Why Private School Retention Requires Great Customer Service
The video below is a clip from a Montessori Administration Accreditation program offered by the Center for Guided Montessori Studies (CGMS) wherein our founder, Jono Landon, lectures on the topic of Private School Retention.
If you prefer to read, here’s the video transcript:
In this lesson, we’re going to be talking about delivering exceptional customer service. So that might sound weird, because your school is not a clothing store or a software company. It’s a school, and you don’t necessarily think about parents as customers, but that is really what they are. They come to you and they pay you quite a lot of money, and they choose you over other schools, and they are looking for value. They’re looking to get something out of it. Now, thankfully, what they’re getting out of it is intrinsically wonderful and it’s magical for their children, but when it really boils down to it, they’re customers.
So I want to talk about this misconception in marketing, and now, this is a misconception in general, but I see it a lot inside the Montessori world, that marketing is something that happens before a child is enrolled and before the family actually decides to sign that enrollment agreement and become part of your community. Actually, every single time you communicate with your customer, that’s marketing. So there’s different levels of marketing. To get really into marketing jargon here, usually we talk about funnels, because the way marketing works is you start really wide.
I’ll use the analogy of a shoe store. There’s a whole bunch of people walking by the shoe store. So that’s the top of the funnel. That’s what we call traffic. And then there’s a small portion of those people that walk into the store and try on a pair of shoes. And that’s what we call an opt-in. And then a smaller amount of people that have tried on the shoes actually go and buy the pair of shoes, and that’s what we call a sale.
So a lot of people think that marketing is just for the traffic, the top of the funnel. Actually, there’s kind of three sections of a funnel. There’s the top of the funnel, then there’s middle of the funnel, and then there’s the bottom of the funnel. And the middle of the funnel and the bottom of the funnel, that is your actual relationship with the parents, as they’re enrolled. So you’re kind of always marketing. And not that I think anybody running a Montessori school should change their personality or spend hundreds of hours to become a marketing group. That’s the last thing you should be doing.
That said, you should think about and make sure all of your staff, whoever interacts with the parents on a communication level, whether it’s through a newsletter, or it’s a face-to-face conversation or a phone call, there should be an understanding that these are your customers. And there’s some things, aside from dealing with some of those unfortunate or challenging scenarios where there’s an incident or anything like that, where you just have to have a negative conversation sometimes, but in general, the goal with communication is to always be showing your customer value.
Number one, making sure that they’re always aware, without being salesy. I’m not talking about, “Hey, it slices and dices,” not that type of conversation. But it’s important to make sure that even in those challenging conversations, when something negative happens, perhaps even more importantly, you make sure that there’s an awareness with that parent of what value they’re getting. What’s the positive that’s happening here? More so, and that could just be in general, right? What are the good things that are going on?
So there’s two ways to, let’s say, talk about a field trip or a great event that happened at the school. You could talk about what happened. So those are the facts. But then you want to take it one step further and talk about the value. What’s the result of that thing that happened? So it’s not, you know, you don’t want to just be giving parents the facts. They are going to recognize value there, but if you help them to understand what’s actually happening here, so it’s great to do that on an either-program wide or school-wide level. You also want to be doing that with parents on a per child basis, too.
And it’s not something that should just be once or twice a year with progress reports. This is something that should ideally be happening in as many conversations as possible. Sometimes it’s just not appropriate, but for the most part, it really is appropriate. And so what we’re talking about here is, again, in other markets, they call it customer success.
So it’s really important for your customers, and this is not just about you making more revenue at this school, this is about them understanding what’s happening and the value of what’s happening. And especially when you’re talking about what’s happening with children, and take a lesson plan for a child and you sit down with a parent, it’s really important to tie what’s going on and let’s say where this child has gotten in their level of mastery of different skills, to what that means down the road. So, this is what happened this week. That means they’re better prepared for blah-blah-blah.
You can make those ties much better than I can. I just think that this is something that a school needs to put into the culture of the organization. And it helps parents. This should be part of the parent education program. So I’m not talking about big things. I don’t, again, there’s nothing that should be happening that just piles more work on your plate as a school leader. We’re talking about practical small gestures, small tokens, things that can happen very easily.
I mean, we’re talking about making a very small tweak to the conversations you’re already having. The idea is to get used to it, to develop the behavior in all of those opportunities. So you don’t have to go and create these opportunities. You’ve got enough opportunities to interface with parents. Just make these small changes and just make a decision that every time you communicate what’s going on in the school in your newsletter, or what’s going on with a child in their progress, that you tie it to a higher value, to a more longterm benefit or result that the parents can walk away feeling wonderful about their decision to have their child in your school.
