Monday, September 23, 2013

Thoughts on "Who is Our Customer?" Posts by Grant Lichtman

     At our administrative meeting this past Friday, we spent a bit of time discussing the points raised in two recent posts by Grant Lichtman on his blog The Learning Pond: "Who is Our Customer!?" and "Who is Our Customer, Pt . II." As he points out, the question is much more complicated than it appears at first glance. We have to consider it because, as Grant argues, "In order to enhance value, an organization must know their value, and have a shared vision for enhancing it." In doing that, we have to "create value pathways for each."
     In our discussion, we identified multiple customers: students, families, schools where our students matriculate, our neighborhood, our city, prospective families, future employers, beneficiaries of our service program. As you can see, we extended the notion of customer. Each is, in some way, hoping for something from St. John's, either directly or indirectly, whether they have actually "purchased" it themselves.
     That last point is where, for me, the conversation became trickier and much more provocative. Turn it into a transaction, and the focus somehow shifts. The expectations heighten on both sides, and we begin looking more and more for quantification and tangible proof of purchase. While I don't like that, I also accept it as a reality of the business of independent schools. In fact, I rather relish the challenge laid out by this notion.
     The question comes at an opportune time for us. We've been talking quite a bit about the real value of a St. John's Episcopal School education and how we tell out story. Yes, some of that has a marketing angle, tied to customer base and enrollment management and financial sustainability. But there is a more basic reason, one that I consider more important. The past few years we've worked hard at enhancing our students' learning experience and been fairly innovative in several areas. In doing so we have been quite intentional. At the same time, we want to make sure that we not lose the qualities which have made this a very special, very human and humane school which emphasizes relationships and community and character. It's why we talk about being high tech and high touch. For us it's about both value and values.
     The conversation ended with a crucial notion. Yes, particularly when there is such "an environment of increasing competition and alternatives for learning," we have to be able to create those value pathways for our customers. In doing so, we must know who we are at our core and speak to how that essence can serve our varied customers. It's about institutional integrity. Otherwise, we may find ourselves trying to be all things to all people. That doesn't really help anyone.

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