Monday, October 10, 2016

7 paths to being a parent-centred school

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."

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Parent Experience Prescription

The Parent Experience (PX) at your school has the potential to be the greatest contributor to retention, ambassadorship and enrolment success. That’s why schools should be giving some serious thought what their PX prescription will be. 
An e-book that I collaborated on withBlackbaud K12 explains the Parent Experience concept and design process in detail. In the past couple of months I’ve been taking the PX from words on a page and slides in a webinar to real-life school environments. The insights from that could be helpful to anyone thinking about PX in their schools.

For some context, here’s a quick Parent Experience primer. Increasingly companies are finding that their most effective competitive advantage is not the products they sell but rather the experience that their customers have using them and even shopping for them.

Why is that? Because, as the people at Bain & Company say, “If people love doing business with you, they become promoters. They sing your praises to friends, colleagues, and complete strangers over social networks, in online reviews, through blogs, and in every conceivable channel.”

To me, that sounds like the description of current parent ambassadors that every school would love to have. And that’s why the Parent Experience is so critical to schools.

In fact, as independent schools find themselves competing with not only public schools but charter schools, online schools and for-profit schools, experience becomes a critical differentiator and competitive advantage.

The Parent Experience is the sum of all experiences at various touch points a parent has with a school over the duration of their relationship with that school. This includes their first online contact to watching their youngest child graduate and everything in between.

To be more than just positive, Parent Experience must be the product of a reverse engineering project. Schools need to understand what memories and feelings they want their parents to have at the end of their journey with them. Once they’ve determined that destination, they can work backward to design the experience that will produce the desired results.

In other words, to be truly effective and to completely differentiate a school, the Parent Experience must align with a school’s brand. Schools must answer the question, “What do we want the parent experience at our school to be?”

Now, with that background, here are some practical Parent Experience insights.

The Parent Experience exists whether you design it or not. Make no mistake. Parents are having an experience at your school. They are interacting with school staff, lay people and other parents all the time. The quality of that experience is up to you. You have the opportunity to not only make that experience positive but one that truly reflects what is unique about your school.

Parent Experience is more than just good customer service. The best illustration of this comes from a school at which I was leading a parent experience workshop. Support staff said they were always friendly and respectful with parents, often going above and beyond to help. That’s good customer service. However, one staff member said that she noticed that when the answer to a question was tailored to the cultural background of the parent, communication was more effective and the parent was more satisfied. In a school that truly celebrates diversity, the actions of that staff member are helping to build a positive parent experience that is unique to that school.

The Parent Experience brings your brand to life. Brand is a representation of the relationship that parents have with your school. If every interaction that parents have with your school is brand-aligned, PX is an opportunity for your parents to literally live the brand.

Developing the Parent Experience is an exercise in design thinking. It’s a painstaking process involving dozens of people and thousands of interactions. But with a clear goal in mind it’s an opportunity to incorporate all of the design thinking elements of empathizing, designing, ideating, prototyping and testing.

Heads of School are critical to the Parent Experience. There are three reasons for this. The head is the only person in a school with the authority and credibility to align disparate sectors – from faculty and educational leaders to the business office to the board of trustees. Given the symbiotic relationship between brand and PX, heads, as primary keepers of the brand, must be involved. Finally, PX is by definition future-focused. Its ten-year journey will be interwoven with your school’s vision – as articulated and driven by the head.

Faculty is essential to the Parent Experience PX – but be patient.  The strongest link in the school-parent relationship is teachers and therefore developing an effective Parent Experience requires their cooperation and active participation. Teachers are very focused on the classroom and see student achievement as their primary success metric. However, there is growing appreciation of parent engagement and communication as critical elements in the educational process – which, in turn, is all about the parent experience.

As independent schools face increasing competition in an economic environment that is, at minimum, circumspect, it is essential to differentiate and find competitive advantages. Focusing on the Parent Experience may be the perfect prescription for doing just that.

Download your copy of Tailoring the Parent Experience 

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Hierarchy of Parent Communication Needs

The impact of word of mouth on independent school admissions is pretty much undeniable. There is a litany of data demonstrating that the most frequent and the most effective way that prospective parents hear about a school is from family, friends and peers.

Great. We all get that. Now here’s the hard part. The inescapable reality of word of mouth marketing is that its success is a function of parents being able to talk – or post – knowledgably and passionately about their school. The passion can potentially come from parents simply talking about their positive experiences. Knowledge, on the other hand, requires parents to have information about a school’s achievements or perhaps its comparative performance. Those facts can often supercharge the impact of peer to peer communication.

But how do you get parents to have that information at their fingertips when it’s a struggle to just get them to remember when its an early closing day or to sign up for parent teacher conferences?  If informed ambassadorship is the apogee of parent communication, how do you get there?

