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As school districts navigate the effects of an extended pandemic, communicating with and finding ways to keep students, parents, and family members updated with accurate information is critical. Now, more than ever, customer service— a term normally used in the business world—is a big deal.

Darla Caughey is all about customer service. It’s her calling card and she wants to talk about it.

As an educator for almost 30 years in Texas, Caughey spent two decades in the classroom before becoming a social-emotional learning specialist for the Austin Independent School District. Now she leads a six-member team in overseeing the district’s customer service, employee recognition, and support program, formally called AISD CARES. The challenge, as Caughey is quick to note, has been to find the right communications tools to provide that quality service to more than 75,000 students, 12,000 employees, and 125 schools.

“We want our customers—parents, students, staff, and the community—to have an exceptional experience, and we want them to feel valued,” Caughey says. “We say all the time if we’re really focused on that and go the extra mile to connect in a relational way that we can make our large urban district feel small.”

In 2015, Austin contracted with the technology provider K12 Insight to use Let’s Talk, an online tool that takes questions and feedback and sends it directly to the appropriate staff members. The initial rollout was to employees only, allowing teachers and staff to get the support they needed from the central office.

“The platform had a dozen interest areas: information on benefits, direct deposit, compensation and payroll,” Caughey says. “We wanted to expand it to more community, family, and student-facing departments and were looking for ways to do that.”

In early 2020, Caughey’s department scheduled large-scale training for staff, thinking the program would roll out slowly. Two weeks later, schools closed due to the pandemic.

“We realized then that we would lose our connection to families, to each other, to the community, so we rebuilt the Let’s Talk landing page seen off the main website,” Caughey says. “Now it’s almost a living, breathing document at this time because we want to be responsive to the needs of the community. It’s always changing and we’re OK with that.”

Data and bots

Krista Coleman, chief customer officer with K12 Insight, says Let’s Talk is designed to become a seamless part of a school district’s website. Users can email or text questions, and the software routes it to the right person or department based on keywords.

“All of our districts use it in different ways,” Coleman says, noting Let’s Talk has been implemented in more than 400 districts over the past five years. “You can create a dialogue or ask any question. Our promise is your question will get to the right person, no matter the question. Our backend will route it, which saves the parent time and saves the district from going through email sorted through a general mailbox.”

The software also compiles real-time data on the number and types of questions that are being asked, which allows districts to determine the best way to answer them in a consistent manner.

“People need a place to go and if you don’t provide that they will go somewhere else to present their narrative,” Coleman says. “When you get 4,000 questions about why students are required to wear masks on the bus, you can develop an answer and then push it out through mass communication and social media.”

K12 Insight also has developed a Let’s Talk “bot,” an artificial intelligence database of frequently asked questions that districts can add to their website. Rolled out in October 2020 amid concerns about returning to school in the pandemic, the bot is automatically updated when changes are made to a district’s FAQ’s.

“We know the government is feeding us information as fast as possible, and state and national mandates are changing every day,” Coleman says. “This allows us to put current links to state or national agencies, so the chat bot relates what we know as well as the latest links, and it’s all live.”

Questions answered

In March 2020, Austin had received 1,800 “dialogues,” or inquiries, via Let’s Talk. Eighteen months later, the number had risen to 80,000.

“It has helped us all stay connected during this time of uncertainty,” Caughey says. “For some people, it became a lifeline to get their questions answered. I was so grateful that we already had the system in place and all we had to do was grow it a little bit.”

Caughey says the district used Let’s Talk for curbside registration for this school year. Each campus was provided with a unique text number, and staff members processed registration while parents and students sat in their cars. “It was completely contactless, but it was connected,” she says. “It was a way to keep the connection going.”

Some school sites use the program more than others, Caughey says, and training is ongoing for staff who need assistance.

“We continue to be surprised at how we’re utilizing this with all of the uncertainty and the type of responses we need because of it,” Caughey says. “And we’re really proud of the fact that we’re creating more equitable access to our information. Previously, we made the assumption that anyone would just email us or pick up the phone and call when they need information. That’s not always the case, but most people will text. Again, it’s a way to stay connected and another tool that helps us provide the best customer service we can.”

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