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the customer service narrative

February 22, 2015

lisa hammershaimb

This week in my 804 course we’re focusing on K12 education and the ways distance ed can be integrated into the lower educational experience. Admittedly, I have very little interest in K12 education because:

1. I don’t have kids

2. I don’t work with kids

3. when it comes to kids…I have a small dog with an extensive wardrobe who travels by purse…this kind of says a lot without saying a lot about who I am

My sister is an elementary school librarian and I have four nieces and nephews who are all enmeshed in the K12 education system so I think it’s vital and important but as far as actual passion and engagement…not so much.

That said, there was one reading this week that wasn’t about K12 DE but rather was about “Changes, Challenges, and Choices” which means that it presented a lot of “this is where we are” and “this is where things are headed” and “choose if you either want to get on board or bail.” That might be a bit simplified but I do think that was the general gist.

One thing that came up quite a bit in the reading was the need for great attention to customer service in education. The narrative is:

1. the old ways of doing things with the ivory tower and the eccentric academics and all the research and headiness and tweed is gone

2. in this new era customer service for learners is a huge thing

3. for educational structures to thrive (or even survive) they need to adopt radically different attitudes toward their customers i.e. their students.

Had the Lisa-of-three-months-ago read this, she would have said “Amen!” and then raised her fist in solidarity with these prophets who proclaim good customer service to learners everywhere. In fact I cited poor customer service as one of the key things that contributed to the 803 debacle last term. Learners are customers and when their needs are overlooked or the system isn’t ready for them…customer service fail 101 where the only logical response is an uprising to bring better service for all.

So, today when I read the text once more that proclaimed a need for greater intentionality in customer service, I thought it would be the same and I’d once more think the same thoughts but…turns out I didn’t.

In fact it turns out I thought things that were radically different. Honestly at this moment, I don’t even know if I buy this whole customer service narrative anymore as it applies to education. I get that education is a business because there’s money and an exchange involved and without a business plan there’s no hope of sustainability but…I think it’s so so much more than a business and when you are so strict about couching it in such black and white business-y terms you lose more than you gain.

When I think of good customer service I think of getting my needs met in as quick a manner as possible. I think of good customer service streamlining processes and bringing ease and comfort to the consumer. Good customer service is being asked if I need help and if I say yes, good customer service is making sure I find the correct item or am guided in the correct direction. Good customer service makes me feel important and well tended and when I go to a place that has impeccable customer service I feel, for a short time, that I am the most important person in the world. I know this is kind of a ruse but great customer service can even make me forget that for a little bit.

Then I think of what I know of the educational process and even more my own experience of what learning has been and is for me…and everything changes. For example, I read something that causes some sort of cognitive dissonance within me and though I’d love to be immediately given the right answer so I can return to a place of calmness instead, I’m fed a bunch more questions which turns my own dissonance up to an 11. Or, I begin a research project and instead of a smooth A to B to C process I began way out at G and then take a few laps around R, hop into numbers, and finally after many a late night and glass of whiskey manage to stumble across A just in time to realize that B and C don’t matter much anymore…no streamlining of process in sight. How do I feel through this whole endeavor? Generally low level anxious mixed with insecure, a twist of fraud, and several parts panic. I feel like my head is most likely going to explode, the words are all gone, and my ultimate fantasy is not having to think for an hour.

And yet, at the end of whatever crises er…school term has happened I end up feeling amazingly empowered and somewhat dazzled by the learning process and just how much more complex and wonderful the world is because of the vagaries I’ve just navigated. I also feel more alive and more myself which is ironic because the process leading up to it was so difficult and draining. It’s a broken beauty predicated by the hard events that proceeded it but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

In the customer service narrative…every class I’ve had thus far in both my MFA and doctoral journey have been an epic fail. I didn’t feel important or catered to, rather I felt insecure and anxious. I didn’t feel the process was streamlined and intuitive, rather I felt like the process was ridiculously complicated and required almost inhuman amounts of persistence. My needs were not met quickly and if they were met at all it was because I was tenacious enough to find the answer myself.

And here’s the thing…I would not have it be any other way (that’s a lie. In the moment I would love for it to be easy and plush but looking back…golden.)

I don’t know about this whole education is a business, students are customers, we want to provide excellent customer service for all mantra. I think as educators we want to provide an experience for our learners that fully supports them as humans meaning it lets them know they are valued, have intrinsic worth, are supported etc. but…here’s the catch: their experience as an “education customer” is not equivalent to their experience as a customer getting a drink at Starbucks. There’s an exchange of money for an educational experience but couching the exchange in a commercial market metaphor…not helpful for anyone, especially the learner herself who anticipates one thing and ends up with a whole lot of something else.

I am fairly certain all of this is just semantics and the whole “customer service” narrative is because many of those ethos in business are identical to ones we as educators want to appropriate. And yet…I kind of wish we wouldn’t because I think it’s misleading for so many. When my students hit bumps they look up at me and want me to get them out because that’s what good customer service has led them to think should happen. Legit if they were struggling with something at Crate and Barrel and I was a worker, I would rush to their aid and relieve them. But the context in education is vastly different and so instead when I give them vague at best answers because I know that they need to do it themselves, what is just learning process morphs into poor customer service….which leads to anger…which leads to complaints….which leads to all the bad stuff that comes from misunderstandings.

So, lots of words to say I don’t think I want to be treated like an educational customer and even more I don’t want to train my students to see things through this customer service lens. I want them to see this journey for the broken and beautiful, transforming narrative that it is. Instructors are there as nets and guides and safe places but the process will stretch you and grow you and even break you at times far beyond what you expect you can manage. The important thing is to know that you are not alone, that you will realize in time that you are far stronger than you ever imagined. You are not a customer. You are a human….just as we all are.

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