The most successful businesses know how to create loyal customers. You can learn from their techniques to build strong parent involvement.

by Evelyn Beck


Think about the last time you got fed up with a company and decided to take your business elsewhere. Maybe it was a store where you couldn’t find the item you wanted or a utility company that overcharged you and then never fixed the problem—despite numerous contacts on your part. Maybe it was a store where you felt like you were imposing on the workers just by being there.

Now put your PTO in the place of that company. Imagine parents as your customers. Parents have many demands on their time, and their time is what you as a PTO want from them. So you need to sell them on involvement, just as a successful entrepreneur convinces customers to spend money on certain products or services. Improving your “customer service” might be the way to get those parents involved, so it’s worth looking to the business world for tips about how to roll out the red carpet.

1. Get them in the door.

“Where’s the beef?” and “Just do it” are two well-known slogans from past commercials. They gained our attention and helped build the Wendy’s and Nike brands. As a PTO, you face the challenge of attracting the attention of busy parents. So send home colorful flyers about upcoming events. Email short weekly reminders about those events. Update your website frequently. Submit articles and photos to the local newspaper about PTO accomplishments. Make sure parents know what the PTO does for the school.

2. Make it easy to do business with your group.

We’ve all experienced voice mail labyrinths that seem erected just to keep us from reaching a real person—a sure-fire way to lose business. Likewise, a PTO whose leaders aren’t accessible can turn away potential volunteers. Post up-to-date contact information everywhere you can, including on your website, in emails, on school bulletin boards, and in your news?letter. Include names, titles, phone numbers, and email addresses of all officers and committee chairs.

Check your email and voice mail messages often, even during the summer. Post photos online and on the bulletin board so that people will recognize you when they see you, and wear nametags at all PTO events. Place a box at the school where parents can drop off PTO-related communication, and check it daily.

When someone does contact you, it’s important that you’re organized and able to respond effectively. If a parent calls with a question and you don’t know the answer and never follow up, you may have just lost a potential volunteer. Embrace the business philosophy “When I encounter a problem, I own that problem until it’s solved.” Make sure that the problem is addressed and resolved, even if you’re not the one with the ability to make that happen. The personal contact of that follow-up phone call or email is a good way to inspire loyalty to the PTO.

3. Personalize your approach.

One of the factors in’s success has been its personalization technology. It tracks customers’ preferences and recommends additional purchases of interest. This is the e-commerce equivalent of going into a bar like Cheers, “where everybody knows your name” and what you like to drink. At schools, the lack of a personal approach is why many parents stay away. Studies have found that the main reason people don’t get involved is that no one asked them. Not surprisingly, personal invitations are the most effective way to recruit volunteers. Make it easy to say yes by asking them to do something small and specific. Get to know people so you can match their skills to the right position.

Also, take notice of absences. “People would say, ‘I came once. I felt welcome. Then I didn’t show up for two more meetings, and nobody reached out,’” says Donna Cutting, author of The Celebrity Experience: Insider Secrets To Delivering Red Carpet Customer Service. “Call; make sure they’re okay; find out why they’re not coming. It may be personal. It may be something the leaders need to know. Make people feel like they’re missed.”

4. Allay their fears.

Twenty years ago, New Jersey’s Six Flags Great Adventure theme park faced sagging attendance. After several tragic accidents and growing reports about crime, the public worried that the rides weren’t safe and that the amusement park was no place to bring a family. A new president made the case to the public that a dangerous ride had been removed, alcohol was now forbidden, and the police presence would be increased. The only way to draw people back was to directly address what was keeping them away.

With the PTO, many parents fear having to make too great a time commitment. One way to head off this worry is through a pledge program. That’s the tactic used at Sylvan Park Elementary Paideia Design Center in Nashville, Tenn. “Our thought was that a lot of people shy away from volunteering, afraid that if they step up they’ll be roped into a major commitment,” says PTO president Julie James.

Instead, parents are asked to volunteer for two hours. They might read in the classroom, shelve library books, or take photographs at an event. “It gave them a place to step in,” James says. “Several did one little event to help out, and the small event was successful, and they volunteered for a big event next year.”

