The Market: How Customer Service Can Benefit Enrollment and More

For too long, “customer service” has been considered a dirty phrase in independent schools. Perhaps it’s because embracing the phrase, like other language from the corporate world, makes it feel as though we are elevating the transactional aspects of the enterprise over the heart of it. In our schools, we work hard every day to be caring communities where we know and love each student and prepare these young people for lives of purpose. We don’t necessarily think of our students and families as “customers,” and focusing on serving customers may feel inconsistent, or even antithetical, to our core values—as if we’re sacrificing mission for admission.
But this kind of thinking misses a crucial point. Customer service in the early days of a family’s relationship with the school—interactions that make families feel heard, known, and cared for throughout the admission process—is not a marketing tactic. It’s a preview of the school’s commitment to caring for children once they join our communities. It is a promise that we will deliver on the central tenets of our missions.
As many families new to independent schools who enrolled during the COVID-19 pandemic saw, customer service can be a school’s primary differentiator when compared to other options in the market. Now that in-person open houses are coming back, it’s more important than ever to show the collaboration among the admission and advancement teams, the head of school, and the whole community from the first touchpoint. As tuition rates continue to rise, birth rates slow, and millennial parents become part of the independent school community, customer service is the key to demonstrating a commitment to our value propositions and communicating them through actions to our prospective families.

A Case Study in Customer Service

At Boston University Academy (MA), we’ve built a culture of personalized, concierge-style customer service in our admission process. Initially, it was an admission goal––increase application numbers and yield––that spurred our focus on customer service. We’ve seen an 80% increase in applications over the past five years, and our yield has shifted almost 20% in the past few years. We’ve also been able to be more selective in the admission process, given the increase in applications.
As our application and enrollment numbers have grown––due in part to marketing strategy, relationship-building, greater visibility in our market, and our connection to Boston University––we have not wavered from our commitment to making prospective families feel known and cared for from the very first point of inquiry. As we continue to grow as a school, we think about the “family experience” even more. It has increasingly become a strategy to demonstrate our school’s value proposition. Instead of telling families that we are tight-knit and caring, we show them. These practices and strategies guide our work:
Prospective Families
  • Remember people’s names and small facts about them. Weaving personal information into your conversations is powerful and shows families that we care. During and after interactions with prospective families, we jot down notes about where we met (i.e.: at a certain school fair), concerns they shared about the commute to school, certain club offerings they asked about, and so on. The admission team then shares these notes in a shared document after campus tours, interviews, and other interactions, to document important information, identifiers, and use in follow-up communications for each family.
  • Respond promptly with genuine care. We believe a quick response to an inquiry or a follow-up after meeting demonstrates the type of service families can expect to receive from our school if they become part of the community. In an increasingly busy world, this kind of response gives families the feeling that you’ll be there for them.
  • Get your community on board. Our head of school greets every family who comes to campus for a tour. Families often assume that heads are out of reach, but this small connection illustrates that ours is not. Our teachers offer master classes––an option for prospective families to learn more about different aspects of our academic program––in which they demonstrate their area of expertise. For example, an English instructor may teach a lesson they previously taught in a ninth grade class or design a new lesson that would be appropriate for eighth graders who are interested in BUA and curious to see our teachers in action. Following the lessons, the teachers follow up via email with prospective students and parents in attendance who reach out with questions or demonstrate a notable interest.
Current Families
  • Communicate in a consistent and transparent manner. In the summer and early fall of new families’ first year, our head of school meets with them; there’s no agenda other than to get to know them and create a relationship. Throughout the pandemic, this has been a 30-minute Zoom call with all new parents, and moving forward, we’ll likely offer Zoom and in-person options. Zoom allows us to offer sessions in the evenings to ensure all parents can select times that work for them, which is an important equity piece for us.
  • Send unexpected notes to highlight student work. Outside of traditional commenting periods, teachers and advisers often share with parents via email vignettes about something special a student did that day. It mirrors the experience families have during the admission process and makes them feel known and cared for––their child is being recognized and looked after by their advisers and teachers.
  • Send personal messages related to families’ interests. If a family is very interested in our DEI initiatives, for example, send them a personal message—outside of any broad invites—to highlight that they might be interested. This reminds families that we remember things about them and also continues to foster the open lines of communication and a warm community feel where everyone is known and cared for.
Other nonprofits and for-profit organizations have been quick to embrace the idea of customer service, and if independent schools do not meet the need for this mentality, we risk decreased enrollment and losing families. “If we want [families] to tell our story,” Aaron Cooper, now head of school at Elisabeth Morrow School (NJ), wrote in a 2017 Independent School magazine article, “we need to understand how they think and what motivates them, earn their trust and reward their loyalty, and, most of all, work hard to create an authentic emotional attachment for them.”
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Nastaran Hakimi

Nastaran Hakimi is director of enrollment management and institutional advancement at Boston University Academy in Boston, Massachusetts.