Are You Keeping Up with the Times?

20160909_070921At my son’s preschool, there is a lovely modern fireplace in the lobby. In the winter months, it provides warmth and atmosphere. And in the warmer months, the stone hearth becomes a checkpoint for all manner of used goods free for the taking – old CDs, books, baking pans, VHS tapes, and so forth.

A few weeks back, Nicholas discovered a vintage cake-decorating catalog in the pile – the 1989 Wilton “Cake Decorating!” Yearbook – and eagerly appropriated it as his own. He largely forgot about it by the time we got home, but I found it hard to put down.

In addition to being all about one of my very favorite subjects (food), it was like leafing through a time capsule from my own childhood. Cast your mind back, if you will, to a time when an ALF cake – featured on the bottom portion of the cover – was the pinnacle of party fun.

As I was paging through the catalog, it became clear that the company that issued it, Wilton, was a big deal in the cake decorating world. They even offered in-person cake-decorating classes at their headquarters outside Chicago.

It all seemed so quaint, the idea of mailing in an actual paper order form for your cake toppers and decorating tips, with delivery guaranteed “within 10 working days after we receive your order.” They seemed like nice folks, the people at Wilton Enterprises, and I became concerned that they – like so many other businesses – might not have made a successful leap to the online world in the years since the publication of the 1989 yearbook.

Curious, I Googled them – and I needn’t have worried. The Wilton empire appears to be doing just fine, with a sophisticated website and Facebook fan page with over 1.5 million “likes.” Good for them.

I bring this all up not solely because I enjoy thinking about cake (which I do), but also because the Wilton experience over the years provides a valuable lesson for the rest of us.

I’ve heard it said that the railroads in this country made a fatal mistake, many decades ago, when they remained determined to think of themselves as being in the “rail” business rather than the “transportation” business – the latter would have enabled them to move seamlessly into the burgeoning airline industry.

Similarly, the photography giant Kodak clung to film long after the rest of the world was moving inexorably to digital, to its great detriment.

Child care is a timeless undertaking in many ways; the heart of it will always lie in the important relationships between child care professionals, parents, and the children themselves. But the trappings of your business – and the marketing of it – are evolving all the time.

You run the risk of being left behind if you keep doing what you’ve always done as the world moves on around you. Whether it’s offering online billing, or an app that allows parents to get updates and photos throughout the day, or deciding to meet parents where they already are (e.g., on Facebook), you need to stay current. If not, even if you run an extraordinary center, it will not stay successful over the long haul.

So get out of your comfort zone on a regular basis and keep trying new things. It’s the best way to stay afloat and thriving.

You can bet your ALF cake on it.

Click here for your free copy of our exclusive report, 64 Terrific Child Care Marketing Ideas.

How To Respond When Something Goes Wrong at Your Center

ambulanceEven at the most diligent, high-quality ECE programs, things go wrong: A child gets hurt. Someone is left out on the playground after the rest of the class goes inside. A young Houdini slips away through a hole in the fence to the outside world.

How you respond to these sorts of incidents can make or break your program – especially in this age of hyper-connected parents, online review sites, and instant social media blasts.

While every crisis is unique, here are some general guidelines that can help you successfully navigate the treacherous waters:

1. Apologize. Profusely, if warranted. Do it right and do it sincerely. Keep in mind that a good apology neither minimizes the problem (“Colby was only outside on his own for a few minutes!”) nor blames the victim (“We all know Amelia is a wily little monkey who can scale any fence”).

2. Focus, in a non-defensive way, on what you did right. “As soon as we realized Colby was missing, we brought in an extra teacher for coverage in the Chipmunk room so that his teachers could run back out to the playground and track him down.”

3. Explain the steps you have taken to prevent the problem happening again in the future. “We’ve now instituted a double-count system for each class when they come back from the playground – once when they all line up outside and once more after they’ve come back in.”

4. Apologize again. See above.

5. Don’t throw your teachers under the bus. The buck stops with you, the program owner or administrator, when it comes to the safety and well-being of the children at your school. Parents assume, quite reasonably, that this includes proper selection and training of your teaching staff.

If the mistake is such that teacher discipline or termination is warranted, by all means do that, but know that the final responsibility for what happened still rests with you.

