Sunday, 2 October 2011

Troubled times... marketing your childminding business

Many childminders are noticing that it is getting harder to hang on to clients and even harder to find new families.

This is something that is affecting all of us and with rising day-to-day running costs, less available free training, shortfalls in income if you offer the free entitlement and children’s families complaining that they cannot pay the bill it does not paint a particularly good picture for childminder sustainability nationally.

However there are some steps you can take, whether you are noticing that you need to tighten your belt now or you think you might suffer financially in the future...

• Check your prices carefully against those charged by other childminders in your local area. Try not to pitch too high or parents who are looking for a childminder based mostly on cost will go elsewhere. However do not undercut local childminders – they will not be happy with you!

. Plan ahead - if you know a family are going to leave you in a few months' time or children are due to start school in September start advertising 2 or 3 months in advance to give yourself the best possible chance of filling your space

• Consider whether you can offer a service which appeals to specific types of workers – overnight care for parents who work at night, shift work for parents who work strange hours etc. This is especially helpful if you live near a hospital, fire station etc

• Save on the heating bills - check the temperature in your house through the day and, instead of turning up the heating, ask parents to supply warm socks and layers of clothes for the children to wear. Consider how you keep the house warm when you offer free flow play to the outside area as the weather cools down

• Think carefully before raising your charges – I have heard from many childminders who say they put up their prices only to have parents take children out of their provision for a day a week to compensate

• Prioritise spending – look at the resources you already offer the children, both inside and out and what they can access on outings. Before you buy anything new ask yourself why you want it and how the purchase will improve outcomes for the children. Plan a spending budget rather than buying a few things every month – you might be surprised at how much you can reuse and recycle before reaching for your credit card

• Initial meetings - when organising meetings with potential new parents think carefully about your own children’s needs and those of minded children. Sometimes you can spend the whole meeting feeling hassled by the other children and not giving new parents the attention they need. As we know, children pick their times to play up… so think about whether you should meet when they are not present

• Reward parents who send you new customers – maybe with a little gift or a voucher. This has worked for a friend of mine and she is now full. Bribery clearly focuses the mind!

• Work with the local community – think about whether you and some childminders could team up together to advertise at local community fairs and other events. It does not take much organisation and you will raise the profile of childminding

• Save on food costs – carry out a month long audit of exactly what you buy for the childminded children, how much is getting eaten / wasted, what they really like to eat, whether they are eating for the sake of it etc. Put together a menu, with the children’s input, which reflects your findings.

You might also find it helpful to experiment with cheaper shopping – cheaper cuts of meat are lovely if they have been in a slow cooker all day; fruit and veg bought seasonally tends to be cheaper; it can be cost effective to use cheaper brands of kitchen roll to wipe hands (or cloths that are washed with the normal family washing), tissues for noses etc – although I will not compromise on my nice loo roll!

• Tart up the house – clean your front door, check your bell works, clear your hall of clutter, think about buggy storage to make things tidier, make sure your front garden has kerb appeal etc. It is important that potential new parents get a good feeling about you and your house and, according to research, first impressions really do count and are made in the initial minutes of meeting someone

• Remind parents in your newsletter that they might be able to get help with their childcare costs… they might find the website http://www.payingforchildcare.org.uk/ useful

• Late payments – the time has come to get strict! Yes, I know, we put the children first… but parents wouldn’t be able to get away with it at Tesco and you should not let them away with it either. Remind parents about your late payment policy (make sure it is written into your fees policy) and follow it rather than letting things slide

• Offer something different – shopping sessions around Christmas time or in the lead up to the child’s birthday, a regular cooking afternoon when other children who do not normally come that day can attend, yoga sessions, regular music and movement groups with other childminders and their children, craft activities with other childminders where the children can work on a much larger scale, collections from local school clubs, outings to well resourced activity sessions etc. Advertise these sessions so your advert stands out from the rest in your local area

• Some childminders offer extra services for parents – at a cost of, say, £1 per errand. If you think you can pick up or deliver dry cleaning, visit the post office to post letters, collect prescriptions, pay in cheques etc for busy working parents as part of your daily routine, while involving the children and making it into a learning experience for them, then why not consider adding it to your list of services?

• Work together with other childminders rather than against each other. You all need each other more than ever at the moment… so get together and swap numbers and talk about how you can support each other

• If you have assistants or work with other childminders remember that they are an investment in your business. Diary in short weekly training sessions to make sure everyone keeps up-to-date with the latest good practice advice and support

• Plan your marketing – whether you are busy or empty, plan to do at least 1 marketing exercise every month to keep everything fresh and updated. For example…

- January – update website, adding a new page and ensuring the information reads well. Make sure the first paragraph mentions your business and town as that part is most likely to be picked up by Google and other bots

- February – ring Family Information Service and update your advert. Read through some others first and refresh your wording

- March – put up new adverts in local shops and businesses. Decide on an advertising slogan or link in with the most popular reason why current parents use you (ask them and find out)

- April – write an advert for your local Parish or other free listing magazine

- May – send a letter to local paper about your new garden or healthy eating award or something that you have done as a childminding group or individual (make sure have you written parents permission before submitting photos)

- June – update your group photo album ready for showing new parents when they come to visit

- July – order new sun hats or brightly coloured t-shirts for the children with logos. The children can wear them and advertise you when they are out and about through the summer

- August – order new business cards ready for the start of term. Make sure the spelling, punctuation etc is absolutely spot on so they look professional

- September – take business cards round local children’s groups and pin then to notice boards or give out to parents

- October – put together Halloween goodie bags for the local trick or treaters when they come round and add a business card to each

- November – work with children to make a banner for the front wall or window which advertises your childminding service

- December – put an announcement in your monthly newsletter advertising your spaces and asking current parents to mention you to their friends or relatives

I hope you find some of the tips useful! I have written a mini e-book 35 about marketing your business which contains these and lots of other ideas for promoting yourself and the service you offer :)