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Sunday, 18 February 2018

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Don’t Treat Them Like Customers But Like Patients

By Matt Harris


Frequently, I hear heads of international schools speak of their relationships with parents as requiring a special touch. “They are our customers after all,” is the phrase I commonly hear. Admittedly, parents are paying for a service: to educate their children as best as possible. So, in the strictest sense of the word, parents are in fact customers.

However, it does schools a great disservice to treat parents as customers. In the retail world we hear phrases like, “the customer is always right” and “cash is king.” With that mindset, schools will often bend over backwards to address parents’ complaints, regardless of their validity. Schools will allow parents to exploit this “customer” position for unfounded, self-serving, or unrealistic demands. I’ve seen schools unnecessarily expend resources, add unneeded programs, and monopolize teachers’ time all because parents have complained. Such measures have been justified with, “they ARE our customers.” I find this disrespectful to our teachers and school leaders, who are education professionals, not customer service specialists.

I recently attended a school presentation where a vocal, uniformed parent aimed a scathing accusation at our teaching faculty and the presenter merely nodded and said, “We will definitely have to look into that.” Perhaps this is an approach to take with “customers,” where schools can offer platitudes and empty promises to follow up with internal processes in order to appease unruly parents. But I find this unacceptable.

Schools owe parents respect and gratitude. A child is the most valued thing in a parent’s life. By sending their children to a school, they have entrusted the teachers, leaders, and staff at that school with their child’s wellbeing and his future. That trust needs to be acknowledged with honesty and thoughtfulness.

So, this what I propose: instead of treating parents as omnipotent fee-payers or placating them with empty promises, schools should treat parents as a doctor treats her patients.
A patient will visit (and pay for) a doctor because the doctor provides an expert service. The patient expects the doctor will use her knowledge, experience, and expert judgment to provide treatment and advice. See any parallels here?

A doctor will treat her patient with respect, honesty, and a forthright attitude. Most patients not only appreciate this, but expect it. Doctors will rarely alter a suggested course of treatment when a patient makes unsubstantiated complaints or self-serving demands. In fact, communication between patient and doctor is often open and judgment-free because it is based on mutual respect.

If schools took a similar approach in their relations with parents, they would experience similar results. Schools should present themselves as expert service providers with offerings in education and child development. They should highlight their credentials, their experience, their reputation, and the quality of education they offer to students and parents. Parents who send their children to that school should have a clear understanding of what is offered, just as a doctor displays her credentials on the wall and maintains a clear medical specialty.

To maintain their reputation, schools should defend themselves against unreasonable demands or unfounded complaints. A doctor strives for professional integrity at all times in her conversations with patients, often deflecting inappropriate requests or suggestions. They understand that a reputation for excellence is earned through consistency and quality. Reputation can never be sacrificed to satisfy unrealistic customer demands.

Of course, schools should not shy away from complaints or challenges, instead encouraging them in the context of valuable discussion. When clear challenges are made to decisions by teachers or leaders, the school should respond as a doctor would to her patients, with an open mind and clear explanations based on data, evidence, and prior experience.

Most importantly, schools should adopt the bedrock principle of “bedside manner,” maintaining their equanimity and compassion so that parents feel they are being listened to, their needs are being met, and their children are given the best educational experience possible. This means remaining calm when accusations come and delivering controversial decisions in a balanced and considerate manner.

By treating parents as a doctor treats her patients, schools will maintain expertise and integrity, ensure their programmatic quality, and still engage in rewarding discussions with parents about school improvement, deflecting unfounded negativity and maintaining employee morale. This approach will keep those parents as paying customers while creating lifelong supporters of the school. Trust me on this one, I’m a doctor.

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05/18/2017 - Dominique
I love this article! Nice touch!

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