Like it or not, private schools are businesses. (There. I said it.) As such, they must keep their customers (a.k.a. parents) happy. When I say "happy," I don't mean a unicorns-and-rainbows kind of happy, but I do mean much more than simply satisfied.
A happy parent is one who perceives that not only has your school met the obligations of the relationship, but it has also gone above and beyond, exceeding expectations. And when you do, it pays off. Big time.
My Doggie Story
Let me give you an example that relates to the "dog parent" in me. I order food and supplies for my three dogs (and sometimes grand-dogs) from Chewy.com. Their products and service are excellent. They sell me food and supplies I need at a fair price that arrive on time and they stand by their products. This is a "normal," good business relationship. What makes me want to tell everyone I know about them (and now you), is that they blow me away with personal touches I haven't experienced from any company, let along one as large as they are. They send handwritten notes (really handwritten, not inkjet handwritten), ask me about my dogs and request photos when I've emailed them, and send me unexpected gifts now and again, like this portrait of my grand-dog, Tate.
Do you think they exceeded my expectations? I sure do. Do you think I'm spreading great word-of-mouth about them? You betcha, not only person-to-person but on social media, too.
Happy Parents Do The Marketing For You
Happy parents are your best marketing tool, bar none. In the InspirED 2017 Private School MarCom Report, the highest rated enrollment marketing tool was word of mouth (82%). We don't expect that to ever change.
Happy parents are a boon to your school's brand, your enrollment and development efforts, and your community relations, to name a few. Happy parents...
Know their tuition dollars are well spent
Articulate the value of a private school education
Engage with the school activities
Support school initiatives
Forgive school slip-ups more readily because they value the relationship over the event
Defend the school and private school education to outsiders
Encourage friends and family to enroll their children
Donate time and money
Tap business and personal relationships for the benefit of the school
Boost the school's brand in the local community
Become life-long fans of the school as alumni/ae parents
How To Keep Parents Happy
Many of these recommendations are no-brainers, but ensuring they occur at your school on a consistent basis may be elusive for some.
Be responsive to parents' needs. Answer emails and phone calls promptly, even if just to say you can’t respond now but will as soon as possible. Follow up to be sure the issue is resolved.
Keep the lines of communication open. Make it clear who parents should turn to with which questions or problems and provide contact information. Listing your senior admins in the handbook isn't enough. Tell parents whom to contact for what specific need.
Be proactive. Anticipate a problem and contact parents before it becomes larger or they hear the news in the carpool line.
Acknowledge them. You may not always agree with parents, but it’s important to listen carefully and acknowledge their point of view.
Make their life easier. Be their partner in parenting from advice on how to raise a teen to holiday and after-school programs for working parents and everything in between. This is one of your school's value-added benefits.
Flow what they want to know. Many schools promote the relationship triangle (student, parents, school), but parents usually have the least information of the three. Some schools disseminate information in abundance, and parents still say they missed something or feel left in the dark. Don’t burden parents with unwanted information. Consider an email "opt-in" for topics that are most important to them.
Customize the experience. Parents assume that since they're paying tuition for their experience, they will get it "their way." While all of us can see this as a slippery slope, give them the customization they request to the best of your ability.
Make it personal. Creating outstanding academic and growth experiences is why independent schools exist and most do it exceedingly well. But kids are not the best communicators. Tell parents about their student’s little and big victories with a quick email or phone call as they happen. Look for ways to make connections. Small touches have a big impact.
Ask parents to promote the school. While there is a fine line between making parents good ambassadors and making them shills for the school, let them know that you need their help. Encourage them to talk about the school with friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
Give them the tools to do it. Provide parents with key talking points. Encourage them to give the Director of Admission’s name to anyone who inquires and “tell him I sent you.” Remind them to tell people that financial aid is available beyond the income cutoff they think and that they won’t be hounded if they make an inquiry or take a tour. Consider printing a business card with your brand messages and Director of Admission’s contact information then give each parent a few to keep in their purse or briefcase.
Ask them how you're doing. Conduct an annual survey measuring parent satisfaction. Ask them what you’re doing well, how you can improve, what ideas they have for making the school the best it can be. Report your findings to them in an annual overview. Praise individuals for great ideas. Acknowledge weaknesses and tell parents what you’re doing to rectify them or, alternatively, clarify a misperception with proof points.
Thank them early and often. Show your appreciation early and often for trusting the most important people in their world to your school, for spending their hard-earned dollars on it, for telling their friends and family about it, and for helping it become better by pointing out areas for improvement as well as areas of great satisfaction. You cannot thank them too much or too often.
Consider hiring a Director of Retention. While the title would probably different, this person's job focuses on exceeding parent expectations and his or her salary would pay for itself in the first year if even one student stays who would have left.
School marketers spend a great deal of time and energy on marketing approaches and tools. Yet the best marketing for a school is word-of-mouth and the best school marketers are right under your nose. Exceed expectations and your parents will do the rest.