Who Is Our Customer!?

Who Is Our Customer!?

Based on a Twitter discussion yesterday, here is a question that needs some pondering…I don’t believe the answer is either easy or evident.

Who is the school’s customer?

I ask this within the critical context of value, which by definition is viewed through the eyes of the customer.  Several people responded that the customer is “the student and the parents”.  I am not sure if that is a valid answer; not rejecting it, but not sure.  Is that too easy? Don’t students and parents have different viewpoints?  When these diverge, to which do we lean?

If we say we are “student-centric” does this mean we see students as our primary customer? If we are not “student-centric”, are we leaving our primary customer out of the value spotlight?  If we are “learning -centric”, are we focused on the product and not how that product serves the needs and wants of the customer?

In a value-driven industry we MUST be “customer-centric”, but that means we have to define our customer. Are there other industries that have a hard time defining their target customer?

Is this just a good koan? Can we really serve two sets of customers with often divergent viewpoints? Perhaps there is no right answer, or perhaps we will find it with good thinking, but it sure as heck is worth some discussion!



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By | 2013-09-18T15:53:46+00:00 September 18th, 2013|Governance and leadership, Innovation in Education|13 Comments

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  1. drleeanne September 18, 2013 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    Good morning, Grant!

    What a fabulous question!

    I’ll add society as a potential customer in the education equation. Global competitiveness is a driving force behind education, as national policy is shaped by the desire to outpace other countries in college graduation rates. If our societal values are such that every child should go to college, then it doesn’t leave much room for student centric or parent influenced systems. Makes me wonder ifdecentralizing education policies would be better, because of the high levels of diversity. I don’t know…

    Really great question! Can’t wait to hear what others say, as I missed Twitter time yesterday.



  2. Carolyn Griffiths September 18, 2013 at 11:40 pm - Reply

    I agree this is an important question on both the larger scale of educational philosophy as well as on a smaller scale of individual relationships between educators, parents and students. When I think of customer I think of consumption of goods or services. What if we see students as producers of knowledge more than consumers? In an ideal situation I would want to be a co-worker with the parents and students, working together to define values. Therfore, I would agree with Lee-Anne that is is helpful to see society as a customer and the knowledge and the experiences created by the student as the product. Then, if we are being “customer-centric” we are looking at the society and world around us with our students and families and asking, “what do we need?” This view would have its own challenges but its just a thought for what I agree is a very complex question.


    • glichtman September 19, 2013 at 12:05 am - Reply

      Great comment, though I would challenge one assumption driving this: that “customer” = “consumer”. Customer is someone who pays for a product or service, even if that service is allowing them to create rather than consume, as we want. The critical link here is that value is defined by the customer, and we need to know who that is.

  3. Meg C. September 19, 2013 at 12:43 am - Reply

    What an interesting question…Maybe the customers are the future employers of our students. If our job as teachers is to equip our students with a skill set that will allow them to contribute valuably to society and compete in this job market, then we have to know what employers want in their future employees. Isn’t our job to help our students develop skill sets rather than equip them with content? I hate to generalize, but the content is often what the parents and the students wrongly think they need. I would argue that educators “know better,” thus we cater to our customers (future employers) by focusing on training our students to think critically and work collaboratively to tackle real-world problems.

  4. Angél Kytle September 19, 2013 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    I have actually been thinking about this for a while and even had several faculty meetings specifically on this topic, though obviously on a much smaller level. Rather than think of customers (one who pay for services, no matter what they are), I prefer to think of client. Clients do indeed pay for services, but the other aspects of being a client come more into play here. Clients (like of lawyers or some other professional– teachers!) use or depend on professional advice, receive services (like in social services), or could even be under the patronage of another.
    We could go on and on about the many different consumers/clients of education, and we would all be right in some fashion. Society/communities, taxpayers, parents, students, faculty/staff… It depends is the answer that comes to mind here, and I think what this “depends on” is to which purpose of education we refer. And we all know there are many!
    Here is where I think your idea of magnitude comes into play (again!!!). When I think about on which client do schools have the largest magnitude of effects, it is definitely learners. I am choosing not to relegate learners to only children here on purpose. Learners pay for the service of education indeed– they pay with their time, their energy, their passion, their trust, their growth, and with the promise of their future. It is up to us to ensure that the services we provide our clients are as meaningful and powerful as they can be.

