’s a scenario based on a real situation, although I’ll change a few details for confidentiality’s sake: I know a mum in another region with a lively young child currently in the lower end of primary – a great kid who benefits from support, and a mum keen to be involved. But the mum grew up in the area, and went to the same primary school. Little has changed since her day, right down to the rather formidable secretary. She finds it terrifying to go into – or phone – the school, and in particular to speak with the secretary. She is obliged to work full time, and doesn’t get the chance to chat with her child’s teacher without arranging an appointment through the secretary. Who could pick up on her needs, and how? I can’t say I know the answers here…
A customer relationship is a two-way relationship. Don describes how he feels self-centred in relationships where he is the customer. But he knows he is the customer, he has a reasonable idea of what is on offered to him, he recognises that he is one of many customers and that – to a certain extent – that affects the product he receives. Nobody teaches us how to be parents of a school-age child. I attended antenatal classes before having a baby, but I have had ZERO guidance about what is required as a Playground Mum. The school’s induction didn’t even tell me to which door I should take my child. It’s that basic. All the ‘Parents as Partners’ initiatives are all very well, but maybe there’s space for some more fundamental interaction before most parents would feel secure enough to get involved anything more sophisticated. It’s hard to ask for support when you’ve so little idea of what you could ask for.
But asking for and receiving support in a customer environment can be a satisfying two-way relationship. The customer acknowledges and values the professional knowledge or skills available, and the provider (for want of a better word) gets the opportunity to use those skills and get a satisfied result, plus – one hopes – the recognition it deserves. So I would want to add to Don’s list of customer needs: “Trust me – and expect me to trust you” and concur with him that trust is at the centre of these relationships. Maybe there is an issue here with how people tend to cope with being a customer – some people seem to find it hugely embarrassing to ‘be served’, and struggle to find the right note. How should parents behave towards teachers? Some may not have spoken to a teacher since their last day at school – what model for behaviour do they have? I was always left at home on parents’ evenings – I’ve not one single memory of my own parents speaking to any of my schoolteachers, so I’ve no model there either… I have to feel for the shouty Dad in Don’s story – I guess he may have felt very much at sea…
As a customer, I often have to be managed in order to be served. I’d be happy to have the opportunity to be more managed as a schoolparent – there are times when it would be a great help. I don’t want more power over the teachers (or for them to have more power over me) – a relationship built on power tends to be a relationship in trouble.
This posting has wandered around without drawing to a clear conclusion. But it’s given me plenty to reflect upon.