School survival and growth depend on a constant flow of students so you need to attract new families every year. But you must also nurture those you have as they can become your best advocates. Moving people up the loyalty ladder is an essential aspect of your school's marketing plan.
Think of your school as a ladder with four rungs of people: Prospects, Clients, Supporters and Advocates. Every one of your customers has a position on the ladder which is determined by how much they know about you and how long they have been at the school. Your objective should be to move everybody from one level up to a higher level. But each rung of the ladder requires a different marketing technique.
Prospect families represent a large universe of potential customers. They may only have a dim familiarity with your school or they may not have heard of you at all, but for one reason or another, they are in the market for a school. How can you turn this prospects into a client?
Firstly you have to reach them and let them know that you exist. You have to sell your school by promoting what you can do for them. There are three key strategies:
´ Know the characteristics of your customers - their location, age, ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic status. Once you know this you have a target audience for your message.
´ Promote your school through advertising, press coverage, bold signage and word of mouth and reach your target audience in order to plant the name of your school on their list and guide their step onto the first rung.
´ Be prepared for them. Once a prospect shows the smallest interest you must be ready to draw them in by offering a closer look at the school such as an invitation to visit, a prospectus or an open day.
The first impression is all important. Having heard and read about the school, the customer wants to confirm that your school is right for them. First point-of-contact is usually by phone so make sure your front-line staff are up to the job. Many a tenuous thread has been broken at this point.
The client is someone who is using your service, however education is a long-term investment and the end product takes years to realise, so along the way clients must see value for their time and money. Positive feedback will foster loyalty in your client.
The greatest threat at this stage is that the school will take their clients for granted. A client who doesn't feel welcome can easily be tempted to go elsewhere. Generally a dissatisfied parent will not complain. More likely they will move away to another school, taking with them poor word-of-mouth.
The key strategies here are:
´ Develop a satisfying relationship with your clients. No parent should enter a school without a nod and a smile at the very least. Use the school newsletter to keep people informed about issues of educational significance. If staff attend a conference inform parents of the educational issues discussed and the implications for their child. If the politicians make a decree analyse it in terms of your school and tell parents in non- jargon language what it means to them. Maintain a regular and meaningful flow of communication and add value to your educational service.
´ Seek complaints. Studies show that people become more loyal after you have solved a problem for them.
Supporters are customers who keep coming back year after year because they believe in your ability to consistently meet their needs and solve their problems. Most of all they value the relationships they have developed with you. They recommend the school everywhere they go and they are emphatic allies using word-of-mouth in your favour.
To move supporters up the ladder try the following strategy:
´ Treat them as close friends. Get them involved with the school to help on projects. Ask them personally to act as a focus or trial group for new ideas. Ask them for their advice. Individuals may represent the school by escorting students to special events. Such things strengthen and develop two-way relationships by building trust and sharing information.
Advocates are your best promoters who go forth and champion your cause. They strongly believe in what the school is doing and the quality of the product. Their goodwill is worth gold and their recommendations reach into places and attract prospects that you would never even think of.
Advocates have reached as far as they can go on the loyalty ladder so what you now need are strategies for maintaining your strong relationship.
´ The key with this group is to pay attention to them. You need to nurture your relationship with them on a continuing basis. Information and involvement are the strategies here.
´ Your former students and their parents can sit comfortably on this rung if you maintain a relationship with them. If you have them on your mailing list you can send your regular gazette, invitations to special functions and reunions, or an occasional dinner with the principal/board members. It's important to keep telling them that you remember and value them. Ask them to come back and talk about their careers or provide work experience for present students. Some may be suited as tutors for gifted and talented students.
It takes constant effort to keep moving your customers upwards. The two main reasons why a rung on the ladder will stay stagnant are neglect, simply failing to nurture, and ignorance, failure to recognise that the rungs of the ladder exist.
Linda Vining is the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools. She conducts a series of school seminars on Marketing The Modern School. Phone (02) 9683 6725.
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