The answer may lie in a construct with which we’re all familiar. Maslow’s pyramid, or hierarchy of needs, has been used by psychologists – and educators – for decades.  Its premise is that for individuals to reach their greatest potential, there is a four-level progression of needs that must first be met. The highest level of the pyramid – or the pinnacle of human existence – is what Maslow called “self-actualization” which he defines as “the desire to become the most that one can be.”

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

What if we use that same paradigm to think about parent communication? How can we get parents to reach the ultimate goal of being well informed ambassadors with the independent ability to speak knowledgably about the school their kids attend? Perhaps the answer is that we need to first meet their more basic communication needs. It's only when those needs are met that parents feel free to discover more about the school and retain that information.

With deference to Professor Maslow, let’s see how we can translate his pyramid into a hierarchy of parent communication needs.

Physiological  - These are survival needs like food and drink. The parent communication equivalent is what do I absolutely need to know for next week. Are there early closing days? Are there programs/events that I am supposed to be attending? Are there days on which my child needs to bring something different or unusual to school?

Safety – These are ongoing health and well-being needs like physical and economic security. In our communication hierarchy that translates into how can I help my child? This could be information about homework or resources parents can use to help their kids. Or maybe it’s about special lunch programs or extra-curriculars. However we define them, this level of communication relates to the ongoing needs of the child.

Love and Belonging – We need family, friendship and intimacy. Our parents need communication that makes them feel like part of a community. That could be information about other families’ lifecycle events or some kind of bulletin board with items for sale and upcoming community programs. Maybe this involves letting parents know about opportunities for involvement in the school community.

Esteem – We must feel valued, respected and confident. This relates to two types of communication. On one hand, parents need communication that validates their decision to send their children to our schools. This could be information about special achievements or educational milestones. Often this level is fulfilled through special programming to which parents are invited. In addition, parents must feel respected and appreciated. Communication must recognize the parent as customer.

Self actualization – The freedom to realize our fullest potential. Having fulfilled the other four levels, we can now provide the communication to parents that will allow them to be the consummate ambassador. This might be information on comparative test scores, college choices, athletic or academic achievements, faculty credentials, accreditations or endorsements. On the foundation of the other levels of communication, parents are ready to receive – and retain – the information that we really want them to be conveying to peers and friends.

Based on all of the above, this is what we arrive at:

The Hierarchy of Parent Communication Needs

Although to this point we have focused on substance, meeting communication needs is also a matter of finding the right channels and means of communication. Most schools have an arsenal of communication vehicles – e-newsletters, classroom newsletters, websites, password protected portals and even print communication. Fulfilling a communication need is dependent on matching it to the right channel.

If we accept the premise of this hierarchy, the indelible message is that for parents to become effective ambassadors, the onus is on school communicators. It could be time to take a good look at your communication plan and make sure it’s really needing the needs of parents and your school.

What do you think?
Does the hierarchical construct work or make sense? Does your experience with parent communication validate this analysis? What are your thoughts about how to get parents to be the best ambassadors?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

My one-question branding hack

The terms “brand” and “DNA” appear together in business literature as often as “critical” and “thinking” do in the educational world. The assumption is that just as DNA is a way of defining a person’s uniqueness, so too brand is the way of articulating what is one-of-a-kind about any organization.

I think that “brand” and “DNA” have something else in common. While no one disputes that they exist and that each is very important, the truth is that almost nobody knows what they are. Seriously. What exactly is DNA? It’s some kind of molecular structure that somehow magically determines my uniqueness. Likewise, other than a bunch of marketing wonks, who can really define “brand” and explain exactly how it represents your school? 

And yet no one can deny the importance of being able to tell prospective parents or prospective faculty or prospective donors what makes your school so special. So, if you haven’t yet engaged the experts to develop your brand – or maybe you have and either can’t remember or no longer use what they came up with – here is my one question branding hack. (By the way, "hack" is a term borrowed from the tech world that generally refers to a clever solution to a tricky problem.)

It’s based on Simon Sinek’s “why” TED talk. If you’re not one the almost 26 million people that have seen this video, you should stop reading and watch it now. In short, Sinek proposes that the most successful companies and organizations in the world achieved their success by focusing on “why” they do what they do – as opposed to “how” or “what” they do.

Sometimes thinking about “why” your school exists or operates can be difficult. It gets bogged down in mission and philosophy. So, in working with schools I ask them this:

What would be missing from your city or community
if your school did not exist?

And that’s the one-question branding hack. It’s a pretty important question that you should be able to answer before you meet a single prospective parent (or donor or teacher). When parents ask, “why should I send my children to your school,” they are really asking what can I get here that I can’t get elsewhere.

The answer you formulate to the question is not your brand but it will likely focus on the experience that your school delivers – the combination of academics, character development, extra-curriculars, spirit, relationships and philosophy. And that will provide a glimpse into the relationship students and parents have with your school – which is at the core of branding.

