To distinguish themselves in a competitive marketplace, schools must become parent-centred.
These days, being a child-centred school doesn’t provide much competitive advantage. Child-centred approaches are clearly linked to educational success and have been woven into the practice of most schools. Frankly, being child-centred is a must-have that parents expect.
On the other hand, being parent-centred represents an opportunity to differentiate and create recruitment and retention success. The data from the business world on the benefits of improving customer experience is incontrovertibly positive. Focusing on the quality and the characteristics of the parent experience in your school has innumerable benefits including fostering more satisfied parents who are more enthusiastic ambassadors. So, how do you do that? Here are seven paths to being a parent-centred school.
1. Think like a customer. This is primarily about empathy. Put your self in the shoes of a parent and use all your senses. For example, when you walk into the office, what do you see and how are you greeted? Are you talking to parents in language that they can understand? Often, there is a tendency to use internal technical terms like, “you need to complete an RTC form.” Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into “edu-speak,” using terms like authentic learning and differentiation while a parent’s eyes glaze over.
No matter how hard you try, it can be difficult to look at your school with fresh eyes. In that case, borrow an idea that retailers use all the time and enlist mystery shoppers – or in this case, mystery parents. Have two or three people contact the school (using various means) and express interest in enrolling their children. Be sure they record details of all their interactions. Review their reports to see if the experience that’s being delivered is what you really want it to be.
2. Collaborate. Parents aren’t really at the centre of your enrolment and marketing efforts unless you seek their opinions and participation in meaningful ways. Considering a change to the daily schedule? You’d be wise to consult parents. Partnering with parents also means encouraging feedback and, of course, being willing to accept criticism.
3. Be Transparent. There is no point in trying to hide information from parents. If you’ve made an error, you have got to own it. Let parents know what happened and how you’re going to fix it. Schools can be notoriously secretive about how decisions are made – often because they don’t want them to be questioned. A great example of this is class placement. A common statement is something like, “we place students using our best judgment in optimizing their academic performance and social environment.” This is vague enough that parents don’t really have a basis for questioning a placement decision. Contrast that to listing the specific criteria on which placement decisions are made and being prepared to entertain discussions with parents based on those criteria. Being transparent doesn’t mean having to accede to every parent request. Many times, parents will tolerate a decision that doesn’t go their way as long as they feel like they’ve been heard.
4. Solve Problems. Effective problem resolution requires many elements. First, you need to encourage openness. If staff members feel that every reported error is just another step toward discipline and dismissal, you won’t know about most of what goes wrong with parents. Second, you need to know the root cause of problems and that, in turn, requires asking incessant whys. Why did the Smiths get the wrong letter? Why were they on the wrong list? Why were they tagged incorrectly in the database? Why did someone edit their profile? You get the picture. Resolving problems is only half the battle. The real prize is problem prevention and that will require lots of internal collaboration with staff members at all levels.
5. Consider First Impressions. This isn’t just about the first-time visitor to your school, although focusing on that is a pretty good idea. But this could also be the first experience that parents have with your school every morning. You know, the dreaded drop off line. (Here’s a hilarious rant about drop-off). This is a great opportunity to greet parents and reduce their anxiety. What about the first impression of parents coming to the school for parent teacher conferences? They are totally stressed at having to quickly navigate the school and find the appropriate rooms so that they can then spend six minutes and 28 seconds with a teacher before being rushed out. Some schools place student docents in front of each room who can tell parents whether the teacher is ahead of or behind schedule and can even disarm parents by having a conversation with them.
6. Prove You’re Listening. It’s not enough to tell parents that you care about their opinions. You have to put your money where your mouth is. Be prepared to make changes based on parent feedback. You can take that to another level by making proactive changes. For example, let’s say a parent reports that her child was dropped off at the wrong spot when taking the bus home. In addition to finding out what happened to that child, you should likely be investigating whether the same thing has happened to other children – even if those parents haven’t said anything. And, make sure you tell parents about the action you are taking in response to their concerns. As consumers we all know how gratifying it is to be told that changes have been made because we spoke up. Be sure to give yourself credit for listening – and acting.
7. Break Down Silos. Making your school more parent-centred can’t be done as a unilateral initiative of the admissions department. Or the marketing department. It’s going to take a multi-disciplinary approach that has the parent experience on the agenda of every department in the school – including faculty and lay leadership. You may want to share articles about parent/customer service or better yet, be sure to communicate parent experience successes. In all likelihood, it will require the active involvement of the head of school to make it happen.
Technology and demography (think millennials) have created conditions where word of mouth is the most powerful channel in marketing success. While educational success is the most potent subject of word of mouth, being a parent-centred school will create the motivation and impetus for positive ambassadorship that will in turn lead to gains in recruitment and retention.
A more detailed look at the Parent Experience is available in the e-book, "Tailoring the Parent Experience."