There is something to be said about “experience.” People seek out experienced professionals if they’re in need of advice, a diagnosis, or guidance. The more experience a person has, it’s assumed the more learned the person is. Indeed, life experiences as well as educational experiences help to shape a person along their journey through life. A number of years ago, Old Spice had a commercial which, at first viewing, makes you think the spokesperson is speaking about money, when he’s actually speaking about experience.

And that’s the other important definition of “experience” today – it is the event itself in which a person participates…”the” experience, if you will. When we talk about marketing our schools, much of our attention is focused on enrolling new students – capturing parents with a captivating, modern, and responsive Web site, giving them a personal tour through our schools, connecting them with other parents, alumni or parishioners who can provide a testimonial to convince them that our school is the correct educational environment for their children.

But what about the students already enrolled in the school? What about those parents who have contributed time, talent and treasure year after year? It’s usually just assumed that once they’re in, they’re going to stay. I still remember the phone call I received several years ago from a principal who was excited because ten new students were enrolling in their school in addition to their Kindergarten class. I asked, “How many parents have indicated they’re leaving? “Eight” was the reply. Ten minus eight equals two. It’s not ten.

David Mastovich, president of MASsolutions, a Pittsburgh-based marketing and public relations company, has presented the idea that the major factor which drives customer satisfaction is “the experience.”  Here’s an example –

Gas station owners have lamented the fact that the small “mom and pop” operations are disappearing, and the convenience store model is driving them out of business. Although research might prove this, I would posit that the reason these stores are doing well is not because they offer lunch items or higher-than-grocery-store priced food and household items, but that their gas pumps are covered by a canopy. Gas stations have done away with full-service attendants, forcing us to get out of our car to pump our own gas. Many of the “mom and pop” gas stations that have gone away never bothered to provide a better experience for their customers. I would much rather get out of my car at a place where I’m not going to be drenched while I hold a freezing-cold gas pump handle during a downpour. The Sheetz and WaWa’s “get it” – it’s the experience.

The industry that doesn’t get it is the fast food – pardon me – casual dining – restaurants that have drive-thrus. Besides the fact that they are teaching our youngsters (and oldsters) to spell “through” incorrectly, many of their drive-thrus don’t have overhangs over their pickup windows….meaning you get soaked when you play “pass the bag” through the window. Some restaurants have realized this, and have installed covers over their pickup (since you’re really not driving “thru” anything) windows…but the menu and order board is out in open, which means you’re going to get wet or get snow in your car as you roll down the car window to place your order.

Due to the pandemic, however, some of their “experiential” changes began to be made.  A certain restaurant that specialized in chicken sandwiches now has TWO “Stay in your car and order” lanes, while some historically 24-hour sit-down restaurants are now only open for breakfast and lunch due to the inability to find workers.  Of course, food delivery services have transformed the way society brings food to the home, meal preparation kits can be ordered and shipped directly to one’s front door, and grocery store orders can be submitted on one’s computer or mobile device and picked up without having to enter the store.

When circumstances dictate, the market will seek out more convenient experiences that it will gladly pay for.

What does this have to do with tuition-charging Catholic, Christian, or other faith-based schools? My experience in radio has taught me that one of the first tenets of building audience is to keep the audience you already have. Marketing certainly leads to enrollment, but marketing of a different kind is necessary to have current parents become returning parents. Parent satisfaction surveys are primarily used to identify items that will lead to more enrollments, but why not ask current parents just two questions: 1) On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most positive, how satisfied are you with your experience at (NAME OF SCHOOL)? 2) If the answer to question 1 is less than 10, in 50 words or less, describe what you think needs to be done to change your answer to 10.

Then, be prepared. Remember, 50 words or less. If they send you a tome, read the first 50 words. Usually, the main thought will be the first thing mentioned, and the rest will be elaboration or rant. Be sure to analyze the data that you receive, and be ready to act on what needs to be done. Perhaps you allow the children to eat outside on a nice day, but that raises security concerns with parents. How about picnic tables for the cafeteria then? Perhaps your science books are older than your first graders, and weigh more than the rest of their books put together. Is it time to write a grant to purchase some computer-based text materials? Are your children engaged in the classroom? During your observations, do you see them engaged in activities to support their learning, or are their heads being supported by their hands as the teacher drones on for twenty minutes about the importance of memorizing the times tables? Are parents that are referred to as “helicopter” parents seen as a resource or a hindrance? Or, are they “snowplow” parents who want to clear all the obstacles out of the way for their children, rather than allowing them to learn by their mistakes because they’re afraid it will damage their child’s self-image?  How do you think that will affect the possibility of that parent returning? Are some parents cognizant of the fact that other parents always seem to be receiving preferential treatment, especially when it comes to the responsibility of paying tuition? What does that teach them about “social justice?”

John Keats once said, “Nothing is real unless it is experienced.” Our faith supports that claim, since for us to want to grow closer to God, we must have a personal experience of God in our lives. It would be good to recall the words of another famous poet, Jimi Hendrix, who asked, “Are you experienced?”

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2007-2022 (original publication date: 20071210; updated 20171211; updated 20221212)