Even if the answer to the question is easy because your school’s offering is unique, it will still require some introspection. For example if yours is the only arts-based school for girls in your area, you will still need to be able to communicate why an arts based education for girls is important and what it can deliver.

For what its worth I believe branding can be explained and similarly, I have successfully articulated a brand for many schools. At the same time I’m enough of a realist to understand that branding can be time-consuming, complicated or out of reach for many schools. Interestingly, I have also encountered many schools that have undertaken branding projects and are still struggling to articulate their uniqueness. 

Whatever the circumstances, if you’re looking for a clear, productive and reasonably quick way of thinking about branding, the one-question hack could be the answer.

What do you think?
Does my one question hack work for you? Have you got an alternative that you have successfully use? What are your branding hacks? Let me know.

Image courtesy of Suwit Ritjaroon at

Sunday, January 31, 2016

For better marketing results – Get Experiential!

Consumer brand marketers are finding innovative ways to cut through the clutter and independent schools would be wise to pay attention.

The goal of marketing is to make someone feel something. That’s becoming increasingly difficult in large part because we are inundated with marketing messages. So, marketers are continually on the hunt for tactics that can find a straighter route to the heart.

Enter experiential marketing, which is all about creating real-life experiences that form a memorable and emotional connection between the consumer and the brand. Some of the most talked about examples of experiential marketing are pretty outlandish. Have a look at this video that shows how the cable network TNT transformed a quiet corner in Belgium into a bizarre crime scene that ends with the message, “Your Daily Dose of Drama.” You can check out this page for lots of other examples of experiential marketing.

But not all experiential marketing has to have that "wow" factor. In December, chocolate maker Ferrero Rocher invited residents in Toronto and Montreal to drop by a home in their neighborhood for a “holiday house lighting ceremony.” Along with a beautifully lit home, carolers and hot chocolate, Ferrero Rocher chocolates were handed out to those who had come to be part of the event. When interviewed, the company’s spokesperson talked about creating “‘golden moments’ that have a special place in our hearts.”

There’s another dimension to experiential marketing that schools should pay attention to. It is being touted as a highly successful means of reaching millennials. People who have grown up with media and technology along with its ubiquitous stream of marketing have justifiably become a little cynical about sales pitches. As a recent article in theFinancial Post says, “millennials want to experience what a brand has to offer before they lend it their dollars or support. That’s why experiential marketing has taken on a new importance.”

Millennials are also characterized by being both values and relationship driven. Experiential marketing is seen as a means of “building consumer-to-brand relationships [that are] authentic and transparent” and reflecting “collective values” that are the key to supporting a brand.

So, what does all of this have to do with schools? In almost all elementary schools, prospective parents are millennials and you can bet that cynicism and marketing-immunity extend to the universe of prospective parents at all schools. Like any other player in competitive markets, schools have to find a way of cutting through and establishing a meaningful connection with those they want to attract.

For sure, schools don’t have the budget and resources to pull off elaborate experiential marketing events but there is no reason they can’t be guided by the goal of establishing an emotional connection with potential buyers. Here are a few ideas with a fair warning that many of these are simply a product of my imagination and, as far as I know, are untried.

Experiential Open Houses – Let’s start with the obvious. The typical “talking head” open house presentation isn’t going to cut it. At a school that I worked with we had parents visit various classrooms where teachers taught them a mini-lesson as they would their students. Parents sat in a circle, sang songs, repeated words, jumped up and down – and, believe it or not, had a blast. They got to experience school the way their kids would. Best of all, they got to feel just a little bit like a kid and imagine the way their children would feel when they get to school.

Pop-up school – A growing marketing trend is the pop-up store or restaurant. Businesses rent space on a short-term basis to bring a sampling of their products to high traffic areas, to a particular venue that is thematically related to their business or to take advantage of an upcoming event or holiday.

What if you set up a pop-up school at your local mall. Children could drop in and participate in fun, educational activities. Parents could take part and be wowed with a robotics or other technology based activities. The broad idea is to allow people to experience your school. The other experiential points that get made are that learning can be fun and can take place beyond the four walls of a school.

Imagine the future event – The idea is to organize an event or perhaps even a contest for local parents that asks them to imagine what the world will look like in twenty years. Maybe people are asked to predict things like the price of gas, houses or groceries; what countries will or will not exist; the population of cities, countries or the world. It could have a light-hearted component with comedy routines about the future. However its done, the idea is to create an opportunity for parents to experientially consider the future in which their children will come of age and for which their education is preparing them.

School-mobile  - The inspiration for this idea is the bookmobile. When I was growing up, we lived a long way from the local library but every week our neighborhood was visited by the bookmobile – an RV shaped vehicle that was a mini-library on wheels.

