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A Tale of Two Businesses

I was gathering information for an article and had the occasion to contact two businesses that do pretty much exactly the same thing. Yet contacting them offered two different experiences. Since I often work nights and weekends, I depend on e-mail and voicemail more than I would if I had 9 to 5 hours. So I went to both businesses’ websites and clicked the “contact us” e-mail link.

One of the businesses got back to me promptly. The person responded to me by e-mail, and she was the actual person I needed to communicate with. I called her, and we were able to do the short interview in about seven minutes. Easy. As it should be, right?

The other business’s e-mail server responded to my e-mail. It bounced because their mailbox was full. So I called and left voicemail. Someone who was not the person I needed to talk to called and got me in my office. I explained that I would have to talk to the correct person another time, and we set a time. A half an hour before the time we set, the correct person called and left a long message on my answering machine that got cut off. She left her cellphone number, and suggested I call her at a time when I’d specifically explained I couldn’t call. So I called her cellphone at the time we’d arranged. She didn’t answer.

This reminds me of my experiences with various schools. One school was notorious for not answering their e-mail (I learned later). It turned out that whoever had made their website had put the e-mail address on there, but no one had ever been given the task of reading it. I went in to look at what was in there and found – surprise! – an e-mail from myself asking for more information about the school. It was like seeing a ghost of a younger, more optimistic self who thought that there might actually be someone running the place!

I’m joking, of course. Like all schools, that one had its wonderful aspects and families who were committed to it. But when the subject of declining enrollment came up, it occurred to me that I could point out that businesses (schools) that don’t answer their e-mail are sending a message, whether they mean to or not. I didn’t bother, because the school culture was so entrenched.

A different school I have worked for has been wonderfully responsive to suggestions. I helped them upgrade their website from a parent-made, very disordered one to a professionally designed and informative one. Within months, they were getting calls from parents who mentioned “the great website that told me all the information I needed to know.”

In these days of a mobile child population, all schools are businesses. They all have to think of their “customers” and the “service” that they are offering. Neighborhood public schools run by savvy principals know this. When a parent comes to look at the school, the principal is aware that they have a choice, and it’s likely that they will vote with their feet if the school doesn’t respond to their needs.

I recently read about a family that is struggling with their neighborhood public school. The principal gave them a hard time about their child right from the beginning, and now that they’re leaving, he’s giving them a hard time about leaving. The mother wanted to know what she’d done to make this happen, but it wasn’t what she did. The principal had missed a major part of his job right from the beginning, and what happened to that family grew from that missing piece of his job.

I am definitely NOT one of those people who think that if we treated schools as businesses and children as widgets then everything would work out. That’s not at all what I’m talking about. For me, it’s clear that anything resembling a business has to stop at the door of the classroom. Teaching is an intimate art; the best teachers are the best communicators, the best listeners, the best thinkers. Great teachers think of their most difficult children as intriguing puzzles. Great teachers don’t value one child over another because of his test scores.

But structurally speaking, a well run school is an asset to everyone. Just knowing what their mission is helps everyone involved make decisions about their own little piece of the machine that they run. Being responsive to parents and open about the school’s policies helps everyone feel more at ease. Being willing to take criticism and act on it is a fundamental part of that.

I never did get through to the right person at the second business I mentioned above. But the first business got some free advertising for their service in my article. Similarly, happy parents are a form of free advertising for schools. Your attitude toward your “customers” makes all the difference.

Posted in Parenting.

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