Don't Let Them Stay Mad: Keeping Camp Parents on Your Side

by Audrey Monke

Sam gushed about the fun he had at camp, but his mother (Mrs. Jones) was distressed about his chapped lips. In fact, it upset her so much that she marked "needs improvement" on the "Health & Hygiene" section of her parent evaluation and included the comment listed above. What kind of follow-up would most camp directors do with Mrs. Jones? For many camp directors, the answer is none. We read her parent evaluation, and dismiss her negative comments as a minor complaint.

"Sam had fun at camp," we rationalize, "Mrs. Jones is just being nit picky about a minor issue." We think Mrs. Jones isn't focused on the most important point, which is that Sam had a blast at our camp. And so, we file away Mrs. Jones's parent evaluation with the others from the summer, and we start our planning for next season.

What we may not think about as we file away her comment is the negative impact Mrs. Jones's feelings about our camp may have on our camp's reputation and future enrollment. If Mrs. Jones felt strongly enough to take the time to write the comment, she probably has also shared her concern with at least one neighbor or friend. She may have even decided not to send Sam back to our camp, because, although he had fun, she doesn't think his health and hygiene were supervised well enough.

Take the Time to Follow Up

But what would happen if we followed up with Mrs. Jones? I firmly believe that if a parent takes the time to give us constructive feedback, he or she cares about our program and is someone with whom we should take the time to follow up thoroughly, even on seemingly minor complaints. In my experience as a camp director over the past two decades, I have numerous success stories about once-upset parents who have been converted to being informed camp supporters. But even if we don't change an upset parent's mind, she or he will at least know that we took the time to read the comment and follow up. Knowing that we care may make parents less likely to feel negativity towards, and talk negatively about, our camp.

The Benefits of Effective Follow-Up
When following up with a current camp customer is weighed against the time and money spent marketing to gain a new customer, following up on even seemingly minor issues makes great sense. Some camp directors, because of natural human tendencies, prefer to avoid dealing with complaints. I suggest that effectively handling complaints can lead to many benefits for your camp, including:

  • The possible conversion of a camp critic to a camp supporter.
  • A returning camper who may not have come back if you hadn't followed up.
  • Goodwill from a family who knows you truly care about each camper's experience.
  • New ideas for improving your camp program and your staff training.

A Blueprint for Complaints
If thorough follow-up has not been your modus operandi, here is a blueprint that I use that can be modified to fit your camp's particular needs.

  1. Classify the complaint as a minor or major one.
    I classify minor complaints as concerns such as a camper not brushing his teeth enough or losing a clothing item. A major complaint would be a problem with a counselor, a camper who didn't have fun, or other big concern. Please note that even though I am classifying a complaint as "minor," I always keep in mind that, to the parent, they are not "minor."
  2. Research with staff what happened.
    Talk to counselors, program staff, and health personnel to collect facts to help you figure out what went wrong. Take notes of each of your conversations.
  3. Follow up with the family.
    For minor issues reported on a parent evaluation that offers otherwise positive feedback, I send an e-mail (example provided later in this article). If the parent phoned in the complaint, however minor, then I always return his call. For major complaints, I always make a phone call. I think it's always better to call the parent on the phone and avoid a back and forth e-mail communication. On the phone, it is easier to convey your feelings and talk about what you've found in your research without sounding defensive or accusatory. Both you and the parent can be more balanced and honest in your communication, which includes your admitting any wrong-doings on your part or your staff — and the parent sharing some positive feedback. Even if the parent sends me an e-mail with the original complaint (which is often the case), I always call him to follow up. Often, I have ended up talking to both the parent and the camper and have gained valuable information about ways we can improve our program.
  4. Provide further follow-up and closure as needed.
    Sometimes, following the initial phone conversation with the parent, I have more questions for staff because of new information I learn from parents. In that case, I do more research and call the parent again. I never leave a situation or parent "hanging." In most cases, the research and follow up are done within twenty-four hours of receiving the complaint. If it is going to take longer to talk to staff (such as after camp is over), I let the parent know that I appreciate her feedback and provide her with a time frame for when I will call her with more follow-up.
  5. Give the parent something.
    When I've followed up with a family, who, in my opinion, has a valid major complaint, I often offer them something to let them know that I admit we did not meet their expectations and would like them to give our camp another chance. In my experience, giving a family a substantial discount (such as 25-50 percent off any session for the following summer) pays back in the long-term. Not only do parents most often take me up my offer and send their child back to camp, they are the first parents to rave about their child's improved experience. I remember one child in the mid-1990s who had a negative experience with the kids in his cabin group and didn't make any friends at camp. When I followed up with his mother, we talked about what we could do at camp to assist him better with his social skills. He ended up being a long-time camper who attended camp for six more summers. I doubt his mother would have considered sending him back if I hadn't picked up the phone and called her.

