To be clear, this is not an article about school dogs, invaluable though they are as pupil wellbeing ambassadors and the head’s pitchside companions.

No, I’m talking about those wonderful people at your school who are responsible for answering the telephone. They are often the very first touchpoint for anyone contacting the school, be they catering suppliers, teachers considering a job application, or prospective parents.

Naturally, it is important that the people who answer the phone at your school act as gatekeepers - they cannot let every call straight through to the head or he or she would never get any work done. But are they so ferocious and unfriendly that they are causing a lot of callers to come away with a flea in their ear? Are they more Rottweiler than Labrador?

I called a prep school a couple of weeks ago to try to speak to the head. The call answerer - I assumed it was the receptionist - was abrupt to the point of rudeness when I introduced myself and why I was calling: “The head has absolutely no time in his diary to talk and is unlikely to have for quite some time”. I then mentioned that it was my cousin - one of the school’s governors, who also had a child at the school - who had suggested that I call. Suddenly the line seemed to light up: “Oh I see! Oh, yes of course. Let me put you through to the Head’s PA.”

Sigh.

Unfortunately, although extreme, this example is not unique. We’ve all experienced those rottweiler challenging receptionist types - be it at a school or at your local GP surgery. I have no doubt that the receptionist thought she was acting in the school’s best interest. It may have been obvious I was making a sales call. I’m not sure however that that is an excuse for courtesy and warmth going out the window.

"I have no doubt that the Rottweiler receptionist thought she was acting in the school’s best interest"

The first impression of your school counts for an awful lot. Callers will not only be left with a feeling of underwhelm, but they are likely to share their negative experience with others - as I have done - when they talk about your school too, no matter the context of their contact. Perhaps most importantly, for all said receptionist knew, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that I could also have been a prospective or future parent.

This is not simply about customer service and plastering a smile on your face as you pick up the phone. As part of our work, Stickman consultants often make a ‘mystery shop’ call to a school as part of an audit of marketing and admissions activities. Such calls are a valuable exercise, providing a snapshot of what families experience when they make contact. We commonly highlight gaps and suggest improvements. Occasionally our call will reveal something more damaging to pupil recruitment efforts.

One morning, earlier in the autumn term, one school simply answered “Hello” to my colleague’s mystery shop call. She believed my colleague’s call to be internal and so answered in this way, without identifying herself or the school. My colleague had to check she’d called the correct number. Not a great start, but hey.

"Answering the phone properly is actually a great skill."

Once it was established that my colleague was a prospective parent, the respondent took some contact details and promised the admissions person would call back. No one did. So six hours later my colleague called again.

A different person answered this time, who, unable to locate a record of my colleague’s earlier call, requested contact details once again. At 4pm a call back was received from admissions on a voicemail, asking her to return her call after the weekend. She purposely didn’t call back, purely to see how proactive or indeed persistent the school’s enquiry follow up processes might be. My colleague hasn’t heard anything from them since.

This fills us at Stickman with despair and frustration... (along with excitement that fixing this gap is an easy, quick and zero cost admissions “win” for the school).  And the truth is, all the marketing strategies in the world cannot fill your school with pupils if enquiries fall at the first hurdle.

"Records should also allow those speaking to parents to see their enquiry journey at a glance."

At best, answering the phone can be seen as a low-value administrative task, at worst an annoyance and waste of time. It is actually a great skill. The point is that clear, well-understood enquiry and admissions protocols must be in place to ensure that everyone who is responsible for being that first touchpoint has the tools and training to keep the school's reputation warm and welcoming.

There are some simple ways to do this. Support your receptionists and admissions staff with prompt sheets so they can engage meaningfully with callers and will ask all the right questions when they are dealing with prospective parents. Ensure record keeping for enquiries is efficient and accurate so that families are not constantly repeating themselves. Enquiry records should also allow those who might speak to parents to see their enquiry journey at a glance. Create clear follow up programmes for enquiries so that no enquiry is ever abandoned.

We all know that first impressions count. Are you confident that everyone contacting your school is met by a labrador?  Or do callers need to name-drop one of your governors to get the reception they deserve?