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3-step recipe for addressing tough parent feedback

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Feedback isn't always fun.

Negative feedback can take the wind out of our sails. It can make us second-guess our decisions – or even our competency. And, sometimes, it can be downright mean.

But if we view our school parents as customers, it's vitally important to deliver outstanding customer service – and that includes appropriately and thoughtfully responding to survey comments, even the ones that might make us want to curl up in a corner and cry.

Not only does replying to comments keep the feedback loop well-oiled, but it establishes good will – provided you don't handle it like Kelly from The Office.

We believe replying to survey respondents is so fundamentally important that we've made it a cornerstone of our platform – in fact, you can even reply to anonymous survey respondents in ParentPulse.

While our three-part recipe works for responding to any type of feedback, including face-to-face encounters, we're going to specifically explore how it can be used to reply to parents' written comments – from e-mails, surveys or even social media posts. We call it the "Three-E Approach" – empathize, explore/explain and engage.

It starts with empathy

Surprisingly, in the clip from The Office, Kelly gets the first ingredient right... kind of. She empathizes (though, halfheartedly) with the customer. Similarly, your first role as a "practitioner" of customer support should be a healthy dose of empathy.

True empathy goes beyond trite phrases like, "I'm sorry" – research shows that legitimately attentive and cognitive (in other words -- thoughtful) responses to disgruntled customers can result in highly positive engagement.

Here's a critical point as you navigate conversations (either in-person or digital) with parents: empathy does not have to equal agreement! You can express empathy and seek to put yourself in a parent's shoes even if you think they're way off-base. This is not the time to assess the validity of the parent's comment (we'll get there) or offer explanations (also coming).

Here are three practical ways to empathize with a customer:

  1. Thank them for their feedback. As author and customer service expert Marilyn Suttle says, "Thank your customer for complaining and mean it. Most will never bother to complain. They'll just walk away."

  2. Echo their feedback in your own words to make sure you captured the essence of their concern/idea/thought.

  3. Try to understand any possible emotion their feedback might elicit and make it clear you understand how that emotion might be triggered.

Empathy not only impacts the customer's mindset, but it can impact your mindset as well. If your efforts are sincere, you'll find it's easier to truly understand the parent's perspective, even if you might not agree with it.

Let's try a case study. Here is a REAL comment we pulled from a recent ParentPulse survey (with names withheld, of course):

The most frustrating of all things though is the cell tower on campus. Children/staff should not have to be around a device such as this. A school’s campus is the last place a cell tower should be. The science is everywhere and evident on how harmful and damaging radiation from these structures are. If nothing is done with this tower in the near future we will find a new school for upcoming years. The benefit is not worth the risk.

Using our three methods of expressing empathy (thank them, echo them, understand them), here is how an administrator might start the reponse:

I really appreciate the time you took to let us know your thoughts on the cell tower. Truly – thank you. We value ALL feedback. If I'm understanding your comment correctly, it sounds like you have serious concerns about potential health risks to your child. Being a parent myself, I can certainly understand that concern.

There is nothing trite about this language. It's sincere, it's thoughtful and it's customized for the specific situation.

Starting a response with this approach almost always disarms a parent who might be upset or tense.... and it sets the stage for the second part of our recipe.

Explore or Explain

What's the context for the parent's feedback? Is it valid? Is it out of raw emotion? Is it stacked on a history of other concerns or frustrations?

There's a reason "explore" comes before "explain." Our gut instinct is always to think our plan is best, so the temptation will be to justify the "why." But if you're unable to discipline yourself to first explore the feedback for validity and worthiness (with an open mind), you risk alienating your "customer."

As David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis write in their Harvard Business Review article, "(Feedback receievers) become so anchored in their preformed judgments that they can’t adjust their thinking when they receive feedback to the contrary. Over time, discounting advice can damage important relationships."

The last thing you want to do is harm a relationship with a school parent by minimizing their ideas or thoughts. So, ask yourself questions that start with "I wonder if..." or "What if..." as a litmus test. Is there validity or merit in the feedback? Let's imagine (because we like to be optimistic, after all) that a parent is bringing feedback that might be legitimately helpful – perhaps it underscores a real problem or pain-point.

And try to take personalities out of the equation. That can be a dangerous game.

"Research shows that they value advice more if it comes from a confident source, even though confidence doesn’t signal validity," write Garvin and Margolis. "Conversely, seekers tend to assume that advice is off-base when it veers from the norm or comes from people with whom they’ve had frequent discord. (Experimental studies show that neither indicates poor quality.)"

In other words... feedback from a squeaky wheel might still be helpful!

In some cases, the feedback concerns something that can't or won't be changed (like our cell tower example) – and that's when we have the opportunity to explain. But do it gently and without defensiveness!

Let's revisit our cell tower example:

I know your family is relatively new to the school, and we probably haven't done a good job explaining the background and context for the cell tower to new families. Before we added the cell tower, we had a number of conversations internally, we sought feedback from our families, and we even consulted with an environmental scientist to make sure we weren't putting anyone in our community in danger. The information we were provided overwhelmingly ruled out any potential harm. There are a number of respectable on-line sources that indicate cell towers are completely safe, but we can understand why you might have concerns. We initially did as well.


Finally, you should seek to "engage" the parent – view the feedback as an opportunity to deepen the connection. We like this definition: "An engagement between two people is an agreement to connect, to form something meaningful. We feel engaged with people when we feel like they're along for the ride with us."

If you've empathized with the parent's feedback and offered some exploration (or explanation), but stop there, you're missing an opportunity to create a raving fan.

We talk a lot about Net Promoter Score at ParentPulse. For those new to the concept, the Net Promoter Score is calculated from the results of this question: "On a scale of 0-10, how likely are you to recommend our organization to a friend or colleague?" Any respondent who answers with a 9 or 10 is considered a promoter; a 7 or 8 is a passive; and a 0-6 is a detractor.

Sometimes, it takes only committed effort to engage to turn a detractor or passive into a promoter. Ask for a meeting. Tell them how you're you're going to investigate or follow-up.

Back to our example. Here's a great way to finish up the response by looking for an opportunity to engage:

I would truly love the opportunity to discuss this with you in person. The reality of our contract with the cellular carrier is that we'll have this tower on our campus for some time to come. Perhaps I can bring in the environmental scientist we worked with and the three of us can have a conversation to better address your concerns?

If you don't hear back from the parent, be persistent! (One of the benefits of ParentPulse is that our platform gently nudges the respondent with a text message if they don't reply to your response right away.)

Ultimately, engagement leads to a sense of "emotional connectedness" and multiple studies show that feeling of connectedness dramatically impacts the customer's perceived value of the relationship.

This three-step approach can turn even the harshest critics into your number one fans. It might not happen overnight, but perhaps this recipe will even help you to adopt Rick Tate's philosophy: "Feedback is the breakfast of champions."


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