In all my years of working with schools on their marketing, the biggest challenge I face is helping a school to understand that their marketing is about something other than them; it should be about the person they are trying to attract, their prospective parent.
It should be about their potential customer.
There. I said it. Customer.
Independent schools need to pay better attention to their customers in all facets of school life, and the external functions at the school, e.g., marketing, enrollment, and financial aid, are a great place to start.
Independent school is a luxury product
Once a school understands that its marketing strategy should focus on its desired customer, the next idea to grasp is that independent schools are luxury products. Independent school attendance is not required. It is extra. Most of our prospective customers have a very good public school option that they are already paying for. Your school needs to make the case that paying a premium is “worth it,” and I would argue that value and customer satisfaction are at the top of the case to be made.
It’s time to shift the enrollment and re-enrollment model
Independent schools, being luxury products, compete against other luxury products for disposable income. The problem is that schools, by and large, need to treat their customers like other luxury brands. This dissonance is becoming an issue at our schools, and I believe it’s partly why schools complain more and more about problem parents (customers). Our parents are accustomed to a level of service that is non-existent in most independent schools. The schools that begin to address this widening gap will be better positioned regarding the future health of their school.
Customer Service vs. Customer Experience
One way schools can begin to treat their customers better is by focusing on their customers’ experience in all facets of school life.
By way of clarification, I don’t intend or want schools to become “the good ship lollipop” and always give our customers what they want. At this point, someone will usually say something about an independent school being a business. While I will acknowledge that independent schools have business-like qualities, they are not businesses in the traditional sense for a myriad of reasons, the least of which is their lack of adherence to the business hypothesis, “the customer is always right.” Because in our schools, the customer is sometimes wrong. Our teachers, administrators, and staff have particular expertise that our customers don’t possess, which puts us in a position, in almost all cases, to know more about education than our customers.
A wonderful exercise for your staff is to read the book, “Service Fanatics: How to Build Superior Patient Experience the Cleveland Clinic Way.” My former colleague, Dr. Peter Lau, suggested this book to me and suggested that each time we read “doctor,” substitute teacher or administrator, and each time we read patient substitute student or parent, depending on context.
This book helped us understand the relationship between customer experience and satisfaction through training, managing expectations, communication, and strategy development. It also gave our team a common lexicon and shared experiences through the book’s case studies to discuss our internal and external processes.
I hope every child has the opportunity to receive a quality education from an independent school. To be clear, Independent schools are not just for the wealthy. Our schools have many excellent students from wonderful families whose parents cannot pay full tuition, and our schools are the better for it. To be a great independent school, you have to offer great value and a great customer experience regardless of a parent’s ability to pay tuition because, in the end, every parent is making a sacrifice, and a choice, to send their child to our schools.
The best way to begin improving your customer experience is through your marketing, enrollment, and financial aid processes, which will help attract new students and then turn your focus inward toward your school’s academic, athletic, artistic, and social-emotional areas.