by JoAnn Kintzel
*Supporting graphics can be found in the pdf version of this article.
If there is one clear message in 2020, it is the power of adapting—well and quickly—to change. I have been gently reminded of this throughout my career leading people and serving customers. This year, though, has been unprecedented, and the lesson dramatic.
While agility—and new, innovative approaches—will certainly continue to serve us well in the new year, there are also reliable best practices worth remembering. These five indisputable principles stand the test of time—and a global pandemic. They will safely guide us through the familiar and uncharted days ahead. Follow them to stay focused on what matters most: better outcomes for the children in our care.
Automate Processes, Focus on People
Our community of care providers and educators is devoted to enriching the lives of children. But maintaining a business-focused mindset is critical to the long-term success of organizations throughout our industry.
“We are all businesses, whether you are an in-home provider, nonprofit or other type of child care organization,” said Lauren Small, owner of Early Education Business Consultants, LLC, in a webinar hosted by Early Childhood Investigations. “And because you run a business, it is important to use the tools and processes necessary to make sound business decisions.”
The business of child care is challenging, but the path to success is straightforward: have enough time and money to operate. Automation is the best—and quickest—way to get there. That is because automation saves time, saves money, increases revenue and optimizes financial management. Done right, automation keeps you connected and in control of your operations. As part of child care management systems (CCMS), automation makes good business sense. During and after a crisis, automation shifts the balance of your time from managing processes to focusing on people. Here is how:
- (Contactless) Check-in. Check-in and check-out can seem fairly simple, but there is a lot of room for error when done manually. Amid pandemic-level health concerns—or even as an ongoing safety measure—automated, contactless check-in reduces risk. With the right software, parents can use smartphones to check their kids in and out with QR codes or GPS technology. With contactless check-in, you can track movements, and health checks and ratio monitoring are simple. People remain healthy and the process is efficient.
- Compliance. Social distancing and other COVID-19 mandates make staff-child ratios especially critical now. A staff-child ratio management feature included in a child care management system provides real-time data on ratios for every classroom, so managing staffing requirements throughout the day is fast and simple. A CCMS can also automate regulatory paperwork, saving staff time and avoiding missed deadlines. Automate further by replacing paper forms with digital child assessments. Staff spends less time on them and the information can be used in real-time to adjust teaching practices and improve outcomes.
- Enrollment. Streamline the enrollment process with online registration that allows you to track from the first inquiry through to enrollment. Leverage automated scheduling and communication tools to stay connected with prospective families.
- HR Management. HR management automation helps keep electronic personnel files up to date, manages staff sign-in and sign-out (then easily transfers to payroll services), digitally records staff tasks and tracks employees across multiple locations.
- Billing and Accounts Receivable. You obviously cannot stay in business without consistent cash flow through tuition payments, but collections can be at odds with the supportive relationships you want to foster with families, especially during difficult times. Electronic payment systems automatically generate invoices, so parents manage payment on their own. On-time payments increase, the need for delinquency communications decreases, and bad debt drops substantially.
For every time-consuming and error-prone manual process weighing down your operations, there is an automated solution. Once you determine that automation is necessary, it is critical to choose a solution that grows and adapts with you. When choosing a vendor, consider ease of software updates, technical support and integration in order to ensure that your choice only lightens the load, rather than adding to it.
Communicate (Well and Often)
Child care is a business of relationships. And communication is critical to cultivating strong ones. This was never more clear than during the early tumult and rapid-fire changes of COVID-19. Providers that communicate well and often with staff, families and their communities survive crises and thrive long-term.
Best practice is to communicate answers before families ask the questions and to be fully transparent. This builds lasting credibility and trust. Work to keep raising the bar with regular professional communications, easy-to-access portals and real-time classroom updates.
Ongoing, frequent communication is also important under more typical conditions. Use email, text messages, newsletters, your social media pages and your website to share information. With the right CCMS, you can easily text or email an individual family, entire classroom or all the families in your center, then track all communications—messaging, text and email. Leverage apps or features in a CCMS that allow teachers and staff to share photos, videos, learning activities, naps, meals and diaper changes.
Ask your families and prospects their preferred communication channels and use them. Even the best crafted messages and updates are ineffective if they are not read. Frequent and ongoing communication also applies to your marketing strategy. This means an updated website and regular communications, such as newsletters, to your prospects.
Put Relationships First Strong, positive relationships are always important to your child care center’s success, especially when crises hit. Developing relationships now will buoy your center later by generating support and flexibility from staff and families amid change, and through more revenue-driving benefits like referrals and long-term loyalty.
Automation creates more time to focus on people and your relationships. Regular communication is a way to nurture relationships, but it is important to operate with a relationship-first approach in all areas of your business. This applies to your staff and families, and should extend to your broader community through all marketing programs.
