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The Secret To Running A Successful Nursery Business? Give Parents What They Want

Lorraine Jenkin presents the business case for paying attention to what your customers think about your early years setting...

  • The Secret To Running A Successful Nursery Business? Give Parents What They Want

What every early years professional believes – and every parent thinks they believe – is that childcare is all about the children. It’s about them being looked after in a safe and enjoyable atmosphere, whilst their parents or carers work. Right?


What every commercial setting must remember is that if parents aren’t happy, the setting will eventually not be financially viable. For example, a friend of mine was running a nursery. It was going through difficult times, and although it had a good CSSIW (Care and Social Care Inspectorate Wales – Wales’ Ofsted equivalent) report, numbers were falling.

The owner was finding she needed to advertise, where previously her custom had come through word of mouth, though she was used to parents having to use an additional nursery when she was unable provide the required hours. However, when more hours became available at the other nursery, parents started taking up theirs, rather than hers. Finances were getting tight, and her staff were becoming demoralised.

Being both a past user of nurseries and a businesswoman, I was asked by her to brainstorm what might be going wrong and to suggest ways of resolving the situation.

Negative perceptions

The CSSIW report gave us confidence that the quality of the childcare wasn’t the problem. Fee-wise, the nursery compared well locally, so I spoke with parents to try and understand where the issues lay.

Many were cagey, but muttered things about other nurseries being ‘friendlier’ or their child enjoying them more. Others said that sending their children elsewhere meant they got to work on time – despite us knowing that both nurseries were equidistant from their offices.

Over time, it became clear it was the parents’ perceptions of the nursery, rather than the children’s happiness about being there, that was the issue. I decided to visit when parents had contact with the nursery to find out what was going wrong.

Parental frustrations

The first thing I noticed was that the most junior member of staff answered the doorbell and welcomed arrivals. She would help put away the children’s coats and bags, and whilst she didn’t do anything wrong, she wasn’t a chatty person, so contact with the parents was minimal. If a child was happy to say goodbye at the door, this would be the only contact that a parent would have in the morning with the organisation she was entrusting her precious child to. In my book, that didn’t seem like enough.

Later, an anxious child was taken into the already buzzing nursery with his mum. Whilst they were greeted and chatted to by staff, the staff were already busy with other children at the play-dough table. The parent was kneeling, in her suit, with her child on her lap, waiting to untangle herself and leave.

Unwittingly, the staff thought this was what she wanted – but having been in this position with my own children (feeling guiltily desperate for little Johnny to man-up and let me get on with my day) I saw the problem. I motioned for someone to distract the child and followed the parent to the door.

I asked her whether this happened often. She replied it happened most days, and was very frustrating. She had spoken with the nursery about it, but any changes would only last a few days before she’d have to return to sitting and waiting.

I returned at evening pick-up and saw more of the same. The children had had a full and industrious day, but the – usually slightly ragged! – parents were being greeted by the quietest member of staff, handed their child’s bag and coat, and waved goodbye.

There was typically a short chat about the day, but this usually covered “No problems” or “A problem,” if there was one. There was no explanation of the pictures or crafts stashed in the child’s bag, no photos or relaying of activities a child had done. Again, I felt it was pretty soulless and a wasted opportunity.

Finding solutions

There was no doubt that the nursery was doing a good job – but it was neglecting to look after the very people who paid the staff’s wages and kept the lights on. I didn’t presume to have identified everything, but we had a good list to work on:

1.We put chattier people on meet and greet duties and instructed them to welcome both child and parent as individuals. We wanted them to say more than just, ‘Come on, Davey, we’re doing X and Y today,’ but also add to mum, ‘Anything exciting on today for you?’ and take leads from parents (very important) as to how much chat was wanted.

This meant a friendly and personal drop-off, with staff showing interest in both child and parent.

2. Clingier children were to be included immediately within an activity and enticed away, until the parent decided to leave. If parents chose to leave whilst the child was still unhappy, staff would text them to confirm once everything was fine (assuming it was).

These texts would usually be sent within five minutes of the parent departing, and helped prevent them from thinking that their child was hating his or her time at nursery.

3. The nursery continued doing the same activities it always had, but we now made sure that there was always something to take home.

We also labelled pictures or items for later discussion. For example, during an activity called ‘George’s Farm’ we would identify ‘pig’, ‘cow’, and so forth, so that parents realised this was a time-consuming project, rather than a two-minute scribble.

4. We asked parents to provide a list of important dates, such as family birthdays, so that we could make cards or craft items from the child. This wasn’t onerous – it just meant writing ‘Dear Grampy’ on a picture and putting it in a nice envelope the week before the date. This was hugely appreciated by the parents, who didn’t always have time to do this themselves.

5. The nursery had always taken photos of wall displays and the like, but we now began popping one every few weeks into the children’s bags. We decided against doing more, due to time constraints. We found that these were similarly loved by time-pressed parents, who were pleased to know that someone was taking their child out to splash in puddles…

6. Home-times changed too – parents were now asked how their days had been. Many seemed glad to off-load and be in a better mood before being taken to their child, while others just said, “Fine” and collected their child. Again, a chattier member of staff performed this duty, taking their lead from the parents’ responses.

7. We also recognised the need to know the type of parent each child had in order to accommodate their needs. Many were realistic about nursery provision and were simply happy with the good service they received.

Others, however, needed to know exactly what was happening. Although some members of staff found this frustrating, we agreed that it was our job to ensure each parent received the reassurances they needed.

Making progress

The implementation of these suggestions was immediate, but took a few weeks to embed. The initial effect was a bestow more of a ‘family’ feel to the nursery, which made staff feel better appreciated.

The Staff also understood the importance of their roles in the commercial aspect of their employment destiny – which included not gossiping detrimentally about the organisation. Parents for their part gradually ‘thawed out’ and seemed to have more loyalty vested in the nursery.

Within six months of the recommendations being implemented, the nursery was back on a sounder financial footing. The owner additionally found that maintaining greater contact with parents headed further potential problems off at the pass; parents became more open to the nursery’s suggestions, many of which were good and simple to accommodate.

The principles of the nursery remained the same as they’d always been – good-quality childcare at an affordable price. Yet shifting that focus ever so slightly had made all the difference between the nursery being a thriving business, and one that had been facing a difficult future.

Lorraine Jenkin is an author, journalist and blogger, a mother of three girls and has been involved in childcare for several years, including running the village playgroup, acting as a parent-governor and working as a play-assistant within a three-year-old provision; for more information, visit lorrainejenkin.blogspot.co.uk or follow @lorrainejenkin

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