by Greg Bamford, Senior Partner
COVID-19 has disrupted many parts of school life, but one thing remains constant: it’s still easier to keep a customer than to find a new one.
I know, I know: you deserve to have a moment to exhale. But you also probably know you don’t have the luxury of time.
When I first became a Head of School, I was surprised by this. I hadn’t worked closely with admissions, and I naively thought I had a year to nudge the student experience in the right direction. But re-enrollment contracts usually go out by January, which means families are starting conversations about whether or not they’ll come back in the fall. Impressions are forming even earlier.
This was true before COVID. But enrollment leaders today face a newer dynamic: though we all hope re-enrolling for 2021-2022 means signing up for a post-COVID, on-campus experience next fall, the decision to re-enroll for 2021-2022 is shaped by the experiences families have with the atypical experience you’re offering this fall.
I. Enrollment Dynamics During COVID-19
So, how is this year’s experience coming across to your families and students? Is it building comfort and confidence - or is it eroding your brand? Even with all the great planning you did over the summer, it’s uncertain: there’s not a lot of established best practice to rely on.
If a family enrolled this year despite COVID, meaning they really wanted what you offered before March 2020, will they be satisfied with what you deliver? Or will they miss what they thought they were getting?
If a family enrolled this year because of COVID, i.e. to avoid a less-than-optimal experience with your competitors, will they like what they find at your school? When COVID is over, will they have a sense of loyalty and connection -- or will they return to the (probably less expensive) school they came from?
Do you understand these dynamics at your school -- not what families needed and experienced before COVID, but what they need and experience now?
II. Understanding Customer Experience Design (and its Applications Right Now)
Maximizing retention in 2021 means committing to customer experience (CX) design in 2020. What is customer experience design? In the words of frog design (a design consultancy that does not capitalize its name), it is “the sum of all interactions a customer has with a brand over time.”
What is customer experience? Think of a company that you love. Then think of the moments you’ve interacted with them.
Maybe it’s a small business -- say, an independent bookstore. Some key interactions might be:
Maybe it’s a big business -- like Amazon. Some key interactions might be:
Customer experience design is about understanding and mapping these interactions, because each of those interactions will either deepen or erode your loyalty with an organization. Experiencing these interactions consistently creates a sense of brand that is comforting and reliable in a time of disruption and change.
Customer experience design can lead us to a deeper understanding of “brand” than we often use in schools, where educators sometimes reduce it to a logo, website, and marketing collateral. A better framing of brand is offered by Seth Godin, who defines it as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer's decision to choose one product or service over another.” [Click here for more of his definition of brand.]
Let’s transfer this to independent school enrollment. In a “normal” year, what are the major interactions families have with your school?
Some of these interactions happen by design, meaning they’re an intentional component of your school’s customer experience journey:
But some of them are unintentional, meaning they’re not a designed component of your customer experience journey:
Even though this second list of interactions is informal, they may have a bigger impact on perception of quality at your school. For this reason, customer experience design has implications beyond the work of the admissions or advancement offices. It’s about understanding your program through the prism of a parent or caregiver. For this reason, schools focused on customer experience design should find ways to involve program leaders in the discovery process, so that they have an immediate understanding of the journey they’re shaping for families.
I co-wrote a blog article on this topic for NAIS several years ago, based on work we did when I was Head of School at Watershed School in Colorado. At the time, Watershed didn’t have much money, and we weren’t going to outsource a rebrand to a marketing agency. What we could do -- and did -- was to deeply explore the experience of our families, and optimize their experience at every turn we could impact. Our brilliant Director of Admissions, Mishel Gantz, got a new title, Chief Experience Officer (or CXO), with a broader range of responsibilities. Those tools remain relevant.
But now that the traditional family journey has been disrupted at your school, old interactions have disappeared or changed. New interactions are creating new impressions, for better or worse:
So what is the new customer journey through your school? Do they see your program as high-quality? Do they feel a sense of belonging? Are their new needs being met, or are you still designing your program for old needs?
These insights are critical to retention. But how do you get those insights?
III. How To Design for Retention
You’re probably ready to move beyond theory. What should you do?
