Yes. And when virtual schools begin to see them as customers it will alter the entire landscape.
But, we must look at them as customers only in the way in which we serve them, not in the way in which we recruit them. Meaning, it cannot be a marketing ploy or a top-down program. It must be part of the culture. Disney is renowned for it because it is who they are, not what they do. It's all about the service!
This aspect is sorely lacking in virtual schools. The schools who know how to implement this type of culture and are willing to take it on, well, they are the ones that will lead the next generation of virtual schools.
What will it look like?
We speak differently with them because we understand that each and every touch point we have with them is an opportunity to build loyalty toward the school. We actively search for ways in which we can WOW them unexpectedly. We pay attention to the details of the overall learning experience, not just the academic part of the equation. We understand how our actions either inspire them or push them away. We understand that educating our youth is required but which school they attend is a choice. We take our cues from companies who lead in serving customers and apply them to the virtual learning experience. We re-imagine how students are treated and how teachers and staff are trained. We understand it must be part of our DNA, our culture, our "who we are."
One note, there are two pivotal failure points in this approach.
1. If we talk the talk of service but do not walk the walk we will simply escalate the exodus of families to seek greener pastures elsewhere. Simply inserting the word "customer" for "student" will not suffice.
2. If we continue to see our customers as merely students and families, then virtual schools will continue to look exactly how they look right now -- high attrition rate and all.
(I published this today because I continue to hear of cyber/virtual programs that are taking my customer concept and applying it incorrectly which is troubling to me.)
Starting in March and lasting through May, most virtual schools across the country engage in what they call retention efforts, led by the question "Are you planning on re-enrolling with us next year?"
Some will then release a newsletter that tries to showcase all of the improvements being made for next year, or some new offerings.
Unfortunately it is too little too late.
1. Retention begins at enrollment.
It is imperative that virtual schools understand the true meaning of retention. It is not a question nor a newsletter. It is the daily experiences, daily interactions, and daily consistency on the part of the school to exceed the expectations of the students/families and it begins when they first enroll.
If you are a virtual school and you have what you call Retention Season then you are looking at it the wrong way and the attrition rate will remain high in your school.
2. Retention is not a program but a culture.
Programs and flashy marketing pieces will not overcome the daily experiences families have with your school, your teachers, your staff. You must have a culture that is built on the principle of retaining students -- programs and strategies will fall short. A retention culture is who you are not what you do. It is organic and authentic by design.
If you are a virtual school and you are relying on marketing to retain students then you are looking at it the wrong way and you will continue to lose students each year at an alarming rate.
3. Retention is the primary focus.
Too many virtual schools spend their time trying to find students to replace the ones leaving when they should be spending more time and energy serving the ones already in their schools. When done correctly, it should be much easier to have an existing family say "yes again" than it is to go and find a family to say "yes" for the first time.
One glance at an organizational chart and one can easily determine where retention fits in the hierarchy.
If you are a virtual school and the first time you think about retention is March, then your eyes are focused in the wrong direction and you will continually have to work to find new students.
Use of fear, threats, and loss are easy and quick ways to motivate employees. It also shines a spotlight on the lack of leadership skills for the one in charge. Fake leaders do not have the ability nor the desire to put in the work of leading, Instead, they turn to the quick and easy, justify it to themselves, and continue to build the facade around them.
Real leaders inspire, encourage, and allow for others to shine. Real leaders search for solutions, not accolades. Real leaders are as concerned about the means as they are the results knowing the latter very seldom justifies the former.
A real leader is a leader irregardless of whether or not they have followers. And, having followers does not make one a leader -- it simply puts one in charge.