There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else. -Sam Walton
Just having satisfied customers isn’t good enough anymore. If you really want a booming business, you have to create raving fans. -Ken Blanchard
Fortunately and unfortunately, we now live in a world of Customer Servicing. It’s become an expectation that companies drop everything and serve us to ensure our continued support of the company and positive referrals to others. This is oh-so-fortunate for all of us when we have interactions with companies! For example, last month my wife and I got rear-ended. The other driver admitted fault and had his insurance cover everything for us… no problem with him at all! But, we had issues getting our insurance to coordinate properly with the rental car agency they connected us with while our car was in the shop. The problem went on for quite a while, wasting a lot of our time and energy, overall being a pain-in-the-butt. Finally, we sent an email and left a voice message with both companies – we remained polite, but made no attempt to cover up our ‘extreme disappointment’ with the companies for ‘handling this so poorly.’
As you might expect, almost immediately after sending our ‘disappointed’ messages, the issue was tended and we were on our way with a special message from the companies apologizing for inconvenience. And of course, in telling you this positive story for us (we got what we wanted to happen!), I’m also telling you about the downsides of the Customer Servicing World; that is to say, ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease.’ The customers who are loud and/or complain are the ones for whom companies go the extra mile, and in doing so, we are in a sense training society to expect that, so long as we pay for it, we get what we want. The issue with this line of thinking arises in two fields: first, we are having trouble deciphering which organizations are customer-servicing entities and which are not, and second, we are having trouble training our subconscious selves to be assholes.
We are aware, of course, that different types of industries have more or less leverage on us, allowing them to have different levels of leniency with customer service. The example I provided earlier about insurance should be of no surprise to anyone – insurance is the type of industry that we almost expect to have poor customer service because we all have to buy the product they are selling. Thus, if the whole industry is known for frustrating experiences, no company in the industry necessarily feels pressured to achieve high levels of customer service, and it’s not like the consumer can just decide not to buy. Restaurants or amusement parks are examples of industries on the other side of the coin – by definition, they are a luxury that we could choose to avoid altogether if we felt mistreated or taken for granted. We’ve all stared at another table in horror as the waiter, still hoping to receive some modicum of a tip, takes perfectly delicious order after order back to the kitchen to try to please an intractable customer.
Well, it’s important for us as a society to recognize that education is, and is not, a customer-servicing agency. There are some tricky nuances and deep-seated cultural beliefs here that can, in the heat of the moment, get in the way of us seeing clearly. Let’s start from the top, then: first, who is the customer in education? The student, or the parent? What is the product that is being sold? For all of our standardization practices, the answers to these questions are most certainly a heterogeneous set of beliefs across our society. For example, if we assume that the student is the customer, then they are clearly in a situation where they are required by law to buy the product that is being sold – no matter what that product happens to be. What, then, are the consequences or repercussions if the product is not sold successfully? Punishment or enticement are likely responses, but who receives them – the salesman or the customer? I think you get the point here and we can cease to descend this rabbit-hole; instead, let’s begin the extraction process for how far our society has already gone down it.
First, to set the record straight, education is not something you receive. It’s something you claim. It’s something you go out and struggle for, digging in the metaphorical dirt and working in the figurative rain. There is simply no good way, then, to force a product to be sold that requires so much care, using force or coercion. We have tried that. It’s called compulsory schooling with unskilled, tenured teachers. But our society is shifting too far in the other direction now. There is also no way to sell this sort of a product by ‘keeping the customer happy.’ We are dealing with the growth of souls here, and no soul ever grew without going through the Hero’s Journey, complete with challenges, temptations, and a metaphorical death and rebirth. We don’t guide ourselves through the Hero’s Journey by only following what makes us happy in the moment without ever challenging our perceptions of the world.
I mean to say that as educators, we need to stop thinking that if students and parents (especially parents!) are happy with us, then we are doing a good job. We need to stop thinking that all classes need to be entertaining, understanding the difference between engagement and entertainment. We need to require (especially in a world where more and more of our communications with students and parents may be through email) that all email communications be professional and rational rather than emotional.
Instead, we must recognize that we are narrative-weavers. We can weave a narrative among our parents that a class that gives out a lot of A’s does not mean that depthful learning is occurring. In fact, it may mean that expectations are low and entitlement is the main lesson being learned. We can weave the narrative of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience into our daily classes – that “control of consciousness determines the quality of life,” making the value of our experience dependent on our own ability to engage, not the external source’s ability to entertain. And of course we can weave a narrative that school is a physical place, with real people, where (unlike the internet) it pays to play by the rules of polite, grateful human conduct (aka, to not be a dick).
Weaving these narratives is tricky business. When you first introduce this sort of a world-view to a student who has grown up with the experience that every entity around him is hoping to make a ‘raving fan’ out of him, it can feel distasteful to him. When your entire community feels this same way, it can feel like you’re swimming upstream. But here’s the thing: the natural state of human beings is not wanting to be catered to all day. No – we actually crave the chance to create something in our lives, and deep down, we know that responsibilities come with that freedom. On some level we naturally understand the sentiment that inspired me as a kid when said by one of my childhood icons in the NFL, Earl Campbell: “Lord, don’t remove my stumbling blocks, just give me strength.” Your students may seem to hate this narrative at first, but don’t let those stumbling blocks trip you up either – they crave the responsibilities of taking control of their own lives and creating opportunities rather than expecting them to fall into their laps. It may take four years and a dedicated team of teachers getting on the same page, but it can happen, even today.
So how are you doing in this regard? Do you feel like a customer service agent, or are you completing the challenging work of weaving a narrative that allows parents and students to expand their perceptions of learning and the rigors associated with it, even when that weaving gets tough?