NORWALK, Conn. – If you’re sick of waiting on hold when you call one of Norwalk’s public schools, then the Norwalk Board of Education has good news for you.
NPS, under its newly developed plan to improve “customer service,” aims to change the on-hold music for phone calls, eliminate voicemail hell and upgrade all of its websites. The district will also conduct staff training work, improve signage at schools and at Central Office, and consider recognizing excellent service.
Board member Sarah LeMieux inspired interest in reviewing the district’s customer service. She and Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams participated in focus groups and helped develop surveys to examine NPS’s existing efforts and hear ways to improve.
Consultants Julie Abbott and Barbara Hunter called every school and Central Office, emailed every principal and deployed “mystery shoppers” to visit every school and Central Office, pretending to enroll children or grandchildren.
The audit found that 66 percent of auditors felt welcome; 34 percent did not.
At the April 2 Board of Education meeting, Board member Bruce Kimmel called the results “somewhat disturbing.”
Wilcox Williams said the audit showed “pockets of excellence,” but expressed concern over “a lot of inconsistencies…in terms of how our folks deal with, address, and communicate with our customers throughout the district.”
It was the perception of inconsistency that has made customer service improvements a 2018-2019 priority, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said. “As we have emerged from being an underperforming school system, our priorities have been on academics, but this is an issue we need to address.”
The surveys showed “some folks who are a little annoyed” with the on-hold music. That and the “message tree,” at least, can be remedied fairly quickly, and key information can be inserted into the on-hold dialogue, perhaps providing the answers parents are looking for, she said. Officials hope to end the phone loop people get caught in, and standardize the system throughout the district.
All of the district’s websites will be redesigned and made easier for less tech-savvy staff members to upload data to, she said. Chief of Technology, Innovations and Partnerships Ralph Valenzisi is working on updates to the 5-year-old NPS website.
Site upgrades will also serve as learning opportunities for district students — West Rocks Middle School students are managing the site via an internship program, and this will expand to Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA) students working in web development, Valensizi said. He predicted that over the next few years students will take over management of the websites from outside contractors.
Other improvements under consideration include reconfiguring the Welcome Center layout, re-staffing a City Hall reception area closed due to budget cuts and developing new branding via logos and mottos.
The top priority for training is front office staff and school principals, followed by workers in the ELL welcome center, human resources and security officers, but everyone will be trained. Campaigns will start at every Norwalk public school by the start of the next school year, Wilcox Williams said.
Customer service in a school district is “primarily cultural,” she noted; cultural changes take time, and require constant nurturing to remain a priority. “Red Carpet” customer service recognition or “Star Performer” awards may be possibilities for staff members who excel, she said.
Board member Heidi Keyes raised the possibility of having students and custodians, who regularly interact with staff, nominate candidates for recognition.
The review gathered so much data that it will be presented in three installments, the last one at the Board’s retreat in July, Adamowski said; Kimmel hoped for better news in the second report but Adamowski said it will “probably be worse” before it gets better.
Still, the existing interest is in itself a good sign, Wilcox Williams said, as the issue isn’t even on the radar of some districts.
“Like anything this big, that involves virtually every employee of the school system, this is going to take some time and it is going to take some investment of resources,” Adamowski said. “But I think that by developing a plan that can be staged over the next couple of years, we will be able to make progress in this area, like we have in others.”