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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Students as Repeat Customers?

Students as Repeat Customers?
By Kyle A. Thompson
Assistant Regional Superintendent
Regional Office of Education #11
Charleston, Illinois
Doctoral Student
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Imagine this scenario:  You walk into a car dealership and are promptly greeted with “Hey there!  How are you doing today?  Anything I can help you with?” 
A salesperson connects positively with you upon arrival and enthusiastically assists you throughout your entire car-buying experience.  You leave feeling the customer service you received was excellent, knowing you got a great deal.  As importantly, you leave planning someday to return!

Now, picture this:  You walk into a car dealership without the immediate affirmation.  Folks are here and there, but no one connects.  You wander aimlessly for a couple of minutes until you have ask for help, begrudgingly interrupting someone in an adjacent office to the showroom.  You never really connect with the staff; in fact, your buying experience is a bit burdensome.  You leave thinking you’ll probably not return, good deal or not. 

Have you given any thought to your last car-buying experience? 
What was it like when you entered the doors of the dealership for the first time? 

Car buying can be a bit intimidating for some; to others, an enjoyable experience.  What is it that makes the difference, for you, between feeling invited and intrusive, or feeling comfortable or confused? 
One car salesperson that we know to be “The Best of the Best,” once remarked that the key to his success boiled down to one main thing: Repeat Customers. 

We know any individual can stop into a dealership, purchase a vehicle, and leave without ever returning, which can often be the case when seeing a specific vehicle in driving by the dealership that catches one’s eye.  Yet, would a dealership want the sum total of any given quarter’s bottom line, propped up solely by the sum of one-time purchases?  We would argue that drive-by purchases are certainly nice to have, but not sufficiently sustainable in terms of a business model.
They can supplant, but should not supplant one’s business plan.
Rather, it is when customers return to buy their second cars, or better yet their every car thereafter, that determines long-term success and sustainability. 
This is the case both in business and in P-12 education.

What if we looked at our students and families as if they were buying a car – Our schools as dealerships, selling opportunities for great qualities of lives?  How do we greet people upon their entering our dealerships every morning? 
Do they get the service they need? 
Will they be our repeat customers?

            The reasons people return to their car dealerships for another purchase is the same reason students and families return to our schools – or not. 
Positive interactions. 
Peace of mind. 
The belief they are getting an all-around great deal! 
The belief that their needs matter.

How do we offer these?

First, by ensuring that students are treated from the moment they enter our showcase to the minute they leave with a world-class buying experience.  Most car dealerships have a lounge area with free popcorn and coffee designed to make the experience better.  Where is the commons area in our buildings that promote a sense of community?  What are we doing to go the extra mile? 
For some, the car-buying process can take only an hour or two, but for others it may take an entire day.  When we take into account online shopping, phone calls, test drives, and counter offers, it can be an exhausting day even if positive.  This is because all potential buyers bring different currencies with them to the deal.  Some have money to put down on a purchase; others don’t.  In addition, some are savvier in negotiations.  In terms of what they bring interpersonally, some are more open and flexible; others are more pensive or rigid.
Likewise, all students bring different currencies to school. 
Students learn at different paces and have preferred learning styles -- auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc.  Some have greater abilities to bring something to the deal, which make teaching and learning easier on everyone (e.g. prior learning, academic aptitude, or home-fostered motivation). 
No matter the currencies brought upon arrival, it is important for us to be patient and allow students the necessary time to complete their test drives (formative assessments) in order to affirm what they have, listen to their needs, and seal the deal (pass tests, master the standards, or even better, learn things that they’ll remember).
            Similarities between schools and car dealerships are endless. 
According to Sinek (2014), “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first” (p. 177). Sinek’s intention was not to make a direct comparison between business and schools; nevertheless, his work brings to mind the potential number of direct parallels between automotive dealerships and education, and thus, the probability that students could very well never love their schools until their teachers and others inside, DO. 

Check out the parallels we have provided in Table 1 below:

The World of Business & Automotive Dealerships
The World of Education and P-12

Sales Manager
Service Department
Support Personnel
Students (and families)

Different Shopping Styles
Different Learning Styles
-       Online
-       Auditory
-       Phone
-       Visual
-       Test Drives
-       Kinesthetic
Buying takes 1 to 8 hours, depending upon what the buyer brings to the sale, and what the salesperson and finance folks can do with it.
Students learn at different paces, some needing more time to make their decisions; others needing more time for the schools to provide what they need in order to move on.
The economy’s influence on business and purchasing power of customers
The community’s influence on its schools and supports available to students
Team Atmosphere:  Sales, Finance, Service,
School Climate: Lesson, Support, and Relationships.
Business Philosophy and the Way Business is Done
School Culture
The fact that the atmosphere can be perceived as intimidating, or not.  Either way, car buyers have preconceived notions and prior experience.
The fact that the atmosphere can be perceived as intimidating, or not.  Either way, students and families have preconceived notions and prior experience.
No-obligation test drive
Opportunities to have positive experiences with lessons without an expectation that the grade on the trial, will be that entered into the book.
School/Student/Family Compact
Don’t want a “lemon”
Don’t want THAT teacher who the principal has done nothing about for 15 years.
Standard vs. Luxury Package
The reality that there will be different outcomes, hopefully maximizing the return on what students and families are able to invest.

Of the many comparisons we make, the dealership owner may be a superintendent working behind the scenes to see that basic operational needs are met and paychecks signed.  The service department is the crucial support personnel our schools depend on to give you every fifth oil change for free.  It is our nurses, counselors and cooks who ensure our customers are running well on the inside. 
Let us always be sure to show those folks they are appreciated.
The sales manager is the steadfast principal working diligently to serve his sales force (the teachers and staff) and customers (students and families) in any way possible. 
As Buckingham and Coffman (1999) wrote in First, Break All The Rules, talented employees need great managers. They don’t mean managers in a sense that they count the absences and patrol the hallways; rather, the authors’ definition of manager is one who has an inside focus on the organization and takes care of the needs of the people.  Thus, it is the building principal who sets the tone for what the atmosphere will be like in all departments throughout the dealership.
Are we giving our students the equivalent of the ultimate car-buying experience, the luxury package?  After all, they don’t want a lemon, no matter what they bring to the lot, themselves. 
It takes the effort of everyone in the dealership to generate a happy customer.  So, we ask you: Would your students be repeat customers?

Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C.  (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t. New York, NY: Penguin Group LLC.
Kyle Thompson and Ryan Donlan encourage P-12 educators that in addition to students’ being, as some would argue, clients and products, that they are also thought of as customers as well.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are always right, but rather their needs are met to such a degree that their definition of right aligns with ours.  To be a part of this conversation, or even a repeat customer to such yourself, please don’t hesitate to contact them at or at

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