Customer experience moonshot

When President John F Kennedy declared the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth, the United States had exactly 15 minutes and 28 seconds of manned space flight experience. Schools now face a similar challenge: how can Heads lead their school’s customer experience initiatives with few established reference points?

It is now more than half a century since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The project that captured the attention of the world gave its name to similarly ambitious projects that followed it: moonshots.

A moonshot has come to describe an exceptionally ambitious venture that is intended to have deep-reaching results on a scale so large it is almost impossible to achieve. Adjusting the strategic posture of your school to account for the shift in how your current and future parents judge value is, without doubt, a moonshot. Why is it that, more than 50 years ago, we were able to put a man on the moon and yet the thought of delivering a quality customer experience (CX) fills us with angst?

What better place to look for lessons and inspiration than the team that put man on the moon: NASA. Here are five reasons why NASA’s moonshot was successful and why the efforts of school Heads to create and sustain meaningful improvements in their CX often fail.

Variable 01

There was commitment from the highest level. We’ve all seen the video of John F Kennedy telling the nation that they would put a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by the end of that decade. He drew a line in the sand that was 3,142 days away. There was complete public commitment. It wasn’t written on a departmental memo to be filed in a manila folder of aspirational ideas; it was announced in a speech to a joint session of Congress with the explicit intent the whole nation and, just as importantly, the whole world, would hear.

The commitment was real and there was a lot on the line. Kennedy continued to cast the vision and reaffirm the goal in the public sphere. In practical terms, he appointed then Vice President Johnson as head of the Space Commission to see that the plan was executed. Kennedy did not see his vision become reality, but Johnson maintained Kennedy’s commitment.

Many school Heads will say they have a commitment to improving CX, but it is just lip service. Their commitment wanes when obstacles are encountered. If you do not have complete commitment to the vision of customer experience that presidents Kennedy and Johnson had for the moonshot, then you will miss the target. It has to start with you. It has to start at the top.

On 24 July 1969, Apollo 11 safely returned the astronauts to earth, 2,983 days after Kennedy’s commitment and with 159 days to spare.

Variable 02

NASA had a set of unifying principles developed from the clarity of a single, focused vision. The team at NASA was focused on one thing: landing a person on the moon and returning them safely to earth before the decade was done. That was it. Nothing extra. No caveats. No confusion. A singular vision created the clarity that shaped their unifying principles.

Most schools are trying to do so many things that they refuse to identify their number one thing. If you believe that the future of your school and the future of your students relies on your school delivering a service experience that parents value, then you must have a singular vision that enables that belief to become a reality. Do not misunderstand this statement. It does not mean that academics, co-curricular offerings or facilities are not critically important to your success, but you must weight them and resource them following the guidance of your single, focused vision.

When NASA achieved success, it was because they had a singular vision which brought about a set of unifying principles which, in turn, created clarity for the estimated 400,000 people employed on the Apollo program.

Variable 03

NASA assembled a bright and diverse team. They were a team not plucked solely from the professionals with established careers; they were from a mix of backgrounds, ethnicity, professions, experience and, most of all, they thought differently. Within Mission Control, the average age was 26 and the famous Flight Director Gene Kranz was just 35.

The Apollo program was not without its setbacks. The death of three astronauts during an Apollo 1 launch rehearsal revealed a descent into group think. Gene Kranz spoke to his mourning team even before any investigation committee findings were made saying, “We were too gung-ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle.”

No-one said, “This younger generation can’t do a job this complex or this important.” They disagreed, debated and decisions were made. They then had the discipline to stand behind those decisions.

Variable 04

Let’s face it. NASA had a sufficient budget for their moonshot. In fact, it was about four percent of the US federal budget at the time. The total Project Apollo budget in inflation-adjusted Australian dollars was $367 billion. That’s a budget a school Head will never see. Ever.

The real lesson is not how big the budget is that you have at your disposal, rather it is how you invest it. NASA was very careful about where they spent their money by keeping their focus on the goal. If you don’t have a significant budget, focus on the things you can do that do not require cash. It doesn’t cost anything to encourage your people to smile, to dialogue with prospective families rather than email them, or to coach them on how to deal with difficult parents.

Larger improvements in your CX may require a more significant budget, but don’t undertake them until you have secured the budget. Of course, you can still plan and even implement those parts of your initiative that don’t require budget. When it comes to CX at your school, there is rarely the need to stand still.

Variable 05

Perhaps most important of all, everyone at NASA bought into the mission. In a now famous story, President Kennedy was visiting NASA and walked over to say hello to a cleaner and asked him what he was doing. The cleaner replied, “I’m helping send a man to the moon.” Whether fact or fiction, his work was integrated into the overall mission by keeping the offices clean so that others could do their part of the mission even better.

Do all your staff — not just your communications and marketing team — understand that the most important thing they can do is to create and deliver a peak customer experience? Does every member of your teaching and support staff know what your school’s mission is and are they clear about their part in its success?

If you can lead your school and follow the example of NASA in these five things, then your school’s own moonshot will no longer be on a scale that makes it unachievable. It will come within reach and spur you on to greater heights.

insight applied

  • Schools are starting with little established CX background.
  • It requires commitment at the highest level.
  • It requires a single, focused vision.

Brad Entwistle is the Founding Partner of imageseven. Since 1990, he has led his team on a mission to amplify the impact of schools by working directly with school Heads, tailoring solutions to maximise their communication and marketing effectiveness. 

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