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The need to improve customer service in our schools

A Florida teenager was absent from school for an extended period of time because of a life-threatening illness. Her mother continuously asked the school for the student’s make-up work, however the replies were sporadic, and by the end of the school year the student was informed she had to make up her junior year credits during her senior year. The Orange County, Fla. student dropped out of the public high school and finished her senior year in another county at a vocational school.

School districts are obligated to deliver good customer service.  Every employee should be trained in customer service;  monitored and evaluated with the ultimate purpose of improving student achievement, school culture, and in the positive development of teaching and learning relationships. So what do we mean by this? Beginning with the Superintendent and the Board, customer relationships with parents and students should be approachable and reliable. Classroom teachers should have comprehensive management plans to increase communications with parents and students. Secretaries, bus drivers, custodians, coaches, and other staff will have been trained in the development of interpersonal relationships and monitored accordingly.

Specifically schools regarded as providing excellent customer service have researched their competition and studied trends in education across the nation. For instance, staff handbooks should now include time limits for all school personnel to respond to voice mails and parent schoolwork requests. As in any organization whose customer service procedures are honed to being efficient, all emails should be responded to within 24 hours during the workweek. Letters should be answered within a five-day period. The school should provide a welcoming environment with signs directing new students, guests, and vendors to the appropriate offices. All visitors should be greeted within minutes of their arrival and directed to the appropriate person for the assistance needed.

Public perception garners an even higher opinion for schools. What do we do well and how can we improve the caliber of our schools need to be highlighted? How does one school compare to the nearest competition and how can we show improvement with the information collected? School districts can survey parents and students for suggestions. The best schools consistently work on their “first impressions.”

From being more flexible in arranging parent-teacher conferences from immediately before or after school in order that more parents can actively participate in their children’s educational and social needs, to arriving at a school and standing at the counter and immediately being recognized and helped are customer service standards that each school district should embrace. It’s the caring leaders of today who are making the difference in the leaders of tomorrow, and why shouldn’t students model themselves after the outstanding examples of respect and leadership?

How ramping up customer service is paying off for Home Depot

Years ago when contractors were so busy building houses, supply giant Home Depot paid a lot more attention to the builders than to the do-it-yourself home owners. After all, the economy was booming and a realtor could scarcely keep any home inventory available for new buyers, and so the prices kept climbing while customers lined up at the cash registers. But then the economic bliss balloon burst, contractors removed their magnetic signs from their trucks, and people once again began to pay more attention to their budgets; thus a new chapter in do-it-yourself home improvements was reborn.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times told the story of a 53 year-old Burbank postal clerk woman who decided to do some home improvements to upgrade her bedroom. Off to Home Depot she went, and much to her pleasant surprise was greeted with immediate attention. In fact, the woman stated she was asked by three different orange-aproned  associates if she needed any help. The same good news emerged about Lowe’s. Whereas the smaller Ace Hardware organization who has always been customer-centric towards the homeowner and known for their exceptional customer service, the larger companies have now joined in to improve their own customer service scores.

Home Depot scored an overall ranking of 95.81 – ranking number 30 out of 553 companies that have a Customer Service Scoreboard rating. Both Home Depot and Lowe’s sales, profits, and shopper satisfaction scores increased; Home Depot stock shares rose 74 percent while Lowe’s stock shares rose 35 percent.

So what are these home improvement giants doing to improve their customer service? Well-trained employees who have relevant information from their own experiences and who are given the advantages of the latest learning resources add to the value of a customer experience. Inexperienced employees are trained and empowered to make customers happy. Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot owes the success of the organization to the thorough knowledge of trusting business relationships and excellent customer service.

Perhaps the most famous story of Blank’s commitment to customer service and its vital importance began when the company was still quite young. An older woman walked into one of the Home Depot stores and wanted to return four tires. Home Depot never dealt in tires, but the woman insisted she purchased the tires through Home Depot. Blank refunded the woman the money for the tires:

“Refund the woman all of her money for the four tires. Although those tires weren’t sold to her by Home Depot, her satisfaction of returning those tires is worth the life-long customer relationship that we will create with her,” stated Blank after speaking to the confused employee who didn’t know what to say to the determined woman.

Those four tires still hang above the door in one of the Atlanta Home Depot stores. And then there’s more to pleasing customers. When someone walks in who doesn’t know the difference between a round wire nail, an oval wire nail or a brad, experienced people in home improvements are there to help. Managers, assistant managers and department heads are all included in training programs, and these are the people out on the floor who help customers find what they need, but also help to determine whether it’s really what they need.

And with the latest innovative ways to help and reach customers using WiFi computer services in stores, improving do-it-yourself instructions, YouTube videos and workshops, Facebook, and the photo sharing of Pinterest replacing catalogs and brochures, customers have at their fingertips more conveniences and tons of helpful information to make those home projects turn out as if they were done professionally.

