Who Is Our Customer, Pt. II

Yesterday I posed a question: who is the customer of our schools? Many of us believe the future of schools, both public and private, will depend on increasing the value proposition of a school; lacking this, “school” as we know it may be an endangered species.

Here is the logic; if the logic is not sound, then neither is the question:

  • In an environment of increasing competition and alternatives for learning, value is critical.
  • Value is defined through the viewpoint of the customer.
  • Students, parents, and anyone else who might be viewed as a customer of the school have different viewpoints.
  • Therefore we can’t default to “our customers are students, parents, and maybe others” unless we are prepared to create value pathways for each.
  • In order to enhance value, an organization must know their value, and have a shared vision for enhancing it.

Last night and today I got feedback from a range of educators, all very thoughtful and successful school leaders.  Here is the summary spread of their answers:

  • Kids, because that is why schools exist.
  • Not kids because “customer is always right and not ready for kids to always be right”
  • Parents because they pay tuition.
  • We are servants to the mission.
  • Parents and students.
  • Parents, students and others.
  • It’s not about who is the customer but about how we move the customer.
  • We are all customers and all salesmen.
  • Most assume it is students and parents.  What about board, faculty, other administrators?
  • Society.
  • Future employers of our students.
  • Learner
  • “Can we really serve two sets of customers with often diverging viewpoints? You better believe it – if we can’t, someone else will. That much is certain.”

The 10th grade student of one educator said our customer is the government via the US DOE!

I don’t have the answer to this very tough question.  The fact that I got this many different responses from a group of bright, experienced, successful school leaders suggests this is a discussion we REALLY need to have. It sounds like an easy question, but as soon as you understand the implications of one answer or the other…it starts getting tough!

12 thoughts on “Who Is Our Customer, Pt. II

  1. curtiscfee

    As always, Grant, your questions are provocative and drive us to deeper and deeper thinking about the future of our schools. Thank you!

    Honestly as I reflect on the varied responses of school leaders to this question of the ‘customer,’ I wonder if the differences of approach and opinion to the question “Who is the customer of our schools?” should make us question whether attaching the definition of ‘value’ to the concept of the ‘customer’ is itself a necessary or helpful conceit. If we uncritically accept the market-based framework in which the ‘customer’ or sometimes ‘client’ is the focal point of such questioning about value, we also accept a slate of market-based propositions about value — via a focus on competition, the primacy of individual achievement, the merit high-stakes ‘accountability,’ and more, within and between our schools — against which many of us would bristle as characteristics of healthy schools or partnerships.

    I’ve been driven by your thinking in prior exchanges to wonder whether the matter of ‘value’ is more reasonably explored through the question of ‘purpose,’ rather than pinned down to this business model that raises so many second-level questions about the identify of our schools as learning communities rather than learning ‘stores.’

    I wonder if non-profit foundations to serve the public interest would ask the question of ‘customer,’ if social welfare agencies understand their mission in terms of ‘customer,’ and so forth — and if not, why not — and whether we should be comfortable enough with an identity independent of market-based or market-anchored identifiers of value. As those sectors/services seem to be.

    To put the question an entirely different way, I assume it would be absurd at some level to imagine a corporate board asking the question, “Who are the students in our company?” and to attach their question of market value to same.

    I see my work in schools to focus on two priorities — to facilitate learning and to engage a community — and I don’t see either as a product or a service to be ‘sold,’ or as practices designed with a view to attracting customers.

    To be clear, I don’t mean these points in disrespect to alternative points of view, or to your questioning: I don’t think of these as a statements of relative value, but as an expression of fundamental difference between one model and the other. I’m not trying to repudiate this exchange so much as clarify the thinking towards which it pushes me.

    Reply
    1. glichtman

      As always, you are a step ahead! And the question is: to what extent is your thinking, which is so clear, applicable is the real world? How many others can or do or will share it? What has been pushing my thinking does rely on a foundational assumption that is largely rooted in a capitalist consumer model which does state that people will go where they find their needs being met in a way they can afford via their resource base of time, money, location, access, etc…where they find relative and affordable value. Is this view equitable? No. Does it represent most of the world today? Probably. Does it need to change? Probably. Can it change as people find less expensive and more accessible pathways to value? That is what I think is happening already and will accelerate in this thing we call education.

