Failing at follow-up

A significant study of independent schools in the United Kingdom has revealed how more can be done to secure enrolments without additional expense.

Across the UK, a huge percentage of private schools is failing to retain the interest of prospective families for one simple and easily dealt with reason: neglecting the ‘follow-up’. Failing to follow-up on an enquiry or visit means that your school is bypassing a vital conversion window, during which prospective parents are most open to negotiation, and therefore more likely to be converted from a prospective parent into the parent of an enrolled student. Ignoring the prospect in this window could be perceived as a lack of interest and, more crucially, an indifference towards the individual needs of the parent or their child. So what is the follow-up rule, and where are you going wrong?

A range of independent schools across the United Kingdom commissioned research by customer experience specialists insight6 to assess their standards of customer service. Review samples from schools prior to the study showed there was a lack of aftercare for prospective parents, which may well have contributed to their disinclination to pursue enrolment with the schools.

Having received an initial enquiry, it is vital that the prospective parent be contacted shortly afterward to answer any questions and to lay the first stepping stones towards securing their enrolment. If a prospective parent is left to pursue the school of their own accord, you risk their interest waning or shifting towards other schools with better customer service structures in place; there is an abundance of competitors poised to take the initiative where you did not. A follow-up conversation is paramount to retaining your prospective parent’s attention, and should be thought of as part of the natural flow between handling a preliminary enquiry and enrolling a new student.

To ensure a successful school-parent courtship, the follow-up should be implemented in two stages: first, after a parent’s initial enquiry, and secondly, after their visit to the school. Results from the Customer Experience Reviews show that the treatment received during these stages was lacking in a variety of ways, but most significantly during the period immediately after an interaction. While schools often put effort into strengthening their front-of-house department to ensure preliminary enquiries are handled with professionalism, it is crucial to note that a high standard of customer service needs to extend beyond a cheerful greeting and a pleasant phone attitude, and into the follow-up phase.

A primary interaction with a prospective parent does not stop once the online or telephone enquiry has ended. The follow-up should be thought of as a vital additional step to this interaction. By implementing a set waiting period of three to five days, after which follow-up contact will be made if the prospective parent has not gotten back in touch, your school will stand out from the others, and increase your prospects of gaining a parent’s trust.

According to the sample insight6 looked at, only 41 percent of prospective parents received a follow-up call after their initial phone conversation. This means that over half (59 percent) of those who made an enquiry were not pursued by the school, despite indications that they may have wanted to book a visit or learn more about what the school had to offer. Without a clear indication that their custom is wanted, prospective parents may feel that their child is not being given precedence, which can be a deterrent from further attempts to form a relationship with the school.

In the initial stages of forming a relationship with your prospective parent, it is of the utmost importance they be made to feel as though their needs are being prioritised. A follow-up phone call to provide updates, and to remind the family of the school’s assets, is a small but enormously effective tool in eliminating any doubts about their importance to you.

Whilst it may seem obvious, an often neglected but important step to remember when dealing with any new prospective family, is to ensure their contact information is collected. According to our sample, less than half of all prospects had their details taken at the first point of contact. Not only does this lack of foresight immediately cancel out any chance of follow-up, the message sent to prospective families is one of unprofessionalism and disinterest. The significance of making a record of even a small enquiry cannot be overlooked, as the follow-up that will stem from this record could be key.

Another step is, where possible, to set an appropriate time for the follow-up call with the prospective family. This way they immediately know they are being taken seriously, and that their child’s potential enrolment is important enough to the school to be pursued at a later date.

Your school is in its most advantageous position to convince a parent to enrol their child just after a tour of the school has been given. School tours are proven to be an effective way of attracting enrolment applications.

This is why it is vital to ensure follow-up takes place in the small window of time between the visit ending and the prospect having the chance to explore alternatives. Your staff will have worked hard to create a vibrant impression of your offering on the tour, but the longer the follow-up is left, the duller the impression of the visit becomes in your prospect’s mind.

Establishing a clear time and date for a follow-up call with your prospective family is a simple but extremely effective tool to prevent this from happening. Just by reaching out to remind them of your interest in them and to thank them for their visit, you could distinguish yourself as a more personalised, caring school than your competitors.

Finally, the follow-up call itself should be representative of the high standards set by your school; your staff should understand the goal of the conversation — whether this is to answer any previous queries, to provide further information, or to schedule a visit to the school. Data from the insight6 sample shows that in only 33 percent of cases did the school follow-up with the prospect within that ideal three to five day window. Moreover, none of our researchers reported any enthusiasm whatsoever from the staff member they were speaking with in the follow-up call, and no indication that the school had been doing anything to answer their questions.

A school’s reputation for professionalism is at risk in these small errors — as, for example, in not knowing the prospective parent’s name or being unable to recall previous conversations — and, in this period, when they are still forming their opinion of the school, you cannot afford oversights. The prospective parent is the priority and needs to be treated as such by all of your team, including those who handle the customer service department. Your staff should be aware that professional conduct extends to every possible outcome of an enquiry, even if that is an eventual decision to abandon the pursuit if it is not right for them. In this context, your enrolment team is the voice of your school, and represents the way you handle all matters, including disappointment. Leaving a negative impression here is undoubtedly a reputational risk, which is easily avoided through appropriate staff training and guidance.

The follow-up is an easily implemented, inexpensive and incredibly effective tool that deserves to be front and centre of your enrolment processes.

Insight applied

  • Fewer than half the schools researched followed up an enrolment enquiry.
  • Follow-up calls should ideally occur three to five days after an enquiry.
  • Only one third of schools made follow-up contact in this ideal window.
  • Follow-ups are easily implemented, inexpensive and incredibly effective.

Jonathan Winchester is the Chief Executive Officer of insight6, a UK-based firm of customer experience specialists. The firm has conducted over 280,000 first-hand research visits to clients in the United Kingdom and Australia. 

SMJ Jonathan Winchester

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