Being all-the-above-average

Using a quiz format, the Anne Arundel school system strives to put a shine on employees' customer service skills

November 13, 2005|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Here is a question from a quiz that was recently given in Anne Arundel County:

Which of the following is not a good way to show the customer you are listening carefully to the customer's problems?

A. Say "uh-huh" or "I see" from time to time.

B. Ask questions when you need more information or do not understand the problem.

C. Occasionally repeat or rephrase what the customer is saying.

D. Interrupt the customer when you disagree with what he or she is saying.

The answer, of course, is D, and the quiz is being given not by a local business, but by the county school system. It's part of a new program called Polishing the Apple, intended to improve the public-service aspect of the schools.

"Basically, our surveys from our parents say we're doing a good job," said Teresa Tudor, the school system's administrator for volunteer programs, who is acting as project manager for the initiative. "But we want to maintain that and excel."

Students, parents, the community and even fellow school employees are all considered customers, and they all must receive friendly and courteous service, according to the Customer Service Standards developed by the county.

The school system "believes that excellent customer service is vital to our mission of educating the children of Anne Arundel County," it says.

On Thursday afternoon, about two dozen teachers sat in front of computers in the lab at Arundel High School to learn about Polishing the Apple and take the quiz. They seemed to be in good humor about the assignment, perhaps buoyed by a steadily depleting box of cookies and Hershey Kisses. Water bottles, mouse pads, packets of M&Ms and apples - all decorated with Polishing the Apple logos - were given away.

The teachers said the program was worthwhile. "It's nice to just be reminded that this is what we're supposed to be doing," said Deborah Ahalt, who teaches digital photography processes, as she filled out her quiz.

A PowerPoint display on her computer highlighted the information she was supposed to know, and she was allowed to scroll through it as she took her quiz. A big section focused on e-mail etiquette, reminding e-mail recipients to respond promptly, keep their messages free of dirty words or private information, and make sure the grammar and spelling are correct before hitting the send button.

Polishing the Apple is the first customer service program for all 8,000 school employees, Tudor said. It includes workers in the main office, principals, secretaries, teachers, janitors and cafeteria workers. Each school has a liaison who received training in the central office, then brings the program to the school. Employees can get the training online, through a PowerPoint, or by seminar.

At Arundel High School, that liaison is Peggy Stokke, an administrative assistant at the school, who spoke for about 15 minutes on the importance of customer service before letting the teachers browse through the PowerPoint display and take the quiz.

All school system employees must take the training and pass the quiz. If they fail, they must take it again, Tudor said. But she noted that the point of the quiz is to reinforce the customer service message, and that quiz-takers can find the answers right in the PowerPoint. So far, she said, everybody has passed.

Each school can monitor and reward customer service as it wishes, Tudor said. At the end of the school year, each school will pick a top customer service provider, who will receive gift certificates from local businesses, Tudor said.

"One purpose of the liaison is keeping it alive the rest of the year," she said.

Larry Whyte, who teaches business subjects, said the program is a nice reminder that schools need to take customer service seriously.

"There is an understanding of our clients and how we serve them. But sometimes we get a little stressed," he said. "It's helpful, I think, to review these things from time to time."

Beth Bodkin, a computer support technician at the high school, took the program a few weeks ago, but was attending the current session to help set it up. She said she has noticed a difference in her behavior since taking the class. Now, if she sees a parent standing around in the main office, she'll make sure the parent gets help, she said.

Said Bodkin: "You just need to go that extra step."

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