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Professional Opinion

How schools can create magic for families and students

Why leaders must prioritize customer service to ensure positive school experiences
John Marschhausen is superintendent of the Hilliard City School District in Columbus, Ohio.
John Marschhausen is superintendent of the Hilliard City School District in Columbus, Ohio.

If you have ever been to Disney World, you have experienced the pinnacle of customer service. Disney is intentional in its commitment to creating a positive, memorable experience for its guests. Disney has a specific training program for all employees, predicated on creating magic.

Disney’s core values are clear in the actions of each employee, and the company trains, measures, tests and continually improves it processes.

Attending a Disney Institute is eye-opening because the lessons are applicable to what we must be doing in our schools. Every interaction we have with students, parents, grandparents and community members creates “touch points.” Each of these contacts is an opportunity to generate a positive experience.

With each successful encounter, we build loyalty and capital. With each negative or neutral touch point, we foster trepidation and frustration. The goal is simple—reduce negative and neutral touch points while maximizing positive interactions with people.

Breaking stereotypes

Education is a service industry. Taxpayers provide resources for schools to educate children—to prepare the next generation of American leaders. In each of our communities, we play a critical role—we serve. Unfortunately, we sometimes fall into stereotypical roles and actions.

Too often we serve the management of the organization and not the people in our community.

From the bus driver who may be the first smile a child sees in the morning to employees serving lunch—from the classroom teacher to the office secretary—each person in our school family is a touch point. Every experience shapes a student’s day. Every encounter shapes a parent's feeling about our organization.

We must examine stereotypes—the idea that attendance secretaries are difficult or that librarians make students remain quiet—and find ways to break each stereotype and provide a better service.

‘Culture eats strategy for lunch’

From Disney to the Four Seasons Hotel, from an Apple Store to Starbucks, companies are intentional with their training and expectations for customer service. It starts with core values, manifests itself with behavior, and—hopefully—results in satisfied customers.

Schools must commit to customer service and culture. We have spent generations creating assessments for student learning but, overall, we’ve done little to cultivate the very environment in which we serve.

First and foremost we must define and communicate our values. We are in the people business; this is at our core. Strategic plans, improvement plans and infographics are merely documents until they come to life in the work of people—and it’s the work of people that change the lives of young people.

A good friend of mine often says, “If it’s not happening in you, it can’t happen through you.”

At Disney, the magic of the work is happening through the employees serving its guests. We must empower school families to have great work happen “through us.”

Secondly, we must be intentional in our professional development process. Our behavior speaks more to our values than do the documents. As administrators, our first touch-point with employees must focus on culture. Too often we begin with rules, policies and regulations. We immediately set the tone; we must walk the walk.

To make culture and customer service first, we must put them first. We must build professional development around the collaborative effort to build the culture we desire.

Finally, we must assess and strive to improve customer service and culture.

We’ve all heard, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Successful classroom instruction is predicated on positive, purposeful culture. The results we produce are the direct result of alignment between culture, planning, and most importantly, how we serve.


John Marschhausen is superintendent of the Hilliard City School District in Columbus, Ohio.