Dealing with your customers is like playing a deadly serious game of snakes and ladders. Your winning move is to turn your parents into strong school advocates. A few good strategic moves will take a family up the customer loyalty ladder. A few bad moves can send your parents snaking down the slippery slope of customer dissatisfaction.
There are four rungs on the customer loyalty ladder: Prospects, Clients, Supporters, and Advocates. The marketing objective of customer focussed schools is to move each family from one level on the ladder to a higher level, but each rung of the ladder calls for a different game strategy.
You start the game of snakes and ladders by promoting your school to your prospects with the aid of advertising, outreach material, positive word of mouth and open days. This will plant the name of your school in their mind and guide them onto the first rung of the ladder.
Your exisiting clients are looking for good results and student welfare so winning moves here include regular positive feedback and plenty of parent involvement to affirm their expectations.
Supporters keep coming back year after year because they like you. They are allies using word-of-mouth comment in your favour. Winning moves will strengthen your relationships through regular quality communication.
Advocates go forth and champion your cause. Your school is a real winner if you have a strong body of advocates.
The slippery slope of dissatisfaction
While it takes constant effort to lift people up the loyalty ladder, gravity is always exerting its powerful force to pull customers off the ladder and precipitate their slide down the slippery slope of dissatisfaction.
Unfortunately, it is a feature of human nature that people are more easily disenfranchised than satisfied. Often a little thing can trigger a tumble; an unkept promise, a matter neglected or an aggressive response. A small slip may be corrected, but if the next few school moves are careless, the customer can start sliding badly. The further down the slope your customer slips the harder it is to retrieve a winning position.
When a school fails to live up to the expectations of its customers, a family can lose its grip, no matter which rung of the ladder it is on. There are different stages on the downhill slope.
Disappointed customers are at a standstill on the loyalty ladder. They have one foot on the slide. They will often discuss their feelings with others to judge if their expectations are reasonable. The position can be retrieved by the school if it is aware of the slip, but it is a threatening position for the school because disappointed customers transmit their negative feelings to others.
Dissatisfied customers have jumped off the loyalty ladder. They are vocal that the school has failed them. They may canvass opinions from other parents and form pressure groups. If change does not result and their needs are not satisfied they may go over to your competitors.
Bitter customers have usually stuck with the school to the point of total disillusionment. It may be easier, cheaper or more practical for them to tolerate the present situation than move. But the whole process leads to an unhappy experience. Every conversation is peppered with negative comments which can be contagious and can start others on the slope. The venom flows at the slightest provocation, even years after the association with the school has ceased.
The most dangerous falls from the ladder are the ones who loved you most; the ones nearest to the top of the ladder. They are the ones with the highest expectations and the deepest experiences. They know your strengths and your vulnerability. They speak with the greatest passion about you - for good or for evil. If their ideals are dashed they can go to great lengths to seek revenge and set out to hurt you - by litigation, negative word-of-mouth or by talking to the media. However, not all falls are as steep and dangerous as this. In fact many can be arrested if the school takes the time to formulate a rescue plan.
The rescue plan
Customers with complaints present opportunities to strengthen your relationship with them . If the complaint is well handled you can actually turn a negative into a positive and move a customer up the loyalty ladder. Getting your customers to talk to you instead of talking to others is the key.
When a family does lose its footing, act quickly. Don't bury your head in the sand and hope the problem will go away. Enter sliding situations with a win-win determination.
There are times when a relationship deteriorates beyond rescue. You need to recognise the incessant sliders and cut out of the game as soon as possible, salvaging as much good will as you can in order to stabilise the situation.
In customer service there's an the old adage that the customer is always right. In fact the customer is very often wrong but in the game of customer snakes and ladders what really matters is what your customers think of you and your school as they walk away from your office.
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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