6. Notify the school community. If the problem is the sort that will likely start making the gossip rounds (and, let’s be honest – unless it involves a pre-verbal child, the involved kid will undoubtedly rat everyone out anyway!), be proactive and issue an announcement to the school community explaining the facts of the situation, and the corrective steps, as noted above.

Even if it’s a small school and everyone knows the involved players, be careful not to mention the involved child(ren) or teacher(s) by name.

7. Respond as needed on social media. If you become aware that the incident is being discussed on social media – maybe on your school’s own Facebook page, or a parent’s – you cannot simply stick your head in the sand and hope it blows over.

It’s vital that you respond as soon as possible in a responsible, non-defensive, fact-based way. Encourage people with additional questions or concerns to contact you directly; do not get into a lot of lengthy exchanges on the social media platform itself.

And, once again, remember to maintain confidentiality (even if someone else is naming names right there on Facebook, don’t do it yourself).

8. Make yourself available. Don’t just say you’ll be available if people have additional questions or concerns. Do it. Maybe establish some additional office hours or (for big stuff) even consider giving out your home or cell phone number. Most people are not going to actually track you down, but your willingness to put yourself out there will count for a lot.

9. Consider calling a lawyer. Yes, I know – ugh. Nobody ever likes to get to this point. It’s scary and it can be expensive. But if the problem is very serious, the result of negligence (or, even worse, deliberate misconduct) on the part of a staff member, and/or if you have the sense that someone might file a lawsuit, it’s better to bite the bullet sooner rather than later to minimize the damage and plan your next steps. It’s also a good idea to meticulously document everything, from start to finish, as it happens.

We all, alas, make mistakes. How you respond to them will make a world of difference to your future trustworthiness and business success.

The bottom line is that you want to appear calm, honest, sincerely apologetic, and non-defensive – all while giving the situation the level of attention and concern it deserves.

Click here for your copy of our exclusive free report, 17 Secrets to Finding – and Keeping – Great Teachers.

From the Mailbag: Parents and Staff Socializing Off-Duty (and Online)

IMG_2322I love getting questions from readers! Here’s one I thought many of you would be interested in:

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on childcare workers giving out their personal cell phone numbers to parents and/or being friends with them on social media.

Great question. Looking at it from a strictly legal perspective (as a former attorney, I can’t help it), some states have laws prohibiting employers from restricting employees’ legal off-duty conduct.

Oftentimes these laws are used to protect the rights of smokers, for example, but employees’ off-duty interactions with the parents at your center would generally be protected as well – assuming your teacher and the parent in question aren’t getting together to, say, knock over a liquor store.

All kidding aside, thorough training and open lines of communication are almost always a better plan than outright bans.

Many child care employees are young, and you may well be hiring some of them into their very first job. They have literally grown up with social media (and cellphones) in a way we older folks have not. On the other hand, lots of people who are plenty old enough to know better when it comes to appropriate behavior and boundaries just, well, don’t.

Accordingly, it’s a good idea to train all your employees on the importance of professionalism, discretion, and appropriate behavior, both in and out of work.

Hypotheticals such as, “Imagine what a parent at our center would think if they saw this on a teacher’s Facebook page…” and “Here’s why it can be a bad idea to get too chummy with the parent of a child in your class…” can be eye-opening for staff. This training also reinforces that you, the employer, are on their side – you want them to succeed in their work and create an amazing experience for the families at your center.

Outright bans on social media friending and outside friendships/contact with parents tend to backfire because they set up an “us vs. them” mentality. They also tend to drive problems underground because an employee who violates a policy like this and then gets in over his or her head will be afraid to come talk to you about it. This is, of course, the last thing you want.

When you put your trust in your employees, they tend to rise to – or even surpass – your expectations, and that’s a wonderful thing. But you need to let go in order for this to happen.

Finally, it’s my firm belief that employees with hopelessly poor judgment will always have hopelessly poor judgment. Your good employees can (and should) be trained, but the ones who just don’t get it are always going to have to go eventually – policy or no policy.

Click here for a sample child care social media policy you can adapt for use at your center.

