‘Roll out the customer service red carpet – parents are paying for it’

Lucy Barnwell explains how relatively little can go a long way when schools are interacting with paying customers

I recently delivered customer service training to our teaching community at our INSET day. At the start, I introduced myself as the person who recruits new pupils and ensures that customers (pupils and parents) are always happy. This has been the biggest part of my job and I have done more of the latter these past few months than at any other time in my life.

Twenty years ago, teachers were educators and parents were just parents. Parents would drop little Edward and Emma off at school on the first day and pick them up at the end of term leaving the care of their education and pastoral wellbeing entirely to the school.

“Parents today have an opinion and will voice it.”

Twenty years later, things have changed radically: teachers are sellers and parents are buyers. Parents do not even have to “buy” an education because it is actually free if they choose that route. Those who choose to spend their hard-earned money (which tops the £40k mark in some schools) want more interaction, engagement and a part in the decision-making. They have an opinion and will voice it since they are paying for the product.

Oliver and Olivia are no longer just dropped off at the school gates to be looked after for 12 weeks. Parents expect value for their money and will expect it. Considering this is one of the largest purchases a parent will ever make (apart from a house), in my opinion they should have it. In fact, parents know more about their children than we do, so to ensure the customer experience is first rate, we should be getting parents involved to ensure they do get value for money.

So as parents come back to school, what should school staff be considering? Responsiveness to communication is certainly up there and never more so than at this time. Parents are anxious about their children leaving the home and being in school – not least those who have had the courage to send their children overseas to study, thousands of miles from home.

“These are useful weapons in your ‘red carpet arsenal.'”

My suggestion, and something I have implemented in my last two schools, is a Service Level Agreement (SLA). This is a very useful document in the “red carpet” arsenal, ensuring that staff respond to a communication within 24 hours.

I can hear what you are thinking…. “My staff teach all day, how can I expect them to do this?” Easy. You just need to let them know that you do not expect them to solve the issue, but merely respond with a holding email. Why? Well, put yourself in the parents’ shoes – they send an email or leave a message, and they don’t get a response. You’re probably dealing with it but they are not mind readers. A simple email to say you are dealing with the issue and will get back with a solution by such a date really does help.

Secondly, listen…. and I am not talking about listening with half an ear or one ear, but both ears. This means employing active listening and not listening to respond or listening to tell them a story (because they don’t care about you and your issues) but really listening. If you do this, you will know how to help.

Which leads me onto my next suggestion: helpfulness. Helpfulness is a real art nowadays. People can respond to a question and close the conversation down, or open it up to be helpful. An example of closing a conversation: “No, we do not have any of those left.” An example of opening a conversation, “We don’t have any of those left, but have you considered xxx because it sounds like when you told me about your situation, xxx might help.” Note also, I did not use the word “No”. No one likes to be told “no” ever.

Lastly, time. Our new pupils and parents need our time and thus reassurance. Don’t forget, they have entrusted you with their most precious thing and we need to honour that trust. Generally, being helpful and really listening to a parent (customer) can do this, but the gift of your time – for a child and for his or her anxious parents – will really do the job.

So as independent schools return to a new normal, consider these key points: effective and timely communication, listening, helpfulness and time. The experience is important – whether teachers, support staff, leaders or administrators – and we all have a role to play in creating an amazing experience for our wonderful families.