I was reading an article in USA Today this morning about how many teachers are new to the profession and the high rate of teacher turnover.  It also discussed how parents could ask teachers questions to explain and translate test scores, among the various points on how parents could help ensure their child was getting a good education.  As I read this, I also began thinking about how we tell patients to ask doctors about tests given and results, and how patients should use this as a way to help evaluate their medical care.

Yet I think we do a really bad job at evaluating the performance of service-sector jobs.  This goes beyond doctors and teachers- we could easily include insurance salesman, lawyers, web site developers and more.  How do we know when someone is good at their job or just basically competent?  When does it matter if they are a super-star performer or just getting by? When are we part of someone’s professional learning curve, and when are we getting the results of years of experience?

I think personality and good communication are the central metrics we go by, as well as our gut instinct when evaluating someone’s performance.  We’ll factor in the views of other people we know, and perhaps online ratings, but how accurate are these measures, especially when they may be based on the same core personality evaluation we all do rather than on core skills?

Take evaluation of teachers.  I find it very hard to judge whether a teacher is good or bad at his or her job.  All I know is whether my kid likes them and thinks they’re fair or mean, what other parents and kids may think about the same teacher, and whether or not I can get an answer to a question when I have one.  I have no real way of judging whether or not that teacher is competent or excellent, just whether or not I like them or my child likes them.  That’s it.  (It turns out, however, that this may account for a lot in the amount of learning a child does over the school year, so it’s not irrelevant.)  Principals, peers, and even the State education board have a better idea of that teacher’s native qualifications to teach, what’s required, and whether they are good at what they do, day in and day out, than I will as a parent.  The end question will be whether or not my child has a good enough personality match with the teacher so they aren’t butting heads all year, and whether or not that teacher has some tolerance for my child, with all their native strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s look at doctors by comparison.  There are some doctors we know who are very pleasant people.  We all know some we don’t like that well, as well.  But technically, in the operating room, the “nice guys” aren’t always the best surgeons or may make poor decisions from time to time.  The nurses may hate them.  Most often, this has very little long term impact on patient care, and patients never know the difference.  We are starting to look at cost containment in medicine and patient outcomes as metrics of doctor quality, but that information isn’t easily available or relevant for most patients.   We want our doctors to be good, but even factors like prestigiousness of medical school or residency aren’t always great proxies of competence at specific skills, such as tying surgical knots, which is not a pre-requisite for getting into medical school. What we care about is whether we feel the doctor listens to us, treats us with respect, and how close they are to our home or job.

Then take a service profession that’s perhaps more benign, like web development.  In the end, we need someone who is willing to take our needs and “vision” as we have articulated it, and translate it into a website that is attractive and functional.  The communication piece again becomes key, as we work with professionals to try to get what we want, but we have really no idea, unless we are coders ourselves, what results in great work and what’s merely average.

When we graduate from high school and college, and settle into a profession, there’s very little that measures us in the same way grades and test scores did early on.  There’s very little other than our personalities and reputation on which to base a decision on whether we are good or dedicated to our jobs and getting things accomplished.  This means that traditional evaluations of competence, such as a simple number or grade, give way to choosing someone by a murkier set of metrics, including how much we have in our budget for this job or “think” it should cost.  It makes it harder to make a good choice, to know we are getting quality work, so instead we may default to price, convenience, or other measures in choosing everything from a dentist to a grocery store.  Other factors besides “best in class” rule the day, because it’s very hard for us to know how well this person does their job unless we are in the same field.

We have to rely on expertise of others for making judgments, and trust that they will work hard for us, and in our best interest as well as their own.  This is why reputation matters even more now, in the age of the social web, than ever before, because anyone we do business with now has a voice beyond any single transaction.  What they say about us lives on, online, and spreads faster than mere word of mouth.  It means customer service is important for every business transaction, from the most trivial to the most complex, because people are watching.

Last year, my child had a conflict with a teacher- something that rarely happens.  I was prepared to take the teacher’s side, as much as possible in the disagreement, and I’m always sensitive to the fact that the teachers who ask the most of us and push us are often the ones who leave the biggest long term impact on our lives, even if at the time, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience.  The teacher’s online evaluations – over a course of years- painted a picture of someone who had a very rigid sense of what they found acceptable and not, and I have to say, our experience was very much the same.  The teacher was not willing to communicate after school hours, and would do things like email me at the end of the school day and when I responded within 5 minutes, not respond until Monday morning, because her job was over for the weekend.  I found this attitude less than helpful or flexible, and it made me angry enough to start to loop her boss into our communications.

While objectively, I think this teacher is probably very good at her job, her personality conflicts and lack of “customer service” skills affected our opinion of her, and we’ve gladly shared it with others when asked.  In the end, whether or not my child learned very much in that class except when to capitulate to those in power and control remains to be seen.  It’s certainly changed the way I look at whether or not people are good at their job, and how a little bit of customer service- giving people the perception that you are listening and reacting to their concerns, and that you care as much as they do about the outcome- These small, social things go far in how people evaluate your performance.

How good you are, in the Olympic sense of excellence beyond everyone else in your profession may never be known. How good you are by how responsive and caring you are about the people you serve, is more easily measured and shared than ever before.  It’s becoming as important as your technical expertise.  We should all remember this as we start pushing for objective measures of “goodness” or “badness” of things like schools, teachers, healthcare and other professions, because we may not always be measuring the things that count the most.