Bucket Filling: A Retention Strategy
By Rebecca Malotke-Meslin
Most of the conversation around retention is about how to prevent people from leaving. What if we talked about retention in a more positive way? What if we focused on communicating the value of an independent school education, and the value of creating connections? Rarely is it ONE event that causes a family to pack their bags. It is a long process that involves a lot of players and many interactions. Considering the opportunities to create connections and communicate value can help you shape an effective retention plan.
Previously, we thought that if we all did our jobs—we were kind and informative to parents during the admission process, teachers were meeting students’ needs and counselors and social workers provided great support—that families would see how wonderful we were and continue to re-enroll. Yet, our families are demanding more than that. They want to hear, read and see the outcomes. They want to feel the connection. We can no longer assume that that connection will happen naturally. Instead, we need to think strategically about intentional, not contrived, ways to communicate with families so retention becomes a natural process.
I’m not proposing that we change mission, programming, class placements or curriculum in order to make parents happy. What I propose is an audit and, if necessary, an overhaul of the way we communicate with families about their experience. If we don’t provide them with a narrative, they’ll create their own. Often, their narrative is a litany of reasons why spending an additional $25,000 per year on tuition isn’t justified.
With a dwindling birth rate, more competition in the marketplace, strong public school programs and rising tuition costs, families will look for ANY reason to forego paying independent school tuition. Therefore, we need to give them EVERY reason to stay.
To help reframe the conversation for our admission staff and everyone in our school, I have begun to use the philosophy and psychology within Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud. We use this book in kindergarten to teach students about relationships and emotions, but the ideas apply to people of all ages.
Imagine that each family carries around an imaginary bucket. Every interaction is a potential “bucket filler.” You fill someone’s bucket by doing something that makes them feel good about themselves, and in the process, you also fill your bucket. For example, a new family is moving to the area and doesn’t know anyone. You send a few emails connecting them with a realtor and a family who lives in the vicinity close to where they’re moving. That definitely fills their bucket with good feelings. Then over the summer, you check-in to see if they’re connecting with other families and if their child has had a chance to meet some current students at your school. Again, a bucket filler.
There will be times when a family feels we “dip” into their bucket. A “dip” is when someone says or does something to make you feel sad, frustrated or mad. For example, a student is struggling with the transition to a new school and is even acting out, and thus the teachers have a difficult conversation with the parents. This “dip” into their bucket could leave them feeling frustrated and possibly regretful of their decision to enroll. They think about all the money they’ve spent, the distance they drive, the uncertainty that their child is going to be successful. BUT, because you’ve been FILLING their bucket for months, that little “dip” won’t last long. They see that we’re doing what is best for their child. They trust us. They’re hopeful.
Bucket-filling is relationship-building. And relationships are built on communication. Hence, bucket-filling is communication. In most schools, communication feels tactical at best, reactive at worst. How many times have you or a colleague beaten yourselves up because you forgot to communicate something to a parent or the community, and now they’re upset—not about the actual issue, but about the lack of communication regarding it? Instead, think of communication in a strategic way. Not about each individual email or phone call or newsletter, but the concept of communication as a strategy. Yes, we should consider word choice, empathy and effective mediums as it applies to our constituents, but there is a strategic way to engage your community that enhances an already wonderful experience and, over the long term, can promote retention.
The relationship between school and family begins in the admission and enrollment office. We must help families feel connected, included and informed. If we begin this way, the school’s stellar teaching and support services will only solidify that experience, ensuring that the student and their family feel valued.