First impressions

[cross-posted at LeaderTalk]

Minnesota and Iowa Highway Signs

These are the signs you see when you enter Minnesota or Iowa along Interstate 35. Guess which one leaves the better impression?

While traveling recently, I had the unfortunate experience of overhearing two male restaurant employees ogling a young female traveler as she walked through the airport. All of the people sitting around the servers’ station got to hear all about how ‘hot’ she was, what they’d like to do to her, etc. They were completely oblivious to their surrounding customers and to the fact that their sexist (and graphically vulgar) behavior reflected poorly on the national chain restaurant for whom they worked.

I have seen a similar phenomen when I visit schools. I can think of many school organizations where receptionists, secretaries, and other front office employees seemed oblivious or indifferent to the fact that their conversations, behaviors, and work environments reflected upon the institution. While waiting in school or district front offices, I have been ignored, overhead confidential conversations about students, been treated to complaints about bosses and the school system, and heard vulgar language. I have seen signs on walls like ‘Lack of planning on your part DOES NOT constitute an emergency on mine!’ and ‘I can only please one person per day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.’ I have seen students and parents treated poorly, either in person or on the phone. And so on…

I always wonder what parents or community members think when they visit these offices. Like me, do they wonder about the level of professionalism of the office staff? Are they concerned about the level of customer service that they are going to receive? Are they worried that their visit may become fodder for later public conversation or ridicule? Do they wonder why an administrator is ignoring this?

You only get one chance to make a first impression.

11 Responses to “First impressions”

  1. I walked out of a store recently even though I wanted to buy a few hard to come-by products because the high school boys manning the cash registers were yelling back and forth to each other in completely inappropriate conversation. There was no “adult” surpervisor in sight to tell them their behavior was rude and uncomfortable to the customers.

    A friend of mine complained that employees in a large urban hospital were yelling personal conversations and dancing all around the public cafeteria, and mostly ignoring the paying customers.

    Somehow we need to convey to the next generation that this is not acceptable behavior for customer service pesonnel.

  2. Sandee, I’ve seen this across all generations. I don’t think it’s just the young folks…

  3. While I agree with your assessment of first impressions and customer service, I question the incentive for schools to provide good service and make good impressions. In your restaurant example I would most likely not return my business and go somewhere else next time. With Sandee’s example I would not return either and possible not purchase the item from the store at all. This option does not exist for most families when considering the school of their children.

    As a teacher I find it upsetting that the leadership exists in schools, as you note “many” schools, allows and presumably models this behavior. Aside from this personal dissatisfaction, I wonder what incentive exists for these poorly run schools to correct this mentality. The reality is that schools are protected from the fear of losing students. Many urban areas continue to grow and attract new students, so why worry about customer service. Schools that lose students have no fear they will be closed, so why change. Only after years of corruption and failure does the state step in, see Wilmer-Hutchins ISD in Texas. However even with corruptions and failed leadership so schools still continue to spin backwards, see Dallas ISD.

    While the leadership of the school should feel compelled to change the attitude and climate of the customer service, it is the responsibility of the customer to demand more. The ultimate leadership of the school is the State, which prevents growth in schools by limiting our ability as customers to not return. It is a bit unsettling that we have more choice in fast food than we do in primary and high school education.

  4. I agree, I don’t think it’s just a young people thing. Is it people not taking pride, or not finding “passion” in their work? I’m not for sure what the answer is.

    I still remember while working at a grocery store during college, being trained not to carry on personal conversations in front of the customers. So First Impressions is a perfect title for the article.

    I work in a state Department of Education, and we try to provide excellent customer service. I try to treat each call, email, etc. with the same type of service I’d want to receive if the roles were reversed. It’s unfortunate though that it’s found in so many different aspects of society!

  5. Kyle’s comment is right on target. Many school employees recognize that they don’t operate in a competitive environment, and their behavior reflects that understanding. Incidentally, as a native Iowan, I was saddened to see what the “Welcome to Iowa” sign looked like.

  6. Interesting, because I’m not sure which sign I would pick. I like the content of the Iowa sign and the look of the Minnesota sign. So, are left brain folks going to be happier in Iowa, and right brain folks in Minnesota? 🙂

    I’m not sure I agree with Kyle and John. I don’t really see it being related so much to lack of competition. As Scott points out, this exists across many organizations, including ones where folks have more choices. And, in my state (Colorado), parents do have a fair amount of choices – they can enroll in any public school in the state that has room. Yet I’m sure you’ll find the same types of things in our schools.

    I think it’s more a cultural/societal and individual personality thing, and it’s not just young people. The exact two signs that Scott mentioned were in my former bookkeeper’s office (she’s now moved to our central admin building) – and she’s over 50. I never really took offense at the signs, choosing to see the humor in them, but I can see how they can make a bad impression.

    Overall, I think the folks in my building are pretty good at customer service, and I think that comes back to the people themselves and the leadership of the building. I also think it comes back to what folks are willing to put up with. So, Scott, I have to ask, when you’ve seen these things have you approached the school administrators and initiated a conversation?

  7. Sometimes, Karl. As you can imagine, it depends on the nature of my visit, how well I know the administrators, etc.

  8. Yeah, me too for similar stuff. You weigh what good you think you can accomplish versus what bad you might stir up, particularly if it affects my spouse or daughter.

    But I think we may be part of the problem – I keep telling myself that if I don’t say something, who will? And surely I can say it in a reasonable enough manner not to offend, but just to engage? I’d like to get to the place where I’m comfortable doing that more often.

    We’ve been having a somewhat similar discussion in my staff development regarding poor student work, with my mantra being, “Don’t take crap!” If we complain about the quality of the work, but still accept it to give them some amount of “points,” then we’re part of the problem. If we kindly and patiently keep telling students that they can do better than this, that we’ll help them do better, and we’ll look forward to seeing the improved work, they’ll stop handing in crap (at least not as often). I wonder if the same is true about customer service . . .

  9. I absolutely agree. And anyone who knows me knows I have no problem being vocal. But there’s also a time and place for everything, so we have to be strategic and smart as well as intentional and vocal. Keep up the good fight. “Don’t take crap!” – I like it.

  10. Does anyone know of a good, non-combative sign that’s opposite to those? Along the lines of “I can help many people each day. Today is your day. Tomorrow looks good, too.” Or would it be better to just let good customer service (and a smile) speak for itself?

  11. I don’t see why school don’t see themselves as in the customer relations business and give customer service. I recently visited a school to do a teacher evaluation but first wanted to visit another teacher. Once I told them my purpose, they grunted and said that teacher was absent but I knew there was a mistake since this was arranged the day before. I was told to have a seat. I waited for about 10 min. and finally had to ask someone to call down to the teacher’s room and sure enough, she was there waiting on me. Of course I feel this comes from the leadership.

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