Sylvan Park used PTO Today’s 2 Hour Power pledge program, as did the Lunenburg (Mass.) PTO, which represents four schools; the result was 300 parents who signed up to volunteer in addition to the 180 who usually do, says PTO president Wendy Bertrand. At Willow Creek Elementary in Tomball, Texas, use of the pledge program increased the involvement of dads by 30 percent. Plus, says PTO president Kerrie Spriggs, “we didn’t have to send out requests for help throughout the year.”

5. Give them a good experience.

We all like doing business in a pleasant environment. In contrast, we avoid stores where employees say they can’t help because “it’s not my department” or where checkout takes an eternity. A good PTO experience is one where the welcome is warm and the volunteer feels needed and appreciated. When that’s not the case, volunteers drop away.

“Parents have told me that at other elementary schools, they’ve gone to events, and they were new, and no one spoke to them; they were just given something to do,” says Wendy Keller, PTO president at Larchmont Elementary in Mount Laurel, N.J. “But I go up and personally thank them for volunteering. And I make sure to send personal, handwritten thank-you notes. We do the same thing for businesses; why not do it for people? They’re the ones we’re really trying to get to.”

Cutting emphasizes the need to make volunteers feel welcome from the first time they come to a meeting. For new volunteers, you might reserve some parking spaces. You can welcome them with their names on a banner. Greet them. Announce their names at the meeting.

Even more important, make them feel needed. You can, for instance, give newcomers a role right away. Cutting recalls one meeting she attended: “I was asked to welcome guests as they came into our meeting—on my first day. It’s probably one of the reasons I felt very welcome and at home,” she says. “It doesn’t take a lot of time to reach out to a new volunteer and ask them to help with something. It makes them feel like part of the group from the start.”

And if someone signs up to help, use them. “My first year, I volunteered for lots of things and never received a call,” Keller says. “I tell my committee chairs to contact every person out there....There’s nothing worse than someone saying they’ll help you, and you say you don’t need them.”

6. Exceed expectations.

Imagine going to a new restaurant, where you’re expecting a long wait and high prices. If instead you’re shown quickly to a table and given a menu of reasonably priced entrees, then the restaurant has exceeded your expectations—and you’re likely to return for another meal. Similarly, if parents anticipate long, boring meetings and you provide a concise session, you’ve exceeded expectations. If they’re sure you’ll pummel them with endless fundraising appeals and you focus on family events, you have again exceeded their expectations, and they’re more likely to step up.

7. Show appreciation.

Businesses that make us feel appreciated for our patronage, even with just a simple thank-you at checkout, encourage our loyalty. The same goes for volunteers, who appreciate sincere, specific recognition for their efforts. At Larchmont Elementary, where the mascot is a bear, the PTO maintains a “Thank You Beary Much” bulletin board. Each month, a bear cutout is put up for each volunteer, but the name posted belongs to the child rather than the parent. One might read “Frankie’s mom helped out at the book fair,” for instance. “It means a little more than if it’s just the parent’s name,” Keller says.

At the end of the month, the bear is given to the child to take home, providing further incentive for the parent’s participation. Another idea is to add a “cheers for peers” section to your PTO newsletter, where volunteers can pat each other on the back.

8. Make things right.

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, customers and volunteers can have a bad experience. The smart company knows how to recover from such an incident and in fact use it to cement customer loyalty. For example, if an airline messes up your ticket, the least it can do is apologize. But if it also compensates you for the hassle by upgrading you to first class, it has managed what is called a “service recovery.”

So suppose a volunteer shows up to help at a family game night and is told she’s not needed. Or someone is given a job of selling tickets in a booth at a festival but is given no change, making the experience frustrating. Those volunteers are likely to disappear for good unless some effort is made to win them back. Such efforts might include a note of apology, an invitation to lunch with a PTO officer, or some special role for the next PTO event.

Consistently seeking feedback on what isn’t working and making necessary changes is a wise approach. Surveys and suggestion boxes along with direct requests for feedback can help make sure all volunteers feel they’ve been given red-carpet treatment.


# Donna Cutting 2008-08-25 16:49
Great article Evelyn! Thanks for including me and The Celebrity Experience. Terrific tips by all regarding a red-carpet experience for PTO members.

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