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  • Writer's pictureLen Archer

Does your School have Curb Appeal?

In this month's article, our Senior Consultant Len Archer encourages school leadership to appreciate the importance of first impressions. Furthermore, how maintaining a professional image with your potential and current community is paramount to your school's success.

Most of us can share from personal experience (or repeat a story) of a hotel with a supposedly great reputation failing to meet expectations, a sour faced reception, lack of luggage carts, poor parking, dirty and dingy elevators or perhaps hair found on the bedding. Or maybe a story of a house with “good bones” that failed to impress and sell at expected value because of the cracked driveway, overgrown landscape and peeling paint. First (and ongoing) impressions are commonly referred to as “curb appeal”. Top hospitality and real estate enterprises pride themselves on attention to detail so as to enhance customer satisfaction and affinity. Market research across many industries indicates that people tend to share bad experiences more than the good ones.

What does this have to do with the International School sector? After all, we aren’t selling rooms or real estate and should any of this matter to us? The answer is yes it does matter, we are marketing our brand every day. Our curriculum quality, graduation and acceptances rates may be great, but what about all the other factors that influence the experience of our students, parents and employees?

At many schools, leaders generally understand that focusing on the parent experience is somewhat important but don’t incorporate specific initiatives into strategic planning. However, what educators should remember is that the parent—or customer—experience is a key consideration in choosing a school, in what parents tell others about a school, and in their continuing commitment to that school.

The school year is well underway and now is a good time to investigate and assess the overall client experience at your school. Here are practical steps that schools can take to update or improve the parent experience and how they view your school.

Put yourself in a parent's shoes. Empathy is very important to see your school through the eyes of parents—both current and prospective. That’s much easier said than done, what about actually experiencing it yourself so you can observe and feel just like a normal client would. Go on to your website and try to navigate it; try to sign up for school information. Take a tour (or have secret shopper do it for you) of your campus with fresh eyes. As you arrive, what does the school entrance and parking look like? Is it fresh and welcoming? Look up, check the flags, are they tattered and faded? By whom and how are you welcomed? Is it easy to find your way? If your parents have home support staff, where do they wait? View the entire campus with the same lens as one who is about to buy a house. Are school staff easily identifiable? Are security, operations and support staff uniformed? Is there an aura of a professional and efficient brand? Do you feel welcomed and valued?

Another idea is to instigate a 360-degree analysis of the admission process, to assess the admission experience. Speak to parents who had applied and enrolled as well as those who ended up at other schools and ask them about every aspect of the process. Set up a multidisciplinary team to complete this work, including representatives from admissions and the business office, as well as educators.

The process for welcoming, registering and communicating with parents and students has many components and can be complex. An exasperated parent exclaiming “that’s the third time I’ve been asked for that information” is likely an indicator that admissions, finance, IT, classroom and library data gathering needs to be integrated. One school has very successfully implemented the “follow the yellow brick road” approach whereby parents are guided through the school, station by station and signed up and registered for everything from student ID, IT equipment to PE wear. At the end of this road is a refreshment/social area and exit back to parking. Parents are impressed and can’t stop talking (and posting) about the experience.

Gather parent opinion. Thinking about making a change to an aspect of the school which impacts on parents and students? By reaching out to parents before you make changes, schools can meaningfully demonstrate that they value parents’ feedback and benefit from fresh perspectives. Give parents many opportunities to express opinions through surveys, evaluation forms, contact forms, and personal conversations.

Apologize when you get things wrong. When a parent calls to correctly complain about an issue at the school, do not look for excuses! Admit your shortcomings and apologize.

Take corrective action. Get to the root of problems to try and proactively prevent them from reoccurring. Determine if the cause was a systemic issue or human error.

Continue to make a good in-person impression. A friendly and welcoming front-office staff is a good start but consider innovative ways in which you can continue to create outstanding initial impact. For example, student hosts for parent events or student concerts before board meetings.

Act on Parent Feedback. Just asking parents for their opinion isn’t enough. Demonstrate genuine interest in what parents have to say by doing something about it.

Break down your silos. Do not let your parents die a death from a thousand paper cuts! Creating an outstanding parent experience requires the active cooperation of every department in a school and any outsourced services —from educators to custodians and from the business office to the bus driver.

Share your success: It’s likely that there are great examples of customer service taking place at your school right now. Engage your communications department to share those stories to the community. You can reinforce your schools' parents' decision to put their children in your school by showing them why you are such a great school.

Boost professional development on service excellence. The notion of the customer / parent experience is not something that many school staff will be attune to. Professional development sessions can inform and sensitize staff to the importance of the parent experience and the ways in which they can positively contribute to it.

SAGE consultants are experienced school administrators with expertise in school finance and operations. We have conducted school administrative process reviews which include assessing curb appeal factors and recommending strategies to maximize operational efficiencies and client satisfaction.

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