Guidelines for E-mail Responses
Although I've changed the names, the complaint that started this article was an actual comment from one of our 2009 parent evaluations last summer. Here is the e-mail follow-up I sent:

Dear Mrs. Jones,

Thank you very much for taking the time to complete your Parent Evaluation about Sam's experience at GAC this summer. We're happy that he had a good experience overall and enjoyed his time at camp.

I appreciate you letting me know that Sam's lips were not properly cared for while he was at camp. I talked with Sam's counselors and reviewed proper hygiene procedures and the importance of reminding campers about using their lip balm. I have also put a note in Sam's file, so that his future counselors will be aware that they need to be more vigilant in helping him care for his skin and lips than his counselors were this year. I hope that Sam's lips have healed completely and did not become infected. If he needed any medical treatment, please let me know so that we can cover the expense with our camper medical insurance.

Our Camp Moms are always available to help in this area, and we will emphasize that counselors can ask them for assistance if they are struggling. While we do spend a lot of time in training on the topic of hygiene, we find that some of our male counselors require a lot of support in this area. We will continue to work to improve our counselors' care and supervision of campers' hygiene.

I hope you are having a great fall, and we hope to see Sam back at GAC in 2010!

Sincerely,
Audrey "Sunshine" Monke

Here is the basic outline I use for most e-mails regarding minor complaints:

  • Greeting.
  • Express thanks/appreciation for taking the time to give the feedback.
  • Explain information I've gathered and/or follow-up I've done with staff.
  • Explain what the camp procedures/policies are. Were they followed? If not, then an apology and explanation of what went wrong is appropriate.
  • Explain what type of follow-up is being done with the staff involved to ensure the same problem won't happen again.
  • Point out something positive, whether it was some feedback the parent gave or something the counselor observed, such as "Grizzly appreciated Sam's leadership in the cabin. Sam was especially good at including all of his cabin mates."
  • Often, I'll ask their permission to (anonymously) use their comment in next summer's staff training to emphasize a point with staff.
  • Offer to discuss further on a phone call.
  • Warm closing with good wishes.

Of course, any e-mail communication needs to be authentically in your voice and needs to reflect the relationship you have with the parent. This e-mail is only given as an example to encourage you to go through your parent evaluations and look for even the small things that present opportunities for follow-up. I have found parents to be extremely appreciative of the follow-up, and, in most cases, they continue to send their child to our camp. The complaints we get also help us continually improve our program, and I am appreciative when people take the time to let us know their concerns.

In this tough economy, where new campers are harder to come by, keeping your current families happy should be every camp director's top priority. What you think may be an unpleasant communication often ends up being helpful and reassuring, so I encourage you not to avoid the complainers, but embrace them! Over the years, and during the follow-up I've done with families, there have been a few parents who either refuse to talk to me or just want to stay mad, but they are the exception, not the rule. The good results from the positive outcomes of effective follow-up have far outweighed any negative conversations I've had over the years. By the way, Sam is already signed up for 2010.

Originally published in the 2010 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

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