Schools could take a used school bus and re-model it at as a traveling educational activity centre. Advance publicity would let parents know when to expect the school-mobile in their area. Once it was parked in a particular neighbourhood, children and their parents could hop on the bus and spend an hour or so engaged in fun activities. The school-mobile allows parents and children to experience what a school has to offer and creates a sense of excitement about learning.
Ok, some of these ideas may be a little out there, but what is undeniable is that when schools find ways to experientially make a connection with prospective parents they will see better marketing results.

What do you think?
Have you used any experiential initiatives? Were they successful?  Any ideas about other ways to create an emotional connection through experience? I’d love to hear from you.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Why bother branding?

Let’s face it. Branding projects are a pain in the butt. They’re time consuming, expensive, require intense introspection, demand the finesse of giving stakeholder groups just the right amount of voice, risk exposing deep divisions about foundational principles in your school and when complete, will create an avalanche of work in updating admissions, development and other messaging as well as websites and all kinds of communications and promotional material. And all of that is after the painstaking process of decision making that led to a branding project in the first place.

So, given all of that, why bother branding?

Your knee jerk response might be to point to the potential enrolment benefits of re-branding. And that wouldn’t be wrong. However the benefits of branding extend well beyond the admissions office and into every facet of a school’s operation. Branding can have broad, positive and even transformative impact on a school.

Before going further let’s make sure we have a common understanding of branding. A school’s brand reflects its essence. It communicates the experience of being part of the school community. A brand is a representation of the multi-faceted relationship that parents, students, teachers, staff and other groups groups have with your school. Branding is the process of articulating a school’s essential nature.

Based on that, here are some examples of the profound benefits that come from a successful branding project:
  • Admissions efforts. Well understood branding gives focus to conversations with prospective parents. Without the clarity of good branding, admissions staff can grapple with what to say about a school and feel like they are constantly reinventing the wheel. Branding uncomplicates admissions efforts and makes it easier for prospective parents to decide if your school is right for their child and them.
  • Ambassadorship. Having a clearer understanding of what makes a school unique will sharpen the conversations that ambassadors have and ensure that the prospective parents they refer are a better fit. 
  • Parent experience. Current parents can be equal beneficiaries of clearer branding.  Tailor your parent experience to match the brand and at every interaction your parents will gain a deep understanding of what makes the school unique, have their choice of the school validated and be better ambassadors. 
  • Customer service. Because the brand is all about the relationship that parents have with your school, more focused branding should make it easier to anticipate and satisfy the needs of parents. Great customer service is the foundation of positive word of mouth and intensifies the benefits of a strong brand. 
  • Community. A brand can be a rallying point for a school, uniting parents, students, administrators, teachers and even trustees around a common quest or cause. When there is clarity about what a school is supposed to be, there can be greater purpose to living up to the brand. 
  • Decision-making.  Whether it’s about curriculum, policy, staffing or facilities, branding brings a clearer common basis for decision making.  As Peter Gow says in an essential branding publication from NAIS, “Because it stems directly from experience, a school’s brand can be a reliable touchstone in the assessment of current programs as well as in future planning.”
  • Business Operations. A school’s business office acts in support of the brand as much as any other department. Selecting and assessing suppliers, decisions about facilities and payment policies – just to name a few items – are all given greater focus by a strong brand. 
  • Advancement. A well-articulated brand will be a boon to fundraising efforts. It sharpens the case for giving and brings clarity to solicitations and fundraising appeals because prospective donors are better able to understand what makes the school unique. Likewise, a strong brand can re-affirm the commitment of alumni, strengthening their ties to the school. 
  • Staffing. The brand becomes an effective criterion in staffing decisions.  The degree to which prospective teachers and other staff members reflect the brand and are capable of furthering it are key hiring considerations. Conversely, a strong and clearly articulated brand makes a school more attractive to prospective faculty members and helps them decide whether they want to work there. 
  • Classroom content. The head at a school that I worked with would regularly challenge faculty to consider how they would teach material differently if the school’s mission changed. Similarly a school’s brand can inform decisions about the way curriculum is delivered, integrating subject matter and making the brand deeply experiential to students. 
  • Inspiration. The best brands are aspirational. They provide a higher purpose to everything that is done within a school. They make the collective goal clearer. They challenge and, in that way, unite a school community. A vibrant brand will inspire a school to reach higher, achieve more and serve its community better.
All of these factors can also provide a meaningful gauge of your current branding. If it’s not delivering enough of the benefits above, it needs your attention. It may just be that the brand is not being communicated well or it could be time to go back to the drawing board.

The next time you are considering whether to “bother” with a branding project make sure it’s as 360 degree decision and take all the factors above – and more – into consideration.

What do you think?
What’s been the breadth of your school’s experience with branding? What other aspects of school life and operation does branding touch? How do you decide whether it’s time to re-brand?