What Do You Want Them To Do?

call to action Depending on your background and personal quirks, the acronym “CTA” might bring to mind various things:

  • Chicago Transit Authority
  • Coffee To Abigail!
  • Computed Tomography Angiography
  • Commodity Trading Advisor
  • Chinchillas Taking Advantage

Today, however, I’m going to talk about CTA in the marketing context: Call To Action.

It’s a simple yet often-overlooked concept: A call to action simply refers to what you want the person on the other end of your marketing to do.

In those late-night infomercials, for example, the CTA is traditionally something along the lines of “Call now!” Or, more recently, “Order now at thighblaster2016.com!”

Are your CTAs clear, on your website and brochures and other child care marketing materials?

If not, it could be because you’re asking people to do too many things at once – or maybe you’re not asking them to do anything at all. It might be that you’ve never actually thought through what you want them to do.

In the child care context, your ideal CTA is probably one of the following:

  • Call to schedule a tour
  • Fill out an online form
  • Stop by to pick up a packet of information
  • Sign up for a specific event or special program

Child care, of course, is not generally something people will sign up for sight unseen – so “Enroll your child now in full-time care for the next three years – just click here!” is not a viable CTA.

But one of the above is – a first step to start people down the path to enrollment. Figure out what’s right for your program, and focus on just that one thing for now.

Remember, when it comes to CTAs, Clarity Trumps All.

Click here for your free copy of our exclusive report, 64 Terrific Child Care Marketing Ideas.

Are You Doing as Well in Google as You Think You Are?

keyboardYou may be pleased with how high your center is coming up in the Google rankings when you do a search – but are you getting a false sense of security?

Here are five common mistakes that many child care centers make in this area:

1. Searching by center name. Oftentimes, I’ll talk to a director who says her center always comes up at the top of the search results. But when I dig into how she’s been searching, it turns out she’s been typing the center’s name into the search engine.

Unfortunately, prospective parents aren’t searching for “Busy Kids Child Care Center” by name. They don’t yet know you exist – that’s why they’re online! Their searches probably look more like this:

– Child care in Springfield, MA
– Daycares near Monterey California
– Portsmouth NH preschool

Do you see the difference? Get inside the heads of your prospective parents and run the same type of searches they would – that’s the only way to get a real sense of how you’re doing in the search engine rankings.

Once those parents do know about your center, of course, they may well search for it by name to learn more (which is why having a good website is important), but that part of the process happens later.

2. Searching like a child care professional. If you, a child care professional, were looking for a child care center in your area – say, for your own child – you might search for something like “NAEYC center in Austin” or “high-quality early ed program.”

Most parents don’t think like this. They are going to be searching for “daycare” or “day care” or “preschool” near their home or work. They have probably never heard of “ECE” and have no idea what it means. Again, think like a parent. You can even ask parents at your center tours, if they found you online, if they remember what they searched for – their answers will probably surprise you.

3. Searching while logged in. If you’re logged into your Google account (Gmail, Google+, etc.) while you do your test searches on Google, your center may come up artificially high in your search rankings. That’s because Google knows the pages you’ve looked at in the past and tries to serve up what it thinks you’re looking for. So log out before you play prospective parent to get a truer picture of how your center is doing in the search engine rankings.

To be sure, look at the icons at the top right of your screen after you’ve run your search. If you have a Google account, you’ll see a little head-and-shoulders silhouette, a little earth, and a little gear icon. Click on the earth to “hide private results.” (And note that Google switches things up often, so this may change in the near future!)

4. Forgetting about geography. Those very clever search engines know where your computer is located, whether you’re logged in or not – so “daycares Portland” is going to give very different results if you and your computer are in the Pacific Northwest (Portland, OR) vs. New England (Portland, ME).

For the most accurate results, make sure you’re physically located near where your prospective parents are when you’re doing your test searches.

5. Not being proactive about getting on the Google map. If you have not yet officially listed your center with Google, do that now. It’s totally free, and it will help your web presence immensely. Again, Google changes things up a lot, but right now they’re calling the page Google My Business and it’s available here.

They still can’t tell me where I left my car keys, but I imagine that’s coming soon.

Click here for a sample child care social media policy you can adapt for use at your center.