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Facing District Competition: School Marketing as the Initial Step

It’s hard to believe the year is almost over. This week we’re taking a look back at the major trends and issues of 2019 by sharing the top 5 TrustED stories of the year. Here is story #5. 

Brand awareness. Positive PR. Willingness to recommend.

These may sound like concepts you’d hear in the boardrooms of technology giants like Amazon Zappos, or Uber. But as more and more K-12 schools face the effects of increased school choice and dwindling enrollments, many are beginning to employ similar modern marketing tactics to stay competitive.

Melissa Martinez
Melissa Martinez, chief communications officer, El Paso ISD, TX

“As a district, marketing was quite a foreign concept,” noted Melissa Martinez, chief communications officer at El Paso Independent School District in Texas, during a recent webinar hosted by K12 Insight.

Like many large, urban “legacy” districts in Texas and throughout the country, El Paso is facing shrinking enrollment due to an aging population and sustained competition from private and charter schools. The district has the highest concentration of charter and private schools in El Paso County. As Martinez says:

“School districts aren’t used to having to advertise themselves. In the past, you went to the school because it was the one down the street. Now, parents certainly have that choice. So, we really looked into branding ourselves–and rebranding in a sense.”

After three years of focusing on targeted school marketing, Martinez says the district is seeing positive signs of change—especially when it comes to brand awareness for the district.

But, as Martinez admits, “All the marketing dollars in the world won’t make a difference if once parents and students get to the school, they don’t have the stellar experience we want them to have.”

El Paso ISD worked to ensure those stellar experiences through a focus on customer service in their schools.

Customer service isn’t a dirty phrase

Martinez and her team follow a simple philosophy when it comes to attracting—and especially retaining—families: “Marketing gets people in the door. The customer experience keeps them there.”

But, the idea of treating students and their families as customers was something that initially required a culture change. According to Martinez, “It had such a business connotation. One thing I kept hearing over and over was ‘Schools aren’t businesses.’ People couldn’t shake that term that we were turning schools into businesses.”

Martinez and her team worked to garner buy-in on the idea of customer service by emphasizing the importance of providing families with positive school experiences, setting clear expectations with faculty and staff, and working to get every employee on board.

Poor customer service in action

But even with this shift in mindset, it was the experience of the district’s new superintendent, Juan Cabrera, that made it crystal clear that the district needed a new strategy around customer experience.

After being named superintendent of El Paso ISD, Mr. Cabrera and his wife went to a district elementary school to enroll their youngest child. Since they didn’t have an appointment, the school secretary—unaware of who Mr. Cabrera was—turned them away rather than allowing them to see the school principal. After they left, the secretary passed Mr. Cabrera’s information on to the principal who immediately recognized the name of the incoming superintendent and raced out to the parking lot to invite them back in to tour the school.

For Martinez, this story is a critical example of the exact opposite experience schools should be giving customers. She also says that in this era of intense school competition, “we are not in a position to turn anyone away,” whether they’re the incoming superintendent or not.

Training customer experience superheroes

To solidify a culture of customer experience in their schools, El Paso ISD partnered with K12 Insight for a new, innovative form of professional development training.

Rather than traditional, “sit and get” professional development sessions, K12 Insight’s workshops aim to create a team mentality around customer experience by encouraging participants to move around the room, ask important questions, and work together.

“We must recognize that customer service isn’t a department,” says Dr. Christine Wells, who leads customer experience professional development training for K12 Insight. “If it isn’t the responsibility of everyone who works at schools, whose responsibility is it?”

The aim of the workshops are to model positive examples for all faculty and staff in schools. But, as Dr. Wells points out, one training session alone is not going to change the culture of your schools. “You can’t change how people see your schools over one course. It takes a commitment and repeated behavior. It takes time.”

While implementing a customer experience culture is a long-term initiative, Martinez says she’s already seeing positive signs among her staff.

“We’ve seen the change already,” she says. Staff used to push back on scheduling campus visits for potential families, but since the training, “it’s a much more welcoming environment. Everybody understands now that we want to have that sense of open-door policy.”

For more on how El Paso ISD is creating a customer experience culture that complements its school marketing initiatives—and to see examples of some of the interactive activities included in K12 Insight’s customer experience training workshops— watch the full webinar.