- Staff. A genuine relationship begins with professional respect. Reach out to understand their personal backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Take time to build trust through one-on-one meetings and bring everyone together for inclusive team-building activities.
- Families. Effective two-way communication is essential. In all of your communications with families, treat your relationship as a partnership for the children. As a child care provider with a personal relationship with their children, you can make a real difference in your families’ lives.
Your website is a relationship tool. Use website content like blogs, news, and how-to guides as resources for families and your community. Structure the site to focus on visitors and their needs—not an overt marketing brochure—as a start to developing relationships. Convey your center’s personality through the language you use. Include videos, virtual tours and content that introduces the people inside your center and how you support families and enrich children. Extend the relationship-building by using personalization in all prospect communications.
Building strong, positive relationships means not only communicating to people, but also creating opportunities to hear from them. Ask for feedback with surveys and regular meetings. Cultivate a culture in which people feel comfortable sharing with you.
An important benefit of putting relationships first is better engagement. Positive relationships with staff and families support family well-being and healthy child development. Partnerships with a common focus are created—helping children grow and thrive.
Make Data-driven Decisions
As someone with a finance background, I spend a fair amount of time looking at metrics and I know that data-informed business decisions lead to better results. The trick is sifting through the noise and easily getting to the information you need to make smart choices. A sophisticated CCMS can help do that—from helping make staffing decisions to monitoring a child’s well-being over time. Features like vacancy tracking, for example, take the guesswork out of when to adjust staffing or boost marketing.
With good data, you will also understand where revenue gaps exist and how to address them. Start by knowing your cost per child. Electronic recordkeeping built into a CCMS or available as an add-on can determine cost per child, so you will understand the resulting profit or loss.
Financial experts agree that keeping as much cash on hand as possible is key to staying afloat in and out of crisis. This means increasing revenue while reducing expenses. To do this, it is helpful to understand what healthy finances look like. Consider this breakdown of the average child care center’s expenses (pre-coronavirus) from Kathy Ligon, founder and CEO of HINGE Early Education Brokers:
- Staff Costs: 50 to 55 percent
- Operating Costs: 11 to 13 percent
- Facility Costs: 22 to 25 percent
- Administrative Costs: 2 to 4 percent
Using industry benchmark data like this is important as you find ways to increase revenue, reduce expenses and improve your profit margin (usually about 15 percent based on the numbers above, according to Ligon—but shrinking). Operating with data eliminates the anxiety of uncertainty when faced with the difficult decisions that come with health and economic crises. As a result, you will be in a stronger position to weather the unexpected and thrive long-term.
Focus on Opportunities Over Challenges
The combined punch of a global pandemic and economic crisis created undeniable setbacks for child care providers. But 2020 also created extraordinary opportunities. By staying open to the upside of crisis and remaining flexible and adaptable to families’ evolving needs, many centers uncovered operational improvements, developed stronger relationships and even created new revenue opportunities—all with long-term benefits.
When schools closed during the pandemic, for example, some centers found new business opportunities by hiring teachers to tutor older kids. Not only did this create new revenue sources, but it also helped promote the centers to new families in the community. Other forward-thinking providers found new growth opportunities by working with nearby child care centers that had permanently closed to easily transition children to their programs; providing extended care hours; offering part-time enrollments or drop-in care; and marketing directly to essential workers.
Choices That Matter
Pivot? Stay the course? Best practice? Bold new approach? The challenges, opportunities, missteps and triumphs of an unprecedented 2020 have taught us lasting lessons—about our businesses, our teams, our families, our communities and ourselves. While we cannot know what lies ahead, we must continue to adapt and meet 2021 boldly, head-on.
As child care management leaders, we will persevere. Many will thrive. We will make difficult choices, often make the right choices, and always make choices that matter. Because at the heart of every choice we make are the interests of the children in our care.
JoAnn Kintzel joined Procare Software LLC as president and CEO in October of 2016. Kintzel is responsible for leading enterprise strategy, operations and overall business objectives to drive revenue, profitability and growth of Procare’s software and merchant services operation. Kintzel has more than 25 years of financial and operational experience in the computer software and insurance sectors. Prior to joining Procare, she served as the president of TaxAct, Inc (formerly, 2nd Story Software, Inc.), a subsidiary of Blucora, Inc. Prior to TaxAct, Kintzel served at AEGON USA Investment Management, a global life insurance and investment provider, as vice president/senior accounting manager/assistant controller. In addition, Kintzel served as a leader in a variety of financial and operational roles with Parsons Technology and its successor organizations, Intuit, Broderbund, The Learning Company and Mattel. She earned a bachelor’s of science in accounting and business administration from Mount Mercy University.