1. Assemble a retention design team at your school
Schools beginning to this work should consider three basic, possible team configurations:
Everyone is busy and exhausted, and the school year just started. For this reason, it may be hard to fathom pulling a group of people together for this work. People on the program side may need to be wooed a bit. But it’s much better for educators to be involved in the work early on, especially because it is likely to have implications for the programs they’re involved in.
Similarly, it is worth forming each of these configurations with equity and inclusion in mind. Inviting a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner onto the team can help ensure that an equity lens informs this work: different communities need different types of support, and they experience your schools in different ways. In a year when so many schools are voicing an increased commitment to antiracism, this is an initiative that can help put that stated commitment into practice.
To justify the hours you’re asking people to put in, it’s worth remembering that the benefit is larger than making a plan for next fall: it’s building a relentless focus on customer experience throughout your organization.
In other words, this is an investment that pays long-term dividends.
2. Understand family lives under COVID-19
Our students’ and families’ lives are shifting rapidly, creating new opportunities and new demands. More caregivers are working from home. They may have less support from their social networks. They may be feeling overwhelmed and isolated.
The questions that help you unearth customer experience are not the kind of satisfaction questions we’re used to asking, which limit you to the possible solutions that a customer has already imagined. This can create some initial resistance in your research, because those are also the kind of questions customers have been trained to answer.
What you should be asking are story-collecting questions: questions that collect the details of lived experience, and can offer the path to possible solutions the customer hasn’t yet imagined.
My colleagues Carla Silver and Erin Cohn wrote an excellent article on the kind of ethnographic research that helps you understand the lived experience of your customer. While it was written pre-COVID, it’s newly relevant now.
From a DEI perspective, it is critical that you engage with the full breadth of your community, not just the parents who are already highly vocal and engaged. What are the lived experiences of single parents in your community right now? What about essential workers, who don’t have the option of working from home? What is the journey of students on financial aid, or BIPOC families who may be navigating a predominantly white institution?
This is the stage of the process to ensure you’re collecting a wide range of experiences, and centering the experiences of families who are often marginalized in independent school communities as you plan for where your school goes next.
3. Map the customer’s journey through the year.
If every interaction is an opportunity to build loyalty and engagement, then you need to identify those interactions. Once you’ve done so, a customer journey map is a way to place those interactions in time, tracing the emotional arc of the experience in parallel.
This visualization exposes different opportunities:
IDEO’s Design Kit has put together some great pointers for putting together a simple version of a journey map. More elaborate versions can be developed with a designer or the use of free cloud-based software.
4. Prototype new or improved interactions.
Prototyping is building to think, and at Leadership+Design, it’s a critical tool in the toolkit for creative leadership.
Building a prototype can help you visualize what it might look like. A storyboard is one quick, low-resolution prototype that makes a lot of sense when working with experience design. You can’t create a new interaction if you can’t imagine how it might unfold.
Creating a culture of prototyping is a way of creating an agile team culture. But don’t stop with the prototype: leverage it as an opportunity to get better at giving and receiving feedback. We like the “I Like, I Wish, What If” protocol as a really simple way to give better feedback on first prototypes.
IV. Getting Started
Schools can do this work themselves, and I hope this article provides some fuel for those efforts. One next step is to share this article with your team and begin a conversation: what do we know about the family journey at our school this fall? What do we need to know more about? How could we start this work?
Another route is to find someone to help you. Consultants exist for a reason: we provide an outside perspective and the expertise that comes from having done this work several times; we create process, deadlines, and accountability for a project that otherwise might get moved to the side; we take on some of the work, reducing the burden so that the project actually gets done.
With that in mind, Leadership + Design is launching a service to help schools tackle these issues: Design for Retention.
In Design for Retention, we will research customer experiences and use that insight to create journey maps that help us understand the new touchpoints that create moments of customer pain or delight, ultimately shaping their perceptions of school quality and value -- and driving them to re-enroll, or not, in fall 2021.
We’ve set it up as five facilitated, two-hour team meetings:
Participating schools will gain clear insight into the customer journey this fall and prototype new touchpoints to improve the customer experience in their school before re-enrollment decisions are solidified.
Just as important, this is a transformative experience that will bring teams together and cultivate a more customer-focused mindset for their work.
Whether you tackle this work solo or work with a partner, what matters is that you begin.
Learn More About Design for Retention Here