CX lessons from the remarkable recovery of the worst school in America


The remarkable story of how Stanton Elementary turned its fortunes around from being one of the worst schools in its district also provides valuable pointers on how to improve customer experiences for both B2B and B2C organisations. 

26th Aug 2022

Have you heard about the Legend of Stanton Elementary? Back in 2010, Stanton Elementary, a school in the disenfranchised neighbourhood of Anacostia in Washington, DC, was the second worst performing school in the district. Then its fortunes turned around.

I first read about its remarkable story in Chip and Dan Heath’s book “The Power of Moments.” The story also comes to life in Clary Estes article “Second to None: The Legend of Stanton Elementary.” As I don’t want to take anything away from the brilliant writing of the above-mentioned authors, I’d just tell you the story in brief so we can move to the learnings for business people. 

As the school results were so bad in 2010, the district decided to dismiss its principal and administrative staff and bring in new people to lead the turnaround. Only 9 of the school’s 49 employees were kept. The new management also set to rub clean the school, giving it a new paint-job, lowering the ceilings for better sound, improving the lighting, and even hanging some banners and inspirational posters. So effectively, the students walked into what was effectively a “new” school with new management for the start of the 2010-2011 school year. However, the change did not happen overnight. Kids were running in and out of their classrooms, 300+ suspensions had been issued, and almost 30% of kids were classified as “truant”, which meant that they had missed 10 or more days without an excuse. 

The big issue seemed to be distrust between parents and teachers. Teachers would think parents didn’t value education very much as they were often absent from parent-teacher conferences about their children. On the other side, parents, who didn’t particularly have a decent experience with their own education, thought teachers were there just for the paycheque and would move in and move out, making no change at all. 

The board had heard about a programme designed to boost parental involvement that had shown some promising results in California and was keen to be amongst the early adopters. At the heart of their plan for the next year was a “home visit” in which teachers would visit the parents at their home and talk about their children.

The concept of a home visit was not new to teachers. Many schools would require home visits where parents had to review some documentation, sign some papers, or “contract” to pledge some kind of support for their kids during the school year. This was a different kind of visit, though. One that was centred around really listening to parents and gaining a mutual understanding and trust. There would be no information to review or contracts to sign. The role of the teachers was to simply ask questions and listen. The questions were prescribed to them as follows:

  • Tell me about your child’s experiences in school. Tell me about yours. 

  • Tell me your hopes and dreams for your child’s future.

  • What do you want your child to be someday? 

  • What do I need to do to help your child learn more effectively?

Hearing the stories of some parents that had gotten those visits in California convinced some teachers to give it a go. Soon, the word spread amongst parents, and they all wanted a visit. So the first day at school that year felt a little different, Chip and Dan Heath write. Children already knew their teachers’ faces as they had seen them in their living room, talking to their parents and that basic familiarity and trust resulted in better behavior. A real tell-tale sign that the visits had made an impact was at the annual “Back to School” day, when parents were invited to see their kids’ teachers, classrooms, and so on. Last year only 25 parents had shown up. This year the staff set up 50 seats only to see more than 200 parents turning up…

This was just one of the astonishing moments that year. As attendance at parent-teacher meetings stood strong throughout the year, suspensions went down and reading and math scores went up severalfold (see the picture below).

Stanton School

How does this relate to business?

While undoubtedly a number of factors played a role in this turnaround, there is little doubt in my mind that that home visit was vital, a “defining moment,” as Chip and Dan Heath call it. Those four questions actually rest on some scientific foundation. 

Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, has spent a lifetime studying the science of personal relationships, following the work of others in the field, and conducting hundreds of experiments. Reis presents his candidate for the “central organising principle” of relationship science - a concept that could tie together the vast and scattered research literature. It can be captured in one sentence: our relationships are stronger when we perceive that our partners are responsive to us (or “perceived partner responsiveness,” as is often referred to in academic literature).

Responsiveness encompasses three things:

  1. Understanding: My partner knows me and what is important to me.
  2. Validation: My partner values and appreciates my abilities, traits, and worldview (i.e., the emotion of feeling respected).
  3. Caring: My partner takes active and supportive steps in helping me meet my needs (i.e., the emotion of feeling cared for).

Now see these statements as if they come from a customer!

According to Reis, understanding matters and is the starting point because it fosters a sense of authenticity and drives the following two factors. Next, validation matters because making the partner feel respected and valued support the feeling of belonging and security. Finally, caring demonstrates concern for one’s well-being.

The work of Harry T. Reis rang home with me when I was looking at the results of our the research. As I have described in a previous article, I spent the COVID-19 lockdown analysing the data from our database of some 8,537 customers of 24 large organisations from 9 different industry sectors, conducting structural equation modeling analysis to find what drives business value for some 59 customer groups. The research culminated in my book “The Big Miss: How Organizations Overlook The Value of Emotions” (Business Expert Press, 2022).

