Guest Column

A Mystery Shopper in the Public School Market

by Edward D. Gagnon

When the prospective parent walked her teenage daughter into the school’s front office, she was already annoyed.

She had received several doses of poor customer service from the school in the preceding 24 hours. She had called to get directions, but her call was immediately put on hold. After three minutes, she hung up. She searched the school’s website to get directions, but the link was broken.

The next day, the mother arrived at the school to take a campus tour with her daughter. It took 10 minutes to locate the front office because the building had no signs directing visitors. Once she found the office, she stood at the counter for several more minutes while the school employees answered the phone, tended to students, chatted with each other and ignored her and her daughter. Finally, the principal paused on her way out the door and asked whether the parent needed help. When the parent asked about the school’s curriculum, she was told to check the website for the information.

Negative Experiences
This school just lost a prospective student. Not only that, it also damaged its own image by failing to see this parent and her daughter as customers with specific needs. And after walking out the door, this mother and daughter will share their negative experiences with more than 20 other people, studies of consumer behavior suggest. That word-of-mouth will perpetuate the negative bureaucratic stereotype that brews about public school systems and government agencies. This could have been prevented had the school personnel viewed its school as a customer-service-driven business.

Often these problems are systemwide. To gain further insight into the way its customers are treated, some school leaders are moving toward mystery shopping to provide answers.

Mystery shopping has been used for years in the private sector. It employs teams of shoppers posing as customers to evaluate a business anonymously. In recent years, it has been used in the public sector by government agencies worldwide to raise service effectiveness.

Though every mystery shopping project is unique to its organization, all seek to evaluate the uniformity and effectiveness of service provided across many locations and among different staff. The results identify opportunities to improve accessibility and efficiency of communications and service as well as to recommend improvements within the organization.

Superintendents can focus on telephone experiences, including the ease of navigating the phone system along with the customer service skills of the employee who answers the phone. They can use on-site visits to determine ease of navigation, process simplicity and effectiveness, and staff members’ attitudes, skills and knowledge. Mystery shoppers can test e-mail response times, whether answers were provided, helpfulness of responses and whether responses were personalized.

Service Disparities
The primary focus of most schools is their product, the education they provide. That’s as it should be, but sometimes this product focus overshadows the importance of customer service. Consider this real-world example of why customer service is important.

Two elementary schools followed the same core curriculum and had similar end-of-grade test scores. Both received visits from a professional mystery shopper.

At the first school, two e-mail queries received clear answers quickly. The on-site visit found engaged and focused staff members at the front office, rapid retrieval of information and direct answers to questions. All the telephone inquiries were handled expeditiously with minimal transfers.

At the second school, neither e-mail query received a response. The on-site visit included an eight-minute delay before the visitor was acknowledged, and the response to the question about the school’s International Baccalaureate program was simply, “You need to go to the website.” Of the three telephone calls, one was positive, one included a quick unannounced transfer to voice mail, and the other resulted in the employee simply directing the customer to the website.

Which school would parents prefer their children to attend?

Customer service matters.

Quick Resolution
Superintendents should strive to create a culture in which the customer receives attention and a timely response, rather than continually being bounced from one department to another.

Administrators can start this cultural shift by modeling the school system’s e-mail, on-site and telephone responsiveness with their own internal customers. If the system’s executives and central-office departments exhibit effective communication with their own employees, the standard for customer service expectations among staff members at the schools goes up. Not only do they appreciate the level of customer service they receive as an internal customer, they understand how to extend that service to their external customers.

Online customer satisfaction surveys, parent/teacher exit interviews and feedback cards in the front office and on desktops can be used to create ongoing customer service measures. The results can identify training needs and establish benchmarks for future improvements.

Based on the results of these measures, school systems could implement training so employees know how to overcome the perception they are indifferent. Tying employee performance appraisal systems to include customer service measures based on parent feedback can help eradicate this indifference. Improving phone systems, service processes and work flow can improve service to customers.

The information that school systems gain by identifying customer service issues is the first step toward changing a culture, overcoming negative perceptions and improving customer service.

Mystery shopping is one method that can be used to assist in measuring these issues. A valuable research tool, mystery shopping can identify issues with customer service process and culture. Once identified, process and cultural improvements can be targeted and change can be made.

Ed Gagnon is president of Customer Service Solutions in Charlotte, N.C. E-mail: