Many schools across the U.S. are experiencing the hard-hitting reality of declining K–12 enrollment. These declines are triggered by falling birth rates (only two states in the U.S. have birth rates above replacement levels), lots of school choice options, homeschooling, and online schools. It is time to take a hard look at how we can remain relevant and competitive.
Whether we like to admit it or not, declining enrollment also means fewer jobs. We hear lots of wailing and teeth gnashing about budgets and funding at both state and federal levels, but what can we do at the school level that will make a difference sooner rather than later?
There are several effective strategies you can implement (inbound marketing being one). But today we’ll discuss the importance of one of the most beneficial strategies your school can implement—one with wide-ranging impact beyond increased enrollment.
Let’s talk about school customer service!
Your goal should be to deliver customer service levels that are nothing like the DMV and more like Ace Hardware or Nordstroms. However, this means every staff member must understand how important customer service is to the survival of your school and possibly their career.
Step #1: Do the math
Begin by showing them how enrollment numbers affect your school’s bottom line—and their job. Educators don’t appreciate being told to think of their schools as a business. I get it. But some similarities can’t be ignored, and one is that we must have the revenue to support our programs and services.
Since school budgets are based on a per-student model, whether it is from tuition or state and federal funding, student numbers are impactful. So, run the numbers for your school or district and share that information with your school employees so they understand the financial significance of each student lost to another school.
Fill in the blanks:
_____ Number of students homeschooled or enrolled in online or virtual schools
_____ Number of students attending other schools (private or charter schools if you are public and public schools if you are a private or charter school)
_____ Total lost students
Now take the number of lost students and multiply it by the total amount of per-student reimbursements or tuition you receive for the years they are enrolled. The total is your potential lost resources.
____ (lost students) x _____ (per student income) x ______ (years served) = _____ (total lost income)
Let me share an example from a public elementary school in Arizona, a state with one of the lowest per student reimbursements in the nation.
A local elementary school near me enrolls 65% of the K–8 students within their school’s attendance boundaries. The other 35% attend local charter or private schools, nearby public schools, or are homeschooled. So, the math looks like this:
1200 (lost students) x
$6100 (per student reimbursement) =
$7.3M (lost revenue per year)
The long-term scenario is even worse. Over the total elementary grades they serve, which totals nine years, this district is losing a possible $48.8M. Wow!
If we look at other states, like California, New York, or Vermont, where the per-student spending for public schools is closer to $20,000 per student, you can see what it means to a school’s budget. If you are a private school, even the loss of one or two students might mean teacher layoffs or discontinued programs.
This fact gathering first step helps school employees recognize how customer dissatisfaction affects your school and them personally. How we treat our customers matters. They have choices, and if they feel like we don’t care about them, they can and will go elsewhere. With fewer available students than ever before, we must work to get and keep those we can.
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Step #2: Know what your customers want
Our primary customers are parents since they decide where their children will attend. So, understanding and meeting their needs is a critical first step. What do all parents want?
Parents want their children to attend a school where the staff:
- cares about their children;
- sees the potential in their children;
- holds high expectations for their children;
- inspires and encourages their children; and
- acts as their children’s advocates.
Parents also want school staff to:
- treat them with respect and consideration;
- keep them informed about things affecting their children;
- provide honest and timely answers to their questions; and
- listen to their needs and concerns.
You can meet each of these needs with a staff that is fully committed to delivering outstanding customer service at every touch point. And, providing excellent customer service is one of the most impactful ways a school can influence attitudes.
Step #3: Train, recognize, repeat
Implementing customer service should begin at the top. School leaders must be on board and ensure that having a customer service mindset is an accepted part of their school’s culture. Putting training in place as part of professional development for all staff, from the teachers to the crossing guards, will establish long-lasting benefits. Training for parents as well as for internal staff and students is well worth the effort. Staff relationships will improve, students will respond to the increased respect and courtesy modeled for them, and parents will feel welcomed and respected. These improvements will make our schools a better place to work and learn—and everyone wins.
Consider these initial steps:
- Conduct an internal audit. Address the most critical issues first. How easy do you make it for parents to get the information and help they need? How easy is it to enroll? How informative and intuitive is your website? How do you communicate with parents and students, and how effective are your methods? Send a secret shopper around to your schools to find out. Get them to use your website and your phone systems to see where the weaknesses are, and eliminate them.
- Streamline the bureaucracy. Customer expectations in our digital world are higher than ever, and schools are no exception. Can you streamline processes, consolidate required forms and put them online, eliminate hoops parents must jump through, and remove obstacles that hinder customers from getting the answers they seek? Not sure what those hindrances might be? Ask your staff what keeps them from solving problems during customer contacts, and incorporate their knowledge and suggestions into your solutions.
- Implement customer service training. Conduct annual customer service training specific to your staff’s various roles (administrators, teachers, aides, office staff, bus drivers, food service). It isn’t a “do it once and forget it” type of training. Each annual training will help school employees adopt these life skills and establish an employee customer support mindset throughout your school. Your staff will enjoy the advantages of improved interpersonal skills that will benefit them in all aspects of their personal lives.
- Establish recognition and rewards. To reinforce outstanding examples of customer service within your school and among your staff, find and honor those who demonstrate these ideals. Find ways to share their stories, highlight those positive experiences, and let others see examples they can emulate. Catch folks doing things right, and spread the word. You’ll be helping everyone know what behaviors to strive for.
- Improve and repeat. Review your progress at regular intervals. Reevaluate your school culture and your levels of customer service, and apply what you’ve learned to continue the improvements throughout the year.
It’s all about the relationships!
With an ongoing focus on customer service, you’ll enjoy consistent improvement in customer relationships, a strengthened school brand, and more loyal customers. A positive school culture makes working there more enjoyable for your staff, so the recruitment of highly-qualified staff improves. Your students also benefit from the respectful and supportive attitudes of school employees and their parents. Over time, you are likely to see increased enrollment as well.
While we recommend implementing customer service training for all your staff, here are a few basic tips you can implement at your very next staff meeting, department meeting, and other opportunities, even before you roll out a formalized customer service initiative for your school. Here’s a start:
- Make answers easy to find. Be sure your customers have easy-to-find access to their questions online. Your school website and social media should be prime communication resources and be intuitive, informative, and reliable. Not sure what your customers’ most common questions are? Ask your staff. They will know which answers they must repeatedly provide, which calls they get most often, and what parents dislike most about your phone tree. Your website analytics can tell you what questions are searched for most often.
- Raise the bar. Incorporate customer service standards as part of staff evaluation standards. What is not measured will not improve! Recognize those who model these standards and share the positive outcomes their behaviors produce.
- Ensure handoffs matter. Sometimes we must tell parents or other customers that we don’t have the answer they need but we can find out or get someone to get back with them. The problem occurs when we fail to follow through and make sure our promise is kept. We must provide any necessary details to the person to whom we are handing off the customer request, and we must take responsibility for following up to ensure they completed the pass (so to speak). After all, it was our promise, and we should take responsibility for our commitment. The follow-through and promises kept build trust with our customers. Own the follow-through and train staff to do likewise.
- Empower a culture of yes. Occasionally there are security, privacy, or legal issues that require us to say “no” to some customer requests. But, there are many ways to get to “yes” (or say yes to a no question) when we empower our staff to think out of the box and find solutions that will satisfy a customer’s need. Sometimes it is as simple as learning the customer’s purpose (the why of their request) and finding a way to accomplish it even if it is a more different solution than expected. Training and trusting your staff allows them to creatively and effectively find resolutions.
For additional tips to begin implementing customer service strategies at your school, check out some of these articles:
From good to great: school customer service
Customer service: the power of words
Is your front office helping or hurting your school enrollment?
Parents: raving fans or raging foes?
Customer service: minding your Ps, Qs, and Netiquette
We addressed some preliminary steps you can begin today in this article and recommend providing formalized customer service training for your staff. While on-site training is motivating and can get things off to a strong start, it can also be expensive. There are also some online course options, or you can develop your own. A few helpful resources we recommend are:
Who Cares? Improving Public School Through Relationships and Customer Service
Think Like a Patron: without losing your mind
5 reasons to adopt a customer mindset in schools
Bonnie Leedy, CEO