  5. Gary Piligian September 20, 2013 at 12:41 am - Reply

    In pondering this question, I think back to my career as an institutional fixed income salesperson on Wall Street. My “customers” (clients of the firm) were trying to buy something at the lowest possible price, my other “customers” (traders at my firm) were trying to sell something at the highest possible price. All parties were aware of these seemingly competing interests. And, there were multiple levels of interested persons at each of these institutions. However, all persons had a long term stake in the financial health of each of their counterparties; the smartest customers and suppliers were “long term greedy” – sharing the value created with their counterparties on each individual transaction in the hopes of expanding the pie and creating more value in the long run.
    What if those involved in the education industry took the same viewpoint? Providers (K12 schools) have a product/service that is valued by Purchasers (parents/students). There are also multiple levels of interested parties at each of these institutions (e.g., for K12 schools – teachers, administrators, support staff, boards of trustees) – it’s not a monolith in terms of needs and wants. Other interested parties include colleges, employers, society at large. Each party needs to create long term value for the other party in order to have a sustainable business model.
    That’s a long winded way of saying this is a complicated question. Michael Porter’s decades old competitive strategy model applies to education as well – schools must create sustainable competitive advantage in order to survive, and thrive. Each school needs to consider current competitors (other schools), suppliers (mostly labor in this case, and intellectual property suppliers), buyers (students and their parents), potential new entrants, and threats of substitute products/services (home school? MOOCs? certification programs?)
    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.

    • glichtman September 20, 2013 at 12:59 am - Reply

      This is really helpful; I have updated the Part II comments to include yours. I think your parsing in the last paragraph is as clear an understanding of this multilateral relationship as I have seen. Thanks!

  6. drleeanne September 20, 2013 at 2:51 am - Reply

    Is it healthy to consider a singular system for all, when there are competing interests and divergent needs? Perhaps this is when and where individual communities rise to the occasion and become co-creators of education. You know, like you are doing at Design 39 Campus. Sheli Smith at the PAST Foundation uses an ethnographic approach, much like DT in helping communities determine their educational needs. http://pastfoundation.org/people/sheli-osmith/ It’s happening out there! Hope it catches on in more places.

  7. Mike Saxenian September 20, 2013 at 2:56 am - Reply

    We should hang on to our lofty aspirations and we should be attentive to the intricate network of stakeholders, but I believe the answer is quite simple: Our customers are 1) the people who make the decision to purchase our educational products. In K-12 education that is usually parents, with students playing an increasingly important role as they move into higher grades, and 2) donors who, indirectly, purchase our services (perhaps on behalf of others). It is important to know who are customers are. Doing so does not mean we must (or even should) cede control to them.

    • glichtman September 20, 2013 at 2:12 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Mike. My sense is that many agree with you, though clearly I am getting increasing feedback that our customer is or should be the student. That will be an interesting debate. Even more on point to my current work is the idea you present in your last sentence. In an article that will come out in ISM this winter, I think I present some compelling arguments put forward by leading voices from outside education, that our entire system of capital consumerism is undergoing an existential change in this regard. We are shifting from a consumer relationship where large and historically powerful industries (publishing, health care, retail, music, and, yes, education) tell the customer “this is what we are going to sell you” to one where individual consumers say “this is what we want to buy; tailor it to my demand.” If this is the case, and there appears to be huge evidence of it, then “ceding control” takes on a new meaning. Where in the past it would have meant a sort of giving the keys of the asylum to the inmates, it now means that we are going to “co-create” our products and services to tailor them to the consumer. I do not believe this is antithetical to the way we would want to operate a great school; I do believe it will require us to think and plan in different, even more powerful ways, by leveraging consumer demands to create enhanced value.

      This is why I want to stimulate the debate over “who is the customer, and how do we address their view of value.” It is not a discussion most schools have had with any real degree of rigor, in my humble opinion.

      • Mike Saxenian (@MikeSaxenian) September 20, 2013 at 2:25 pm - Reply

        Well said, Grant. I love the idea of “co-creating” our product, and believe that, although challenging, that sort of deep collaboration is essential. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, if our customers (parents/students/donors) don’t buy our educational product, we are out of business. That is why we need to be clear about who the customers are and, indeed, why we need to co-create with them.

        • glichtman September 20, 2013 at 2:45 pm - Reply

          Per our discussion about where NBOA might be of service to the independent school community, I am going to suggest to Jeff that this discussion may be right at the core of it! I have been involved with indy schools for 15 years and am sitting here thinking “how the heck did my school not have this conversation in a really deep way all that time?” And it is not just indy schools; in the last 36 hours I have talked to or met with leaders of three MAJOR public districts who are having the same conversation about their own customer base. That is encouraging for some in the public education sector and should be another canary in the mine shaft of indy school leaders.

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