Like it or not, independent schools, like all academic institutions, are businesses. As such, schools must pay attention to keeping parents happy, much as businesses must keep customers happy. Keeping parents happy can be a nightmare, because some parents, particularly Gen-X parents, are all about the individual experience. They can seek customization beyond what a school wants to, or should, provide.
But schools should make every effort to keep “normal” parents—those with appropriate expectations—happy, because parents are your best marketers. When parents are happy, they are much more likely to tell their friends and colleagues about how wonderful the school is and how their family has benefited from their relationship with it. They will be your best marketers. They are more likely to become donors and/or volunteer for the school.
In addition, the more satisfied and engaged parents are, the more likely they are to forgive school slip-ups. One way or another, happy parents resolve or accept issues and choose to move on emotionally because they value the relationship over the event.
How do you keep parents happy and make them strong marketers for your school?
- Be responsive to their needs. Answer emails and phone calls promptly, even if just to say you can’t respond now but will as soon as possible.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Many schools promote the relationship triangle (student, parents, school), but parents usually have the least information. Make it clear whom parents should turn to with which questions or problems, and provide contact information.
- Be proactive. Anticipate a problem that may befall their child (or communicate one that has befallen her), and contact parents before they hear news secondhand. Do the same with general school issues before they hit the carpool line.
- Acknowledge them. You may not always agree with parents, but it’s important to acknowledge their point of view.
- Make their life easier. Make sure your communication channels are easy to navigate. Give parents advance notice of student events, activities, homework and deadlines, where their child should be when, what supplies are needed, etc. Consider an easy-to-read grid, rather than prose, for this kind of information.
- Flow what they want to know. Some schools disseminate information right and left, left and right, and parents still say they missed something or feel left in the dark. It can be like trying to drink from an information fire hose. Don’t burden parents with unwanted information. If you can tailor the information flow to specific interests, do it.
- Make their child’s experience positive and productive — and promote it. Creating great educational 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 victories as well as the big ones with a quick email as they happen.
- 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 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, and give each parent a few to keep in their purse or briefcase.
- Ask them. 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 about them. (See this post on InspirED School Marketers' blog for more about surveys.)
- Thank them… 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.
School marketers spend a great deal of time and energy on marketing approaches and tools. The best marketing for a school is word-of-mouth and the best tool is right under your nose: parents.