Reis mentions things like “responsiveness”, “understanding”, “respect”, “caring.” When we look into the aspects that form the “Emotional attachment,” we see the same things, for example, feeling cared for, feeling the organisation is responsive, feeling respect, and feeling listened to (a necessary prelude to “understanding”). Therefore, what makes personal relationships endure is also what makes business relationships endure and what makes customers form an emotional attachment toward brands!

emotional attachment attributes

As a reminder, our research found that “Emotional attachment” was the biggest driver of value in 59% of the customer groups we analysed and overall was responsible for 43% of business value – far more than 2nd ranked “Product and use” with 20% , and 3rd ranked “Brand and advertising” with 18%. 

Now, if you go back and look at the four questions the teachers at Stanton Elementary asked parents, you’ll see how they relate to those aspects in our research, and those that Harry T. Reis says are essential to healthy partner relationships.

stanton elementary

What can businesses learn from Stanford Elementary’s turnaround?

Tactical quick wins in the B2B sector

We found that “Emotional attachment” is an even bigger driver in B2B with 48% compared to 40% in B2C.

In the B2B world, it’s a common practice for sales reps and account managers to go on “calls” or semi-yearly meetings with customers. However, in many instances, these meetings are driven by the account managers, they set the agenda with no input from customers, and it’s essentially another sales pitch. It was essentially, “look at the wonderful catalogue of products that we have and these two new additions, for which we have a discount offer at the moment. How many would you like?”. 

Such was also the case with a client we worked with as more and more customers started to express a lack of interest in this kind of meetings. This prompted some changes in how these meetings were organised. Before a meeting, the account manager would call the customer to discuss what topics they’d like to put on the agenda for the meeting. Then during the meeting, the sales rep would essentially ask three main questions:

  • How is the business going? This may sound like a cliché to start with, but the point here is to listen to the customer actively. A knowledgeable account manager would notice the products on display, would ask about the prices and quantities that they sell, and would offer valuable advice. This helps both the customer and the organisation to sell more.
  • What are your plans for this year? This would show areas where the customer could need support. For example, some would have a marketing plan with events that the organisation can support; others would be expanding the business.
  • What can I do to help your business? Typically, by now, the account manager would have picked up some actions, but this is another way to see how else they could be of help and make an action plan for the next steps. At this point, customers would bring problems with deliveries, orders and pricing-plans or would just work out the details for the marketing support for the upcoming events.

This approach was noticeably different and had an immediate impression on customers. It showed that the account managers really listened to customers, were empathetic to their needs, and were responsive and supportive in their actions.

One of our clients, a global logistics company, took this to another level. They recognised that, on average, it takes them 2.5 years to start making money on logistics with a new major global client, so if a client were to leave before that, they’d be losing money on that account. They, too, had recognised the importance of relationships in business, but B2B is more complex. So they created a “Relationship map” on the account level where they indicate the strength of the relationship with the various people who exert influence in the decision-making process.

How about in B2C?

As we’ve said above, customers, as people, have a basic need for a sense of belonging and like to feel that their custom over the years is appreciated. Take, for example, American Express, on whose cards it’s literally written “member since” and the year the customer has joined them. Customers won’t say that this is very important for them, but we know that subconsciously it drives value for the organisation. 

This also works in call centre interactions. An experiment was run in a call centre, where agents were randomly assigned either to ignore or acknowledge the previous interactions (issues) the customer had with the call centre. Customers whose call history was acknowledged rate the agent almost twice as high as the other, and the perceived effort on their part to resolve the problem was down by 84%.

We found a similar issue working with a Water Utility company. We found that fixing recurring issues presented the biggest opportunity to drive more value for the organisation in one of the key segments, while improving the problem resolution was key for the other main customer segment.  While working with the crews on the ground, visiting customers with issues, we noticed that the way the notes were organised in their CRM system meant that the newest comments were on the last page. 

This way, crews often had to skip through 9 pages on their tablets with poor connectivity to get through to the actual customer comment for the particular job, which did the job next to impossible. Other crew members simply didn’t bother the time and effort. So when customers were not around to talk to the crews, it was common that the actual issue would not be fixed, which resulted in extra costs for bringing the crews back to the site, let alone poor customer satisfaction. And when they were on site, they would not get any acknowledgment of their past call centre interactions and recurring issues. The change started with a simple fix of bringing the newest call notes to the top and flagging recurring issues.

Of course, these tips are just some quick-win tactical actions that you could take. If you want to know how to approach the creation of an emotional attachment with customers as a science and a strategy, read the book “The Big Miss: How Organizations Overlook The Value of Emotions” (Business Expert Press, 2022) where I have written about the seven business practices for emotional connection and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter as we share more insights and tips.

Part of the article is based on content first published in “The Big Miss: How Organizations Overlook the Value of Emotions” (Business Expert Press, 2022) by Zhecho Dobrev.

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