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C minus for CX?

Isn’t it time Customer Experience figured more in schools?

Imagine for a moment that you are back in your teens and you are considering what you are going to do when you leave school. Do you go to university or straight to work? If you choose university what do you study?What do you ultimately want to do? For me, at the time, I had an idea I would end up in business but there was nothing remotely close to business studies available.

It’s quite different now. In the UK there are now around 125 subject choices, although not all are available everywhere.

Something struck me as I looked through the options available: the word customer was never mentioned. I know educationalists will respond by saying customers are embedded into subjects like marketing and business studies but that is not my point. Customers are supposed to be the revenue lifeblood of the organisation – we are nowhere without them. Companies that understand their customers and align everything they do to what they want/need will thrive. It appears that the subject options available have expanded tenfold in thirty years but the science of understanding and aligning to our customers still does not explicitly figure!

Customers on the syllabus?

Imagine there was an A-Level which said something like:

Customer Experience & Innovation

Organisations that are amongst the most consistently successful performers place the customer at the centre of everything they do. This A-Level will teach students the principles of great customer experience, service and innovation and how to practically apply them in the workplace.

What do you think that this might achieve? I would suggest that it would prepare the student to the realities of business life with an ability to contribute much more effectively and much sooner than if they go into business life with a traditional qualification. I would suggest they would end up understanding all things “customer” considerably better than many traditional Generation X executives who still think “a customer is largely the recipient of a product of a product and service and maybe we try to be a bit nicer to them the we were last year”. (In my experience this view point is still alive and well.)

It would also mean schools would understand and adoptcustomer experience much more widely and dare I say quickly because there would be teachers, support staffand governing bodies on the inside who would understand the realities of what customer experience means. If you do a search of “customer experience in schools”, you will find very few examples or case studies, although there are a number emerging.

What can schools do to make their customer more central to their operation?

Traditional best practice thinking helps a lot but it certainly won’t solve everything. Here are a couple of tips to get you started:

1) Understand who your customers are and how their true needs are best understood

It may sound obvious but is the customer the student or the parent? I would consider both to be customers and therefore approaches to gaining an understanding of their wants/needs would need to be different. The good news is that Voice of Customer (VoC) programmes will deliver a richer understanding of parents than the typical ad-hoc feedback mechanisms and traditional parent/school get-togethers. Parents will typically be more motivated to give detailed feedback than in the traditional business/customer model so resulting analysis will also be richer.

The problem is that VoC has its limitations:

  • Customers will articulate the issues relating to the product/service in question but in the absence of other reference points will normally extrapolate to a cheaper, faster, better version of where they are. Henry Ford’s “faster horse” comes to mind.
  • Customers will often answer questions in the context of who they think the organisation is. This can place a restrictive context around answers meaning valuable insight is missed.
  • Critical needs are not articulated. They are either assumed or not thought about due to the context in which the VoC exercise is being conducted. This makes VoC very bad at identifying salient innovation opportunities.
  • VoC is poor at differentiating between wants and needs and unfortunately so are customers. Many parents have extremely strong views of what they believe their children need. It does not mean they are right.

My own experience is a case in point. I was educated at a great – albeit minor – private school in the Cotswolds and have fond memories. Teacher focus was on ensuring we were disciplined, we attended all our lessons, we passed exams and, when it was all over, we went onto a good university. In my case it missed on one need that would have made a huge difference to my development – the “love of learning”. In fact, I never remember it being referred to once. If it was – I missed it. When this love of learning was finally ignited some two decades later, I developed in ways I would have previously never thought possible.

I don’t think many young students would ever identify a “love of learning” as a core need. Perhaps some parents would but as a pupil, I certainly never thought about it until much later. I also fully appreciate that a good and caring teacher will identify and aspire to this but achieving grades often means that a love of learning becomes not only a subsidiary objective but is diluted to the point that the child fails to appreciate it altogether.

