Credibility and the Importance of a First Impression

Last week my family and I attended the open house at my son’s school. We were excited to meet his teacher, and generally eager to get the school year started. Overall, I am very happy with the school. The teachers are great, my son loves it, and there is a steady stream of community engagement events that connect the school with parents, and the wider community. However, a couple of scheduling snafus during the open house got me thinking about what parents look for in a school, and the importance of a first impression.

Basically, we, and about a dozen other families, arrived at the scheduled time and the doors were locked. It was confusing. We spent a half an hour on the playground (so my sons were grateful), and then we were let in. Apparently, the time on the school website was different from the time on the handout sent to parents. Discussing the situation with some friends revealed there were actually three different sets of times floating around. Initially I laughed it off as the type of thing that happens in a large organization during a busy time.

But then I got to thinking about a series of focus groups I helped organize a few years back. The focus groups consisted of Milwaukee parents attending voucher, charter, and traditional public schools. A consistent complaint about all school types was a lack of communication between the school and parents. It was the most common reason parents cited for switching schools. Not test scores, not safety, but the extent to which they were made to feel the school cared about them and their children.

Then I thought about the new parents whose first experience with my son’s school was a locked door. That is a problem. Government is, to a great extent, a customer service enterprise, and it is unfortunate that some parents experienced poor service in their first interaction with what is, in fact, a quality institution.

The lesson here is that government organizations and their employees need to pay attention to the little things, like first impressions. A minor scheduling mishap does not reflect on the school’s ability to deliver on its main objective, delivering a quality education, but it may hurt the school’s credibility in the eyes of it customers. Without that credibility, a government organization will not be seen as successful in the eyes of its stakeholders, regardless of its actual quality.

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