Dealing with the frustrations of poor customer service

It’s no exaggeration that most of us have become truly frustrated by poor customer service at least once in our lives. We dream of screaming, yelling, and throwing defective products over a steep cliff, but that still doesn’t take care of our economic loss,  lack of convenience, or a gap in productivity. Instead many of us have turned to retaliate against bad service via the use of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. No doubt public admonishments catch a company’s attention; a good customer image remains vital in any economy, but more so when times are tough.

We always have the option of taking our business elsewhere when customer service doesn’t meet our expectations or rather our demands, but there are acceptable and professional methods to work one’s way through a bad experience and hopefully a satisfactory resolution. Any organization worth their weight and the expectation of success will want to lean over backwards to resolve our conflicts.

  • Begin with the most obvious and either call, email or visit the organization first and explain your problem. Don’t exaggerate and don’t get emotional. Be specific about your complaint since many times a problem can be resolved through better communication between the customer and the store. If the customer service person is not helpful, ask for the manager. Remain calm and polite.
  • Register your complaint immediately. Don’t wait weeks or months to address your problems with either the product or the service. Have copies of records and receipts, names of representatives you have spoken with, the dates and times; any information pertinent to the problem so as you progress up the company’s ladder of executives your entire argument already speaks for itself.
  • Suggest a resolution or a way to correct the problem. Be open for a compromise when applicable.
  • Maintain your professionalism at all times. Customer service agents have a tough job, and they want to help resolve problems, but an angry customer is likely an unreasonable customer. Remember that the representative you are speaking with is most likely not the person who caused the problem, and everyone deserves to be treated respectfully.
  • Still no resolution? Now it’s time to write a letter, but you don’t want it collecting dust in the mail-room. Go to the company’s web site and research the name of the CEO or president. You can use Hoovers or Vault to research company executives. And even though you are gritting your teeth in pure frustration, be polite. Begin your letter with pertinent information; this isn’t the venue to carry out a Joan Rivers “insultathon.” At the end of your letter, thank the person in advance for the help you are confident they will provide.
  • Give the company a reasonable amount of time to resolve your issues. Consumers always have the alternatives to contact the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, consumer affairs departments and even the state attorney general’s office depending on the scope of the issue. For others, there is always the option of changing businesses because there are always many other companies who are interested in doing their best for you. Whereas the customer might not always be right, the customer can always expect the best customer service.

Small businesses and the importance of outstanding customer service

Although it is very convenient to shop online, many customers still enjoy the experience of touching merchandise and browsing in a brick and mortar store; hence the popularity of small neighborhood businesses. There are few things more pleasing to one’s “soul” as when the owner of a store knows your name and offers you a cup of coffee or a croissant as you inspect the latest arrivals. In the neighborhood deli, your favorite flavor of coffee cream sits waiting for you in the refrigerator, and at the office supply store the owner knows the brand of your copier and offers you a 10 percent discount because you are a regular customer.

Whether a customer spends $10 or $1,000, chances are at some time they are still going to have a question or an issue with a product. How an organization handles the situation can differentiate you from the competition. Although someone who loves your service may only tell one or two new potential customers, the flip side of dissatisfied customers can wind up with the loss of 20 customers – both current and in the future.

Customer service is no longer regarded as “business as usual” since the competition wants your customers as badly as you want to keep them. It’s no secret that building loyalty and keeping customers are the longtime ingredients to success, but many of the rules have changed as the economy has left only the strongest to survive. Couple that with the popularity of social media, businesses and especially small businesses are under even closer scrutiny than years ago. For instance if someone is angry with your business, it’s likely to appear via a Tweet or on Facebook. Even though all complaints are not always valid, angry people no longer have to wait “on hold” to voice their complaints. An inflated sense of customer entitlement continues to blossom as competing organizations step “out of the box” to build their brand and hence increase their loyalty from their customers.

So what’s a local merchant to do to cultivate their customers’ loyalties? Customer service has to be proactive. Many local businesses promote their services on Facebook. Regularly keeping up with customers, offering exceptional personal services, and keeping up with community events and humanitarian causes attract positive attention. Don’t wait for customers to come to you since it’s so easy for people to forget. Stay in contact. In the real estate business, we use “farm areas” which are the communities where we are solidly educated and familiar as to home prices, sold homes, community efforts, schools, and local available services. Once every few weeks, interesting and helpful marketing information goes out to each of the areas informing residents of any changes, but there’s always more. In Florida for instance, the early summer months are popular for sending out hurricane preparation information. As the weather gets cooler, there’s advice for planting flowers. Other times there are local notifications of popular events in the area or even some advice on how to wrap a beautiful gift or where to take your dog for a frisbee contest.

The bottom line to outstanding customer service is to reach out and provide every employee with the motivational tools to want to please customers. Use the examples of exceptional service by such organizations as American Express, Ritz Carlton Hotels, and Zappos. Incorporate the best of the best into affordable but meaningful ways to please customers. Make them feel important and deliver outstanding customer service.