Imagine for a moment that this was a core objectiveinstilled into every youngster (and oldster!) going through the education system. Imagine the considerable impact that this might have. And imagine how much better prepared our young people would be for a future where there is no such thing as a job for life and where life-long learning must underpin their ability to adapt and thrive.  Consider that “love of learning” in pupils is not so different from “employee experience” in our organisations – it is well documented that we are not very good at instilling “love of learning” in the latter.

VoC becomes considerably more effective when it is combined with other techniques like Outcome Based Thinking. Any “Voice of ….” exercise is very good at deriving insight on wants. It’s less good at identifying needs. If a customer is not aware of a need then it is hopeless. On their own, “Voice of ….” programmes do not support innovation and the education sector needs innovation as much as any other sector does. In fact, innovation is fundamental for developing the people of tomorrow. The good news is that new thinking can be layered onto traditional approaches for considerably better outcomes.

2) Upskill teachers to identify and deliver change

Most schools are effectively small businesses and do not have large change teams ready to jump on every problem that arises. The ability to change how schools operate arises from the teachers and support personnel backed by a forward-thinking and engaged governing board. Do you think any of these people are trained to do this? For most schools, the answer is a resounding no. The education system relies on the dedication of staff and governors/trustees who are willing to go above and beyond to achieve this.

There is good news. Meaningful change no longer requireshighly skilled process people to define and impose future states using an arrayof specialised techniques. It’s great news because complex techniques require experts. Complexity means new future states have to be defined and imposed by expertsand imposed change creates resistance. Houston, we have a problem! Most teachers don’t have a background in process change and approaches like value stream mapping, process swim lanes and other traditional change approaches can be rejected quickly because of the perceived complexity.

So how do you upskill teachers quickly and effectively to become change agents, empowered to implement each and every day and to make significant impact quickly? The answer lies in methods that have emerged in recent years, ones that are simpler to understand, simpler to apply yet offer considerably greater impact.

These techniques:

  • Create an understanding of current situation that anybody can understand. The “anybody can understand” aspect is important. It has nothing to do with questioning intelligence or ability and everything to do with speed. The ability to jump into a process and understand exactly what is going on means people who have had no prior involvement can become engaged and contribute. And this contribution is critical: People who feel they have been part of a change process are more likely to support and accept the outcomes. It’s an inclusive, as opposed to an imposed, approach.
  • Use Outcome-Based Thinking methods to derive an understanding of customer wants and needs that expands on the feedback from “Voice of xxx” campaigns. These techniques help teachers to become more intimate with the thinking patterns and processes their customer types – whether these be students or parents – are going through. It also promotes a call to do things differently, a mindset of innovation. This is exciting because it becomes possible to create ideas that would have never emerged a few hours previously. It sounds like black magic but I assure you it’s not! These are simple but powerful techniques that can change thinking patterns and open up opportunities.
  • Introduce a simple method to assess and identify change. This process removes cost, complexity, failure and the unnecessary on one hand but aligns new processes to the different customer types on the other. Again, the focus has to be agile, understandable and quick to apply.

This translates into an ability to implement innovative change that a person with no background in process management can be trained to apply in under two days.

Is this possible? My experience suggests it is.

Customer-centric innovation has never been so accessible yet so many organisations in the public and private sectors are not even aware of it.

It’s a veritable treasure trove of opportunity. And the first step to uncovering these gems and transforming customer experience is lifting the lid.

Charles Bennett

Founder & CEO. Charles is an acknowledged leader in customer-driven performance change using both best practice and emerging next practice perspectives. He leads, mentors and coaches in both strategic and operational initiatives. A strong believer is the potential for "supercompany performance" he innovates using next practice thinking and methods to enhance the business. He researches heavily to retain his reputation as a thought leader, which he has applied across 40 countries, multiple sectors and companies such as Citibank, Nielsen, Microsoft, Vodafone, Tracker and governments in Middle East and Asia. Contributes to business journals and often invited as a speaker or chairman to events all over the world.