It is no secret that COVID-19 changed the game in enrollment building and retention. No longer is it a given that, when a family registers with you, they will stay in your program for the duration of their child’s early childhood years. Those who loved you pre-COVID and even flexed with your school closings during the pandemic, may now choose NOT to come back. Staffing challenges may have limited your ability to fill to capacity, leaving eager-to-enroll parents on waiting lists. Others who do register may have higher expectations (and less patience) than ever before, and may want increased flexibility and more on-demand access to their child’s daily activities.
Once families start their children in your center, there is a “probation period” for the first 90 days, during which they see how their child adjusts, their family fits, and whether or not they should stay or find an alternate provider. It is a critical time for you to focus on engaging with new families beyond orientation, quality program delivery, and daily drop-off/pick-up greetings. If you register early in the year for fall school-year programs, this process begins upon registration.
What can you do to assure your family’s user experience not only retains them, but encourages them to refer you widely and to post positive reviews? It requires what I call ongoing “relationship marketing.” In the wake of COVID-19, this is a three–pronged strategy, all of which is based on adjusting your business model to be even more customer-centric. In other words, my well-known mantra, “think in the prospect’s perspective,” has never been more important.
1. Learn why they dis-enrolled now. For those who did not return post-COVID, find out why not, and address those issues with updated information or changes you can make to accommodate their requests and retain them.
2. Go beyond past customer satisfaction techniques. For returnees and new registrations, determine what you can do now that makes you unique and exceptional, beyond quality program delivery. Develop a “nurturing campaign” to engage with families on waiting lists.
3. Create parent marketing partners that drive more qualified prospects to your schools, through positive referrals and reviews.
Find out why. What has caused your non-returning families to choose not to re-enroll? Until you know, you are assuming it is something out of your control to change, such as a change in parents’ work setting or finances, or a lingering fear of their child contracting COVID-19 in your school. However, it could be for reasons you can manage in partnership with the family, such as a need for flexible scheduling or assurance of ongoing safety protocols.
Conduct a short online withdrawal survey with these families. Since you already have a personal relationship with them, take the time to text or call them, as well. Though your response rates to a withdrawal survey will likely be low, you will see patterns that you may be able to address with these previous enrollees. And, your personal conversations with these parents will give you more candid information than the standard survey will.
Keep this withdrawal survey brief—no more than five questions—and tell recipients how long it will take them to complete it. Genevieve Carbone, head of marketing at Kangarootime, recommends using a free survey tool such as Google Forms, or an affordable service such as Typeform.
Today’s parents are well educated about child care, rely heavily on referrals and reviews, are pursued harder by your competitors, and can be more demanding than ever before. You can no longer distinguish yourself as the best early care and education available by offering a quality program, trained staff, and a friendly hello at the front door each day. In the parents’ perspective, any good child care provider should do that, and does. You must provide an exceptional user experience, along with a top notch program, if you want to create customers who would not think of leaving and who refer your center at every opportunity.
Use these techniques to help you become a master at the exceptional customer service that is a cornerstone of relationship marketing.
Ethically deliver. Parent anxiety levels are at new highs, so they are watching to see if you do what you say you were going to do. Promote your quality program throughout the school environment, on posted documentation of learning walls, and on social media. Pay attention to details, such as correct spelling on communications or notices of changes in schedule or staff substitutions. Remember, many parents are looking for reasons to validate their own guilt and anxiety about leaving their children in child care, especially in the wake of COVID-19. Ethical delivery can help turn that worry into confidence and peace of mind.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Today’s busy parents, already bombarded with more information than they can possibly absorb, need you to take the initiative in getting your messages through to them. Equally important is how you and your staff communicate and how often. Communicate through their preferred channels. Some 92 percent of millennials have smart phones, and 95 percent read text messages within three minutes of receipt. They want information electronically, not on paper, and they expect transparency in real-time posts on apps that give them daily updates on their children’s activities.
