One of my best friends owns a wonderful outfitting service in Saskatchewan, where he guides hunting and fishing parties and hosts church and family retreats in the wonderful lodge he built with his own hands on Smoothstone Lake.
I’ve been there several times, mainly for what I call “the Smoothstone experience.” While I’ve been successful hunting during my times there, my buddy Lyndon never guarantees the outcome of any hunt. Weather can roll in at any moment and obliterate any chances of getting in or out of the woods, animals have this funny way of not doing what you think they will do, and occasionally raging forest fires cause everyone to concentrate on helping the local town survive instead of hunting. Yet every year, people walk away from Smoothstone immensely satisfied with the experience, even though they may not have been successful in their quest, and even after spending large amounts of money to do so.
How does Lyndon accomplish this?
His answer is simple, and we might be able to gain some valuable insight into customer satisfaction in our schools if we heed his advice: “Control what you can control.” He can’t change the weather, the movements of animals, or stop natural disasters, but he can control everything else. His lodge is impeccably clean and comfortable, the food is out of this world and plentiful, and he takes time to get to know each client and responds immediately to any customer request that he can. His guides are trained to treat guests well and are empowered to take care of any problem that arises without having to get Lyndon’s approval. The results of this type of quality treatment are measurable, and with 80 percent of his clients repeat customers, he has very little need to advertise, since there is a waiting list every year.
How does this translate from the wilds of northern Saskatchewan to the hallways of your school?
I would love to tell you that, when I ran a school, I had everything under control, but truthfully, every day I was presented with unexpected situations. I couldn’t control a parent’s angry response after I’d suspended their child, but I could control my response to them, as well as controlling the situation through good policy that is consistently enforced. Does your teaching staff feel empowered to handle situations at their level? Are they free to make decisions without worrying they will be second guessed on the decision they made? The more that can be handled (controlled) at their level, the more time you will be able to spend on other areas, like meeting with parents in a positive setting or having coffee with your board chair talking about board development or the long-term future of the school.
I just returned from a miserable hunting trip in Idaho, where the outfitter clearly did not have the same view as my friend Lyndon. The employees were rude and unorganized; the camp was dirty and the equipment was broken down. We came away from the hunt disappointed and angry for paying so much money to be treated so poorly.
Every day we’d go out in a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on dirt roads carved into the side of the steep mountains that were just wide enough for the vehicle. Small rocks the size of grapefruit had fallen from above on many parts of the road, but instead of stopping the ATV and moving the rock out of the way, we would swerve toward the edge of the cliff in order to miss the rock for fear it might puncture the tire. The guides didn’t care, because the boss didn’t care. If he had told them to keep the road clear because he cared about their safety and the safety of their clients, I have to believe the rocks would be cleared and my life wouldn’t have been in danger 20 times a day. They could have taken control of that very easily and made our travels much less harrowing on those mountain passes. As a result of poor service, I’ll never go back to that outfitter and will do everything in my power to ensure that others know that this is not an outfit with which they want to do business.
When I was a wing commander in the Air Force, I used to tell my troops that I never wanted to see anyone walk by a piece of trash on the ground without stopping to pick it up, and I made sure I set the example myself. The base began to be much cleaner as people took a little pride in ownership and knew what I expected of everyone. Do you need to empower your faculty by making your expectations clear to them? And over what areas of your school do you need to exert some control? Remember to control what you can control.
– Joel Westa