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To build positive first impressions
In many instances a parent's first contact with an early childhood education and care provider is over the phone. The importance of that initial contact cannot be overlooked and will, in many cases, determine the likelihood of a parent coming in to view your service in person.
While many providers, especially smaller operators like family day care educators, may not be able to afford to have someone solely responsible for answering the phone, that is not an excuse to neglect this line of communication. Every phone call you have with a prospective client is your opportunity to convey your personality, professionalism and the aspects of your service which are unique.
This article based on Phone Answering Tips for Child Care Centers by Cathy Abraham offers strategies for successfully converting phone calls to customers and highlights the importance of ensuring all your staff are trained to positively manage phone calls.
Everyone who is designated to answer the phone should be trained on, and familiar with, these basics:
- Try to answer the phone by the third ring. If you work on your own and struggle to answer the phone promptly during the day, ensure you have an answering service which informs the caller of your name and advises them of a time frame within which you will call back. Ensure you check this answering machine regularly and return calls as soon as possible.
- Answer the phone with a smile in your voice! Sound warm, friendly and happy to be there no matter how busy you may be and try to be calm, confident and relaxed.
- Use a professional greeting. A warm, friendly, professional greeting should identify both the company's name and the person answering the phone. End your greeting with a statement that lets the caller know you are there to help. Something like, "Good morning, XYZ Childcare, Monica speaking. How may I assist you?" Do not rush through your greeting. You want the caller to know they've reached the correct number, who they are talking to, and that you want to help them.
- Start an Inquiry Card, jotting down notes as you listen. Keep a pile of pads and a pot of pens near the phone so you are never scrabbling to find one when needed.
- Build rapport. Ask questions to show interest in the caller and their child(ren), and to gather basic information. Use the parent and child's name(s) in the conversation. Comment on the age of the child or on something that the caller has said. Be enthusiastic, warm and friendly!
- Listen for needs. Ask them what they feel is important for their child. What are their concerns? Listen to what they are really saying. If they go on and on about how "at the last service…", they are conveying to you a need that wasn't being met.
- Match your program benefits to their needs. Tell parents how your program can meet the needs of their child. For example, if they are concerned about their child being shy, address this. Talk about all of the ways we would attempt to welcome and invite participation and work on developing social skills in an environment in which he would feel comfortable.
- Empathise with the parent. Choosing child care is a big, and sometimes difficult and scary, decision for parents.
- Sell the service. Tell the parent of a two-year-old what an awesome older toddler room you have, and how really fortunate you are to have such wonderful teachers in there. Advise the parent of your NQF status and the programs you have in place to further develop and enhance the service. Give specific examples of the great things you do. Talk about what you offer that competitors may not (security, staff longevity, menu, extra-curricular activities, etc.) Know your service's advantages!
- Invite the parent to tour. Ask the parent to commit to coming in to see the service and meet the teachers/educators. Offer a choice of tour times.
- Offer to mail more information. Emphasise that you appreciate "it is a big decision" and you "know that they would probably like to have as much information as possible about their choices."
- Close the call on a friendly note. Thank them for calling, preferably using their name. If you have made an appointment for a tour, let them know you are looking forward to meeting them on (time/date).
- Follow up. Write a short, handwritten, personal note along with materials on the service.
To ensure a really effective phone call practice active listening and reflective paraphrasing as they clarify individual needs. Demonstrate empathy and understanding and make someone feel 'heard'.
Active listening requires:
- An open mind
- Focus on the caller
- 'Mirroring' the caller's thoughts by summarising and repeating back to them
- A quiet inner voice
- Giving the caller your complete attention
- Not responding while the other person is still speaking
The inquiry call
The inquiry call is your chance at making a good first impression. If the person answering the phone does not sound friendly and knowledgeable, chances are you will never see that potential parent or enrolment.
HERE ARE SOME THINGS TO REMEMBER:
- Designate someone to answer the phone when you are not in the building. Train them thoroughly.
- Make sure there are plenty of 'Inquiry Cards' and pens by each telephone.
- Follow up on any inquiries as soon as you return to your building.
- Give your staff on-going feedback on how they answered the phone whenever you call the service.
- If you have to answer the phone while in a classroom, move to a quieter phone if necessary.
- Create a sense of urgency. Don't relay that you have ten open spaces in a room. Put the caller on hold to double check for availability, then let them know that you have a space, not ten.
- Build on "yeses." After telling a parent about a positive activity that is done, ask them to agree with you… "Isn't that great?"; "Is that a skill you feel is important for Sally?"
- You need to become comfortable "asking" for the tour, and actually "asking" for the enrolment at the close of the tour in order to secure it.
- If your service is not at capacity, how you handle an inquiry call will probably be one of the most important things you do all day!
For training support staff or practice, try using these scenarios:
- Scenario 1: A parent calls and just wants to know the price. They seem disinterested in any other information.
- Scenario 2: A parent calls wanting information but doesn't seem to know what to ask.
- Scenario 3: A parent calls and wants to know "what programs and support you have in place for special needs children?"
- Scenario 4: A parent calls sounding like she has had 12 cups of coffee, and she wants to tell you all about her divorce.
- Scenario 5: A parent calls and wants to know if they can start their child tomorrow, asking no questions.
Running through these training scenarios with your staff is an excellent way to ensure everyone is conveying the maximum amount of useful information in a clear and consistent fashion.