Ask what they think. You cannot improve on the value you offer parents until you know if their expectations are being met. Make regular and systematic efforts to identify what parents expect of you. Periodically ask parents to complete a brief parent satisfaction survey. Use an online survey, with a deadline for submittal, and perhaps a drawing to incentivize return. Another method is to invite a small number of parents to join a parent focus group. However you gather this information, always include the question, “What did you expect that you are not yet receiving?” Share survey results and changes you will be making to improve customer satisfaction. Once parents know you really value their opinions, and that they can influence changes in your school, they will become more serious about making sure you hear from them.
“On Hold” Families
The biggest key to retaining parents on waiting lists is continual communication you initiate with valuable information and engagement opportunities, far beyond their position on your waiting list. Think of it as a “nurturing campaign.” Include them in communication you regularly send your enrolled families, invite them to events, and allow them to register for parent webinars you are presenting. Have your teachers periodically send a learning activity to the child, include the family in your Facebook group, and notify them of wait list status or room opening status at least monthly.
Does this take time when yours is already stretched to the max? Yes! However, when you include these warm prospects in your communication management system for current families, it becomes less time-consuming. Your extra effort will be rewarded in less time spent recruiting and converting new enrollees.
Generating Referrals and Positive Reviews
A recent survey conducted by Childcare CRM for their annual benchmark report showed that of the top sources parents consulted when considering an early care and education provider, 74 percent turned to referrals from family and friends, and 69 percent checked online reviews. Given this, how can you create marketing partners that drive more qualified inquiries to your school through word of mouth and posted reviews?
Parent referral programs. Carefully developed and promoted parent referral programs offer families an incentive, or acknowledgement gift, for referring other eligible parents to you. Remember alumni parents, staff, and community partners such as pediatricians and realtors, as you develop your referral programs. Be sure to do an annual assessment of your referral programs, noting the return on investment of your acknowledgment gifts given to referring partners.
Create a parent ambassador program. Select parents already enrolled in your center who are willing to support you in contacting prospects who want to talk to an enrolled family. Enlist other parent ambassadors to reach out to newly enrolled families to welcome them and help with transition. And have a third group of parent ambassadors keep in touch with enrolled families to assure their complete satisfaction, unearth unmet expectations, and help them through new class transitions and changes in center operations or protocols. Parent ambassadors can prove invaluable in increasing retention, referrals, and reviews.
Ask for reviews. When you have a satisfied family, they will not mind when you ask them to post a positive review. They know how much reviews meant in their own selection process, and they want to build community with other families who will be a good fit in your school. You can ask them personally or via text or email. Be sure to thank each family who posts a good review for your center. Expand the reach of your positive reviews by including select comments on your website, in social media, and in your email signature.
Relationship marketing is a forever undertaking. You cannot turn it on and off, because your parents are in your center every day, expecting you to give their children and their family your very best. I agree with Genevieve, who says, “Families satisfied with your center and care are more likely to recommend your school or write a positive online review. In marketing, we often call this the ‘flywheel’ approach: you enroll families, they become advocates for your center and help you to attract and engage new families, and the cycle continues.”
If you commit to a strategy of continual progress toward exceptional customer service, you will find that minor updates will be all you need to keep your tactics fresh, active, and effective. And you will find your enrollment retention, referrals, and reviews at the highest level ever.
Carbone, G. (2021, May 25). Three Ways to Improve Family Retention at Your Childcare Center. juliewassom.com
ChildcareCRM. (2020). Building Blocks for Success: Benchmark Report.
Pew Research with Child Care Aware of America and Child Care Works. (2018). The Millennial Generation: How the Changing Economic Environment Impacts the Newest Parents.
Julie Wassom has helped thousands of owners and directors build significant enrollment in their early care and education programs. An internationally recognized expert on marketing child care services, Wassom is president of The Julian Group, Inc. and the author of “The Enrollment EXCELerator© Video Training System,” “Wassom’s 60-Second Enrollment Tips,” and a marketing blog. She can be reached at (303) 910-3083, firstname.lastname@example.org, or juliewassom.com.