So this lesson is on the topic of having a job for every parent. Earlier, I talked about the value of creating a community and how that can help your retention rates. So I want to dig into the mechanics of that a little bit more. So if you give people a responsibility, of course you can’t force everyone to do this, you can’t force all your parents to do this, of course, but for those that are willing, that responsibility can kind of transform into a feeling of ownership. And people that feel that ownership about your community are that much more stable. They’re not going to go anywhere. So I think in the ideal situation, you can have all of your parents doing something. And I want to also say that initially this might create, this idea, there might be some kickback going on, because that sounds like a lot of work. That’s a lot of people to manage, and all that stuff.
So it’s very important that when you give parents responsibilities or jobs to do, your role as a school leader is to create the opportunities, not necessarily to manage. So this topic morphs a little bit into delegation and how important it is to become a delegator. Not everything that a parent does needs to be managed by you directly, but there’s different ways parents can get involved. Number one, you can create a parent association, so then they’re really managing themselves. And of course, likely you’re going to want to approve their initiatives, what fundraisers they do, et cetera, but you definitely want to get parents involved. And a lot of schools already have some type of parent association happening.
There’s one step further, I believe you can take, and I’ve seen a lot of schools do this to a smaller degree. They’ll have one or two very, very active parent volunteers that are kind of doing a lot, maybe managing their website or doing some heavy lifting in the office. What I want to suggest is the right approach is to have parents doing not necessarily the most critical things. I think you should shy away from delegating incredibly critical things to volunteers on any level, and rather, get a full view of all the different opportunities, all the small things that volunteers could do that are really important. These are the things that end up being sort of death by a thousand cuts. It’s the million things that you have to do in your day, or that somebody has to do, to keep the school running.
But if you can make a long, long list of all those things that are the recurring things that happen either daily or weekly or monthly, and you can make a long list, and it’s very simple to get parents to sign up for a volunteer opportunity, then what you’ve got is all the small little things being taken care of so that you can actually focus your time on the things that only you can do. And that’s one of the keys to delegating, and just running any organization and leadership management, is to as much as possible only do what only you can do.
Then there’s another side to that. You definitely have to know how to delegate and how to organize a system of delegation so that it doesn’t end up being a big burden. But there’s a lot of ways you can do that. Essentially, I mean, there’s a number of tools that you can employ to keep track of what tasks people are doing. You want to stay away from as much as possible writing things down on paper or writing emails manually and making a lot of manual phone calls. But the bottom line is, if you can get parents taking on small responsibilities that are easy for one person to do really well and consistently, that are actually hard for somebody to do well and consistently if they’re doing everything, this is something that I think can dramatically change the life for a lot of Montessori school leaders.
Because one thing I see across the board is people doing everything themselves, and there’s just too much to do in the life of a Montessori director. And always, people are overworked, and it really comes down to task management, delegating. And so this is the reason why I’m talking about this, this delegation and project management inside of this topic, is because you’ve got not only a large parent body, a large group of people that are most likely willing to help a little bit, and if it is a little bit, they can do it really well. At the same time, that will create a stronger community in your school. So this is a win, win, win situation. You get more time, more margin in your day as a Montessori leader to work on the things that are absolutely critical, things like programming, things like hiring the right staff, dealing with the property, things like that, things that only you can do, things that you have to sign or that no one else has any sort of a responsibility in.
And then allowing your community to take part, but also being reasonable in it. A website is a big job, keeping a website up to date and working and functioning and secure, there’s a lot that goes into that. And it’s so critical for a school. So that’s not something you really want to offload to a parent. It’s not something you want to do yourself, either, but you want to make sure you’ve got the right type of professional doing it. So these types of really large, critical responsibilities are much easier to manage and make sure that they’re performing properly if you’re not buried under a million small tasks.
So combine those two, create responsibilities, make a long, long list of all the small little tasks in regular operations that can be delegated out, and make it really easy for your parents to sign up. And then that’ll free up your time to work on the things that either you want to do or only you can do.
So just to recap, the topic of retention, what we’ve covered is you want to improve parent engagement, parent communication, and you want to use newsletters. That’s an important tool, but you want to use them properly. You need to implement a great customer experience. Think about customer support. You want to implement the same concepts at your school, focusing on parents as customers. And you want to have continuous enrollment so that you don’t keep on running into these conversations every year of, are you going to stay at my school? And you want to also make sure that you give parents an opportunity to engender a feeling of ownership and responsibility as part of your community.
And if you employ all of these strategies, you’re going to see improvement. And again, it’s not about focusing on retention as the only thing you have to think about, but take a month, think about retention, spend one or two hours a week thinking about these topics and how you can make some small changes, incremental changes to some of these suggestions. Pick one, take one of these topics and work on that for a month. And then next time you come around and you want to work on retention, take the next one. You don’t have to do it all. Please approach improving the operations of your school as an incremental exercise.
How can I improve retention this year by just 10%? I’m at 80% retention. I want to get to 88% retention. How can I do that this year? If you take that approach, take off a bite that’s manageable, something you can actually chew, you’ll see the results that you’re looking for.