As part of an ongoing local effort to stem the national tide of declining enrollment in Catholic schools, more than 700 parish and school front office and marketing personnel attended customer service workshops held last week at four different archdiocesan locations. Organized by the Department of Catholic Schools’ Marketing Archdiocesan eXcellence in Los Angeles (MAX LA) team and sponsored by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the workshops were presented by the New York-based Statler Center, a nationally-renowned source for hospitality training.

At the Oct. 5 workshop held at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills, Domenico Pilato, MAX LA project director, pointed out that, nationwide, the Catholic school system has shrunk from 6.5 million students in 1965 to 2 million today.“We have to regenerate how we’re doing business — we have an old business model that doesn’t work anymore,” said Pilato. “We’ve closed 1,000 Catholic schools in the nation over ten years and L.A. does not want to be part of that national statistic. We’re doing everything in our power to reverse that trend."

“You are the front line; you are the ones who can really help us,” Pilato remarked to the attendees, including parish and school secretaries, bookkeepers, registrars, development and marketing staff. “You’re doing a great job every time you smile at someone, every time you talk to them on the phone nicely and welcome them and thank new parents for thinking about coming to your school. I want to thank you for doing an awesome job and thinking as a business person would think.”

Frank Ferry, Bishop Alemany principal, pointed out in his welcoming remarks that customer service is vital since year-round marketing efforts can be derailed if prospective families are not treated “with the utmost respect” by school site staff.“All of my 22 customer service people are in the room today,” said Ferry. “I believe this $15 million ‘business’ will only run as well as the customer service that is given to our clients: the parent and student. And, I truly mean the student is equal to the parent. How we treat a 14-year-old matters to the overall business nature and culture of the student body.”

“You are in most cases the face of the school,” said Sister of Charity Mary Elizabeth Galt, archdiocesan chancellor. “You are the first ones that [people] meet. You are the voice of that school on the phone…. You have to realize how very, very important you are to Catholic education and that we value you so much.”

Kevin Baxter, archdiocesan superintendent of 205 elementary schools, agreed that the positive contributions of support staff are essential in backing up exemplary efforts by teachers and administrators.“Sometimes we tend to look at the big hole, the big challenge that we have [in keeping schools viable] and we get depressed about it because we don’t have a big solution,” said Baxter. “But,” he added, “the good part is that there are a lot of little stones to put in that hole. Every single day, everyone on staff from the custodian to the receptionist to the aides in the classroom to the technology teacher to the parents to the pastor puts a stone in the hole [and] that hole is going to be filled up and our schools are going to be vibrant for future generations and that’s a credit to all of you in the room.”

“This is a new day and age for Catholic schools; it takes new thinking if we’re going to keep our schools going,” said San Fernando Region Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Wilkerson. He added that important components of maintaining schools’ sustainability include fostering a culture of hospitality and engaging in strategic marketing to help people understand the value of Catholic education.

According to Statler Center presenter Dan O’Brien, 96 percent of unhappy customers “won’t tell you” about their dissatisfaction and, of those, 91 percent will go somewhere else if their concerns are not properly addressed. “We can’t afford to have people going somewhere else,” said O’Brien, citing Attitude as one of four essentials for customer service along with Behavior, Communications and Knowledge that keep school families coming BACK.

A popular segment of the workshop included playback of some of the “secret shopping” phone calls made to all of the 205 elementary schools and 26 archdiocesan/parish high schools by a Statler Center staff member posing as a prospective parent. The caller’s in-depth questions sometimes highlighted the phone operator’s lapses in providing professional customer service that includes calling clients back with answers if necessary.

“I think the most helpful thing was listening to the phone calls,” said Kellie Brackett, secretary at St. Mary of the Assumption School in Santa Maria, who manages the school office by herself. “A lot of times you’re dealing with so many other things. I find myself sometimes maybe making some of the mistakes that they were saying, which you try not to but there are times when it gets so busy in the office."

“We really need to work on the phone system,” said Raquel Campo, who works in the office at Santa Rosa School in San Fernando. “We need to make our own [phone] scripts so when people call with concerns, we are ready.”Santa Rosa School receptionist JoAnn Schnelldorfer said the secret shopping calls also clarified proper phone etiquette.

“I found the way to answer callers’ questions without going into 45 minutes of detail,” said Schnelldorfer.Glenda Burdett, Our Lady of Perpetual Help parent marketing volunteer, said attending the workshop gave her reassurance that the school is on track with its marketing in the Santa Clarita locale of competitive schools. “We have a wonderful product but it’s the extra service you do as a welcoming parent, doing little things to make the difference” like giving new families rosaries, said Burdett.

Greg Burnias, marketing director at Paraclete High School in Lancaster, told The Tidings the archdiocese is making great strides in marketing.“What I’m really excited about is the archdiocese is taking an active role in marketing, really looking at the big picture like they haven’t done before and realizing that the schools need to step up and try to increase enrollment on their own instead of just waiting for whoever walks through their door,” said Burnias.