Lou Holtz, the famous coach of the Notre Dame football team, had a three-point strategy for success for his players. 1) Show up; 2) Show up on time; 3) Show up on time with your game face on.

L. J. Hancock, the nationally-known director of the award-winning Norwin High School Band, had another famous phrase that can be added to Coach Holtz’s points – “If you’re on time, you’re late.”  Hancock’s perspicacious insight predates that of Stan Phelps, “Experience Architect,” marketing expert and author of the “Purple Goldfish” series of books, who states, “There is no such thing as being on time. No one is ever exactly on time. You either are early or you are late,” by about 30 years.

When you think about it, it makes sense. If you show up just in time for the big game to start, there is no time for the preparation necessary to focus attention on what is about to take place.

And, as believers, that’s something to think about when we go to Mass, Sunday services, Temple or Mosque.

As school administrators, it’s something we expect of teachers. Preparation is necessary for good pedagogy, but prep time is also necessary so that teachers are ready to face their students, and administrators are ready to face whatever comes their way.

As one prepares, however, there seems to be one piece of technology that is difficult to ignore – the telephone. We can let mail stack up; we can let eMails collect; but when the phone rings – even if we’re in a very important meeting or preparation session, our Pavlovian instincts cause use to choose “answer” rather than “ignore” whenever we hear “the bell.”

Think about it – we have the technology to allow an automated system to answer our phone calls. Yet, even though we may be having a face to face conversation, if the phone rings, and we choose to ignore it, the person we’re speaking with (the most important person in the conversation at the time) says, “Aren’t you going to get that?”

And do we? If we do, what does that say about the person we’ve been having a discussion with? It says, “This phone call is more important than you are,” and in no way builds the esteem of the person who is present to us at that moment.

But perhaps we answer the phone because we don’t like what our “away” message says. Many that I’ve heard go like this: “I’m sorry I can’t take you’re call right now.  I’m either on the phone or away from my desk….” which simply says to the caller, “Even though I’m not here to take your call, let me tell you where I am.”

That phrase put the focus on self rather than the caller – and that’s not a way to build a relationship.

Further, the message goes on to say “but your call is very important to me.”  Unfortunately, the inference is, “Well, if it was important to you, you’d be answering the call rather than letting it go to voice mail.”

Truth be told, callers really don’t care where you are – all they know is that they are not going to talk to you…they’re going to talk to “a machine” or “technology.”   That means they must organize their thoughts into a coherent message rather than just beginning a conversation with someone.

For schools, this is especially important when you consider that most of your callers are either parents or prospective parents. The way they’re handled will influence how they come to view your school if they are a prospective parent, or experience your school if they are a current parent.

It is for this reason that the main office number should always be answered by a human voice. If there’s “too much going on” at the front desk for one person to handle, then have someone at the phone while another person handles people at the desk.

While a significant amount of emphasis is placed today on the accessibility of your school’s Web site, there are three things that play a major role in forming an image of your your school in the mind of a parent, business partner or donor even before they visit your school.  Those three things are:

  • Your school’s Web site,
  • The word-of-mouth recommendation of those familiar (or even those unfamiliar) with your school, and
  • How the phone is answered.

As for your “Out of Office” message, here are three things to remember:

First: For your “away” message, simplicity works well – “Forgive us for not taking your call right now, but please leave your name and number and we will contact you as soon as we are able” can work wonders for your school, and translating it to first-person singular can work for your cell phone AND provide a consistent message between your school’s “voice” and your “voice.” Again, notice I did not include, “But your call is very important to us,” as it’s quite possibly the phrase that destroys a relationship before it’s even built. While you might think it’s courteous, the caller infers that something else is more important than they are.

Second: Include an option for an alternate means of contact, such as, “If your call is of an urgent nature and you’re calling from a cell phone, please send a text to this number.” Of course, this applies only if the number they’re calling is a not a cell phone number. You can also use an alternative phone number from a messaging service so that calls to particular individuals can be forwarded to individuals that own the processes of admissions/enrollment and fund development.  This way, you’re not using the voice messaging system at the school, but forwarding calls to a cellphone for immediate response capabilities.

Third: Always thank the person for calling in your message, and a little creativity will make for something to talk about when you return the call. Since you have the caller’s undivided attention, be sure to include something exciting about what’s happening at your school too.  Now your Out Of Office message has become a marketing tool for your school!

Always be marketing.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2007-2022 (Original Publication Date: 20070909)