      Reply
      1. curtiscfee

        A boy can dream, can’t he? 🙂

        Seriously: a wise person once said that one shouldn’t confuse the attainment of a goal with the value of fighting for it. (A forgetful person can’t remember who said it.) If the prevailing status quo is not equitable, and probably needs to be changed, then it seems that change is most likely what we should pursue — whether we’re exploring concrete classroom practice or our more ethereal thoughts about education.

        If “the question is: to what extent is [my] thinking…applicable in the real world,” then I’d like to think the answer is ‘highly.’ I honestly don’t sense that the majority of school stakeholders — in the independent elementary school where I work, the Catholic high school where my wife works, or the public high school where my son goes to school — look at teaching or learning through the lens of the “capitalist consumer model.” Perhaps some families’ decisions about their children’s enrollment are determined by the rule that “people will go where they find their needs being met in a way they can afford via their resource base,” though this is true primarily of a subset of our society with such a resource base. And certainly those responsible for the branding and marketing of private schools (and some charter schools) might, and probably should, think along those line, if their purpose is to ensure the sustainability of their organizations and those models.

        But are we asking this question about the ‘customer’ as schools, in order to develop ‘competitive advantage’ in a ‘market,’ or are we asking this question as educators, to develop ever more effective and impactful models of teaching and learning? I’m not sure the two questions are compatible — or, at least, interchangeable (or, necessarily, related). And I hope it doesn’t seem that I think the educators’ question requires slamming capitalism, per se. I don’t. I just think it requires our acknowledging our other relational, democratic, and — okay, I’ll say it — utopian imperatives as teachers and learners — which I think are too closely constricted by the ‘consumer’ model. Which lead me — ipso facto, or whatever the right Latin phrase might be — back to the question of purpose.

        Reply
        1. glichtman

          If and when I do a Charlie Rose-type interview of a panel on the future of education, this is why you need to be on the panel! And why we will grow the Martin Fellows program over time in ways we can expose the best thinking for others to ponder. I do believe that large trends like those I am looking at, that were raised by Zoboff. Nilofer Merchant, Gorbis, and others will inevitably impact education. But you make such good points, particularly as regards that segment of the population that have little ability to choose. When and where I raise this topic I know I am going to be clipping and attributing quotes from Chris Thinnes!

          Reply
  2. curtiscfee

    BTW Grant, I just read what I posted and part of me feels like a troll. I don’t mean to be rudely disruptive at all, but just to engage the question as honestly as I can. I’m sorry if it comes across otherwise, or I’m pulling this in an unhelpful direction.

    Reply
    1. glichtman

      I don’t believe, nor am I arguing, that there is a “consumer capitalist approach” to education. I am reflecting a body of thought from a number of directions that suggests that in many sectors we have moved or are rapidly moving from a consumption model based on large institutions telling consumers to buy what they have to sell, to one in which the consumer demands a more customized product or service. The natural result of this is a much flatter relationship between producers and consumers; more access, not less; at a lower price point; and one in which all schools have to understand the wants and needs of their customers as options for those customers proliferate. In fact, I would argue, this is a very strong force acting in exactly the OPPOSITE direction of that relationship between corporate and educational interests.

      Reply
  3. Cindy Valdez-Adams

    As a teacher, I would say that my “customers” are my students. However, as a parent, who pays tuition fees, I would say my child and I. And as a member of the executive team, I would say the whole school and the wider community. At the end of the day, engaging our students in quality education should always be our top priority – to improve learning outcomes for our students. Our number one “customers” deserve quality education. How do we do that? We invest in our teachers, we invest professional development programs that will cater for teachers’ needs. The end product should be teachers who are then able to cater for student individual needs. Deliver teaching and learning programs that are inclusive, relevant and authentic.

    Reply
    1. glichtman

      Thanks, Cindy, and herein lies a fascinating result that we as educators need to ponder; I don’t know the answer! Classic advice is to know your customer; if you do not meet their needs you are out of customers! Schools do serve these multiple purposes, and yet does that mean we are immune from identifying that which drives all other product and service lines? By saying we serve multiple customers in different ways are we recognizing something unique which we can amplify and leverage, or are we afraid to say, as others have in this comment thread, “this” is our customer, and not “that”.

      I do love to raise a good, thoughtful controversy!

      Reply
  4. Cindy Valdez-Adams

    I forgot to add – wouldn’t it be just great if parents could send their child/ren to any school and be guaranteed quality education? All students have the right to a quality education.

    Reply
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