Parents as customers?


Let me put my cards on the table.  I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of seeing parents as customers.  For me it only served to reinforce a subservient model where we – professionals – would be told what to do by parents. The second difficulty was the transactional nature of my understanding of the relationship – “we provide – the parents consume”.  The latter of these models was even more unsatisfactory if we were referring to public service schools – as the buying of the “product” was not as immediate as it might be in the private sector school system. These teacher concerns are captured (somewhat extremely) in a response to my recent post as this extract demonstrates:

“…….the idea that somehow unknowing, inexperienced, untutored, hormone-ravaged, naive, self-centred, arrogant products of the weak state education of the past twenty years and their children are to be elevated to the status of customers – and the comical fallacy of “the customer is always right” – has me switching between rolling on the floor laughing and smacking myself hard on the forehead in disbelief.”

However, I am seriously reconsidering my point of view and have been doing so for a number of years but only perhaps crystallised my thinking over the last few days – perhaps time away from the office has allowed me to step back a bit?

The perspective that helps most here is to make the mental switch from being the professional, or provider, to the customer. I am the customer of many businesses and public services.  I’ll take few examples before considering my role as a customer of the education system – and my expectations.

The examples are: banking; rubbish collection; internet provision; health; and hotels.

Banking: I am a customer of the bank.  I have been with the same bank for 26 years.  I am comfortable with the service they provide; they don’t seem to make errors; they compare quite favourably with the oppposition in terms of interest rates; they communicate with me  (probably too much); I use digital banking and this helps me track our finances in way I couldn’t a few years ago; they offer additional products which I can select if I require them. on the down side, I miss the type of counter service you used to be able to get but as I rarely go into a bank it’s not impacted too negatively upon my perception.  I will probably stay with this bank unless they offend me; charge too much; make a mistake which they don’t own up to.

Rubbish collection: I pay my council tax and expect my rubbish to be collected.  They recently changed to wheely bins – which has proved a challenge to our family but it was well publicised and the reasons were very convincing.  The pick-ups are regular and the men will pick the bin up from inside the gate if we forget to put it out. 

Internet provision: we switched internet providers last year – I wasn’t happy with the service as they kept putting up charges without any apparent improvement to the service. My new providers were cheaper and are regularly improving the service and offering more for the same price.  I’ve been able to tie my phone and internet charges together. I would be prepared to change my provider if the costs were significantly cheaper elsewhere.

Health: I go to the doctor (too frequently over the last couple of weeks!); we have been with them for 20 years; they know our family and the welcome you get from the doctors and practice staff treat you with respect; the doctors listen and are rigorous, they take time to explain; if I am ill I expect them to diagnose it and to treat the illness – or to access someone who can; we receive regular  information about additional services and have made use of them; they also provide advice about how to maintain my own health and I follow that advice because I trust them.

Hotels: we like to spend the occasional weekend away in a hotel; there are several hotels we’ve been to where we would never go back – almost always due to the way in which we were treated by the staff; there are just as many hotels where we would go back and once again the quality of the service we received would the critical factor.

So I have a customer/provider relationship with a number of organisations/services – but do I expect to have do the following:

1. Tell them what to do? – no

2. Work in partnership with them? – perhaps – but only in relation to my own needs

I am self-centred in my relationship with all of the above. I want my needs to be met.  I can understand why my needs might not be being met if people take the time to explain why that might be the case.

Now let’s take the Education example: I have to admit here to having been a satisfied customer.  I pay my council taxes and income tax, and access the local provision provided by my local authority. My children have been well provided for, we have had regular opportunities to speak to their teachers; information from school has been satisfactory (as long as it’s not been lost in the bottom of the school bag); we’ve been kept up to date with how they have progressed; I feel that if we have ever had to make a complaint that we have been given a fair hearing; my children have been able to access extra-curricular activities throughout their school careers.

So is being a “customer” of any of the other services different from what I expect of the education service? On reflection I don’t think it is.  My needs, as a customer, can perhaps be summarised as follows:

  1. fulfil my needs – or at least fulfil what you said you were going to do;
  2. treat me with respect and don’t take me for granted;
  3. try to see my side if we have a disagreement;
  4. respond quickly to my concerns;
  5. provide value for money;
  6. explain things clearly if there are changes or why my needs might not be able to be met;
  7. keep me regularly informed – don’t talk down to me;
  8. look for new ways of extending and improving your service to anticipate my needs;
  9. offer me choices to meet my needs;
  10. have expertise in your field and make decisions;
  11. seek my opinion and take account of my opinion;
  12. try not to make errors but of you do let me know as soon as possible and admit the mistake;
  13. put yourself in my place and improve services from that perspective

(this list is by no means exhaustive, nor hierarchical,  but it at least starts to capture something of what a customer might expect)

Where I’ve seen problems with schools or individual teachers is that some, or all, of the above have been missing – people have not been treated like customers but as obstructions to the teacher or the school.

Perhaps this is worthy of further exploration? – although I’m not naive anough to think that either teachers or parents will immediately empathise with this position.

5 thoughts on “Parents as customers?

  1. I understand what you’re trying to say here Don but I wonder if more reflection on public service and what this means would be a better way to think about what you’re saying?
    Customer is a difficult word to use in relation to a school. Education shouldn’t be something that is done to someone whereas for me customer tends more towards that notion. A customer is someone who uses that thing because they are happy enough and accustomed to it, but with a school there are so many more issues than a straightforward customer relationship. Issues around service, citizenship and public service and society.There is also an issue of moral purpose and how we treat other people, within what you’re saying, which is not always there within customer relationships with eg a bank, shop etc.
    We have a bigger/wider remit or role within the flourishing of humanity than the word customer conjures up. Where we should be, as John Connell suggests, looking forward more than a customer relationship suggests.
    I’m not disagreeing with your views at all, in fact applaud your sentiments,but question the use of the word “customer” as it doesn’t say enough of the right things for me! Just as I heard P Duignan talk about using the words distributed leadership being not great language, whereas stewardship of leadership might be better, I think the word customer is the same kind of thing.

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  3. Andrea

    You’re right that so much of this rests on semantics – but I do sincerely believe that it is possible to fulfil all of the educational objectives that we hold dear whilst promoting the notion of customer service – and not lose anything. Not to do so alienates people and builds an unnecessary barrier between two of the key groups who should be working together to support the child. I’ve written another post this evening which explores this further but with the point of focus being on our relationship with children.

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