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I recently read an interesting newspaper review of a book. This book points out that in successful, customer service-oriented companies, there is a relentless, laser-like focus on the customer and their needs. The premise of this book is that we should think of the most important people in our lives like our customers. It specifically focused on thinking about our children and other family members as our customers in the same way successful, customer-service-oriented companies think of their customers. I hadn’t previously thought about my family this way, but it raises an excellent question about whether our daily actions are consistent with our priorities. This also captures the key difference between successful charter schools and other education options – they treat students and their parents like customers. With the advent of charter schools, this was a novel concept in American education. It was revolutionary. The competition for student enrollment introduced to public education is something that has made the American economy the largest and most successful in history – the free-market system.

The free-market system produces better products because customers naturally choose superior products that meet their needs, and inferior ones will improve or fail. Charter schools must produce a better product than traditional public education, or they will fail quickly because students are not compelled to attend. This is the free market in action. It is important to differentiate between the many excellent teachers and administrators in traditional public education and the public education system. As a system, I don’t believe there is a customer-focus in traditional public education. They have not had to function this way, because historically they have had a monopoly. There have been times when I, as a parent, have felt no more like a valued customer of traditional public education than I do when I visit the department of motor vehicles to renew my driver’s license.

A couple of weeks ago someone called me from a charter school. I was on another call, and he left a voice mail message. When I called him back, a computer message asked me to either enter the extension of the person I was calling or spell the last name. He did not leave his extension in his message, and my phone happens to not list letters on each number button; so I couldn’t spell his name. The computer finally gave me the option of connecting to the receptionist - exactly what I needed - a real, thinking person, not a machine. After a few rings, I laughed with frustration when I reached the receptionist’s voice mail. I tried again a couple of times later and still only connected to the receptionist’s voice mail. I became really frustrated and eventually gave up trying to return this call. My guess is that this charter school is relying on its phone system rather than paying someone to answer the phone. I wonder how many times this has happened to students’ parents and other stakeholders. While I completely understand a school trying to reduce administrative expenses, this experience seems inconsistent with a focus on serving the customer.

Without consistent reinforcement, there is a natural tendency in business or any organization to lose focus on the customer. We see this everyday with indifferent store employees, rude flight attendants, and the long line at the department of motor vehicles. There is also a very real risk of charter schools losing focus on their customers. We should constantly remind ourselves of the reason for charter schools – to deliver a better educational product that students and parents want. We should screen all school programs and decisions against this standard. When charter schools lose the focus on their customers, they will lose their purpose for existence.

For information contact Rick Van Alfen, Providence Financial Co., LLC
Phone: 801-299-8555 Email:

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