Anat Arkin reports on the benefits for schools which embrace customer service ideals
When a leaflet advertising a customer service course arrived in one staff room last term, a senior teacher objected that it should have gone to the school's office staff.
The view that only receptionists and other front-line staff need bother with customer service is a common one - and not only in schools. But according to Beej Kaczmarczyk, who led the course in question, there can only be real improvements in this area when all staff see customer service as important, and school governors and heads give it their support.
With state schools unable to compete on price, it is the quality of the service that the staff as a whole provide that differentiates schools, said Mr Kaczmarczyk, who has been a deputy head of a school and assistant director of a college.
Contrasting customer service with the narrower concept of customer care, which is more concerned with projecting the right image than providing a quality service, he added: "Customer service is a philosophy. It's about developing employees, treating anyone who comes into the school as a customer and focusing on standards of quality."
The idea of treating everyone as a customer clearly has its limitations. Unlike customers kept waiting too long in a restaurant or shop, disgruntled pupils cannot just take their custom elsewhere, though they may play truant. There can also be a tension between keeping these "customers" happy and preparing them for their national curriculum tests on a sunny Friday afternoon.
But seen as a way of getting everyone in an organisation involved in meeting the needs of pupils, parents and others, the customer service concept becomes easier to apply to schools.
Asked to identify their own customers, the dozen or so heads, senior teachers and school administrators who attended the customer service course put parents and pupils at the top of their list, followed by LEA staff, local employers, and what one head described as "any other human element that comes into contact with the school".
Since a customer can be defined as anyone who receives a service from somebody else, they also included colleagues, with one school secretary describing the head as her main customer.
These different kinds of customers obviously have varying expectations. But after reflecting on their own experience as service providers, participants on the course agreed that most customers are satisfied when they are kept informed, when their views are heard and when they feel valued. Above all, customers want those who provide a service to be willing and able to solve problems without having to ask someone else whatto do.
Any attempt to ensure that staff can satisfy their customers in these ways needs to begin with a look at the school's aims. These aims and the values underpinning them will set the tone for the school's dealings with all who come into contact with it and can be translated into goals and objectives for departments and individuals.
Once a school has a clear set of customer service objectives, it needs to assess its current performance. The various quality standards now available, including Investors in People, BS5750 and the Government's Charter Mark scheme can help in this process by providing useful benchmarks. So too can the new level 3 national vocational qualification in customer service, developed by the Customer Service Lead Body "for those wishing to take on personal responsibility for solving customer problems as part of a continuous improvement programme".
The cost of entering staff for the NVQ is probably too steep for many schools, with each of the five units calling for around two hours of formal input and a further two hours of assessment, But even schools can still use the customer service standards to encourage individuals to think about the way they relate to others and to identify current skills and future training needs.
The standards can also be used to look at the efficiency of systems and processes, including those used to keep customers informed, answer their queries and deal with their complaints. But even a well-designed complaints procedure will not be much use if the people dealing with complaints fail to listen to their customers, hide behind red tape or have no idea about how to deal with the problems. The key to improving customer service lies in making sure that staff have appropriate personal skills.
Training in these skills is not about instructing staff to tell visitors to have a nice day - the customer care approach. Staff need to develop their listening and assertiveness skills, as well as their ability to empathise with customers. With expectations of all organisations probably higher than ever, customer service training also needs to include information on stress and time management.
But none of this training will lead to improvements unless everyone in a school accepts that the way they relate to pupils, parents, colleagues and others does actually matter - and that giving a quality service often means going beyond their job descriptions.
As one headteacher put it: "Unless you can first get across the message that there is a need for better customer service, all the communication and interpersonal skills training has very little point."
* The customer service course described in this article was organised by the training consultancy SFE Ltd, Maggs House, 78 Queens Road, Clifton, Bristol, BS8 1QX, telephone 01179 838800. The national standards for customer service are available from the Customer Service Lead Body,The Brackens, London Road, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 8BE.