Parents – ‘You’ve got to love them!’

colin lofthouse‘Why?’ I hear you cry.

Well I sympathise. I don’t think there will be a school leader in the land, who hasn’t been brought to the point of tears or past it by an intractable parental issue.

I was introduced to this aspect of school leadership as a new deputy when the Head Teacher was showing me the filing cabinets. We came to the fattest file in the rack. ‘And this…’ he said with a sigh, ‘is the Smith File.’

Mr Smith was a serial complainant (I’ve changed the name – substitute whichever name you have in your mind). No matter what the school had done to placate, communicate, pre-empt, issue after issue was raised. His name brought a range of reaction from office to the Head, ranging from eye rolling resignation to abject terror. The sad thing was that as I became involved in the situation it became clear that all Mr Smith wanted was the best deal for his child – exactly what the school itself also wanted. What also became clear was Mr Smith’s complete lack of emotional literacy and a chip the size of Gove’s Bible on his shoulder. I won’t go into details!

At best relationships with parents can be intensely motivating and rewarding for all school staff. When productive, open and honest communication results in excellent support, success in learning and a recognition at least (if not gratitude) that everyone is striving for the same goals.

At worst a breakdown in this relationship can lead to school staff and in particular leaders, feeling frustrated, unsupported, lonely and under attack. Parental problems can become all consuming, taking hours, days even weeks to resolve if issues go to Governors and worse beyond. Leaders take the brunt of this usually, we rightly try to insulate our staff against problems, step in and take on management of difficult parents. This can lead to a huge amount of stress and it takes its toll.

I recently came across a blog on a small business forum about the importance of good customer relations and it really stuck a chord.

‘While the customer may not always be right, the customer certainly deserves the right treatment. While profit may be the lifeblood of the company, customer service is the heart, and when customer care is poor, it is simply a matter of time before sales begin to drop and what could have been a successful, thriving business, starts to have develop cracks in the foundation and consequently crumbles.

Making a good first impression is important, but keeping that impression in place is even more important. People don’t always speak of the product which they’ve bought or service which they’ve made use of, but they will almost always speak about poor service which they’ve received. On the flip side, they are often quite likely to make mention of excellent service which they’ve received – the best form of free advertising!

So where do you start?

How easy is it for your customers to contact you?

If your clients were to have a question or complaint, how could they reach you? Are you available when they are available? This is not to say that you have to offer 24/7 connectivity and availability, but you need to consider very carefully what your customers expect and the type of support your competitors are offering.

Learn to really listen

Get to know your customer needs. Listen attentively to any suggestions or complaints, and while you may not want to admit fault (let’s face it, it isn’t always the seller who is at fault), you should always look into the matter. Always follow up. Never leave the client hanging and assume that because they haven’t approached you again, the problem has mysteriously disappeared.

Establish a customer service identity

No matter how small your business, it is wise to have a customer care policy. If this is established while a company is still in its infancy, by the time it has grown the customer service levels will have grown along with your business and be ingrained in your company’s culture. You may also find that this will influence your hiring decisions.

If it’s broken, fix it

If there is a legitimate problem with your product, fix it otherwise don’t sell it. Selling an inferior product or service may cause irreparable long term damage to your reputation. Loses can always be recouped, but a broken reputation can be extremely difficult and costly to fix.

Remember that no matter how elaborate your advertising campaigns, how flashy your packaging, the one thing your customer is going to remember is your interaction with them and whether you made them feel as though you value them…or if they’re simply another entry on a spreadsheet.’

Ben Lobel ‘The importance of good customer service.’ Smallbusiness.co.uk

I think there is a lot of learning in this for us. How many of us have a parental care policy? And how much time do we spend training our staff in good customer relations?

The thing is – and this is what sets us apart from most businesses – is that we are ‘selling’ a service – worse than that people have to buy us. It’s the law. Whether it’s from my school or yours down the road their child has to get their education from somewhere. This brings the relationship to a more critical level. It’s very difficult for a parent to change provider and buy somewhere else. So we have to try and get it right and deal with it when it goes wrong.

Good relationships with parents takes a lot of work – from everyone. It is impossible to get right without the right culture in your school. My parents can be challenging. Sometimes to the point where I catch myself thinking ‘I can’t deal with this right now I’m just going to shut the door. There. That’s better.’ DON’T DO IT.

On my arrival as Head in my current school I quickly became aware of a widespread breakdown in positive parental relationships. The Head told me about it, showed me the bulging filing cabinet, warned me. The staff told me about it – particularly the office staff. The parents told me about it. Worst of all the school culture showed me. Apart from carefully managed events the school was shut to parents. Communication was guarded and edgy which compounded the situation. I remember standing with staff on a Sunday night after spending 2 nights away on a residential trip helping 60 worn out but happy Year 6 find their waiting parents. We waved the last one off before realising we hadn’t had a single word of thanks from anyone.

So I did the obvious and easy thing for the new Head and flung the doors wide open. We had so much parental involvement that we began to get complaints that there was too much going on! It worked mind you. We got a huge amount of positive parent press and gradually the staff began to relax and see the benefits of excellent relationships. My deputy and I took on all of the ‘tricky ones’. We listened, mediated, changed policy, explained and stood by our non-negotiables and it got a whole lot better. It still is better… but it’s never easy and I would never claim to have all of the answers. Sadly, we have now got a ‘Parental Behaviour Policy’ and we still have a few fat ‘Smith files’ in the cabinet.

But there is another fat file – full of letters, emails and notes of praise and thanks – hard won I can tell you. But when the going gets tough we get that file out.

Oh and the last time we came back from a trip away, lots of grateful parents thanked my staff.

Finally, something to share. I came across this whilst searching for high quality advice on handling parents. It’s from Australia – the State of Victoria –  ‘Addressing Parents Concerns and Complaints Effectively – Policy and Guides’. It’s full of sensible concrete advice which we have used to good effect and I make sure all of my new staff read it.

Have a happy term!

Colin Lofthouse, Head Teacher at Rickleton Primary School in Washington

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