For many of us who have "come up through the ranks" and started out as classroom Teachers, this is sometimes the most difficult (or most unpleasant) aspect of the position of Director. The very qualities that made us good Teachers, sometimes impair our ability to do our job in this area. I won’t even tell you how much money one parent left owing a private center I ran because I loved her child deeply, and I knew her other options would be most certainly be detrimental to him. Did I do her (or him) a favor – ultimately, no. In the end, she ended up leaving anyway, but not on good terms, and the few times I have seen her and Kameron in public she has acted as if she didn’t see me. The center was her support system in a lot of ways, and because her balance got to the point that it was completely overwhelming – which was my fault – she lost the relationships and people who were the only support and stability she and her child had. And what could my little, cute Kameron have thought when he saw me and wanted to come up and hug me, and his mother bustled him away, either out of fear of being confronted or embarrassment? I was part of the problem in this case – sometimes you think you are giving people a break or helping them, and you’re really not.
The following are some tips &/or suggestions that may hopefully assist you in this area:
- First and foremost – people need to pay. Be of the mindset that our services are of value! The center has financial obligations, too. A parent wouldn’t expect to go to the grocery store and say, "Can I pay you next Thursday?". Examine your feelings on this. We want to be flexible, but this is an area where we truly have very little latitude. You may just want to tell parents (in private) that you have payroll to meet too, and you depend on their tuition payments to pay your employees.
- Set the tone immediately. Tuition policies should be covered thoroughly upon enrollment to prevent misunderstandings or any miscommunication. Cover our late fee policy, point by point. Let them know you have no discretion on this – it is all computerized. After going over this verbally, actually show them the pages of the Parent Handbook where this information can be found. Strongly encourage new enrollments to pay on the Friday before. This gives you a window of one more day – & many times is payday for people
- Get on it and stay on it. The first time the words come out of your mouth "It’s no big deal" when a parent forgets his/her checkbook, you have now conveyed to his/her that it is no big deal to pay on time. Act as if it’s a big deal. Use your facial expressions to convey that it is a problem. We all get stuck in that ‘wanting to be nice’ thing – you are not being a bad guy asking these parents to pay or enforcing policy. If the parent ‘forgot the checkbook’, tell them "You can leave little Billy and run home really quickly to get it." You are now conveying an entirely different message. And you know they have to come back to get their child – hopefully, right?
- Be consistent in enforcing the late fee policy. This will really help you by eliminating many AR’s, as well as the "Well I never had to pay it before…" It acts as a deterrent – but only if you use it. It also is important, to enforce this policy consistently throughout the company for legal reasons.
- Act immediately. Again, this conveys a message. If a parent pays late and nothing is said the first time, (s)he will think that that is acceptable. When we let a balance get out of hand, as in the situation I shared above, we risk losing that child. If a parent now owes for 2 weeks, they may feel as if they can never catch it up, and that they should just go start over somewhere else.
- Day One Late approach is "I’m sure you forgot." And we move on from there. By Day 2, if you don’t see them, you need to make that phone call. Call every day if that is what you need to do. Follow up with notes. Don’t just put a note on a cubbie or a daily sheet – it needs to be personally handed to a parent by you or by your Assistant. If one of you need to stay until that parent arrives in order to do this, plan on it. This is how Directors with no AR’s do it.
- With chronic parents, or parents who really struggle, when working on this with them, find out the day(s) they get paid. Usually there are several other people in line, and we want to be first, second or third. This is not to say we are cold or heartless. This is also not to say we don’t want to help this family. If they are struggling, pass along appropriate clothing donations that are sometimes made to the center; research and tell them about community resources that may help them; see if they can qualify for 2nd party subsidy assistance; ask the parent if they have relatives that could help out a couple of days a week, so that they can get a part-time rate. We need to assist them in other ways. Remember – we are already helping them a great deal by providing consistent, stable quality child care for their child(ren). If they lose that, as the Welfare to Work research shows, then they often lose everything.
- Be physically present in the morning drop off and evening pick up times. If they don’t see you, some parents sigh a big sigh of relief and think "Whew!". You have to do this (at least on days tuition is due) in order to be successful with this aspect of your job.
- If you are not getting a response from one parent, make contact with the other one (if this is appropriate and they are also listed as financially responsible on our paperwork.) I have had several situations where one parent thought the other was paying, and they weren’t. I had one situation in which the father was giving the mother the money for child care and she was not giving it to us – but she had really nice nails. This stopped immediatelywhen he was made aware that there was an outstanding balance!
Develop a relationship with your parents. You want them to come to you in advance if they think they are going to have some kind of problem paying due to some unforeseeable personal situation. Some people will actually drop their children before asking for a payment plan. Make parents feel as if they can come to you – about anything. Some parents are disgruntled and don’t feel that you have provided the service that they are being asked to pay for. Those families may drop owing money, not communicating their dissatisfaction while looking for other arrangements. Watch for signs of this so that you can work out these types of issues.
I have had parents pay delinquent accounts primarily because we had a relationship, and they didn’t want me to get in trouble. (And I used it when I had to.) Would you want someoneyou like, who has been fair and kind to you, to get in trouble for something that was yourresponsibility? I actually had a parent say, "Oh, I never thought about that. I don’t want you to get in trouble." - and she paid her bill, after her child no longer attended. Be careful with this though – we do not want ‘corporate’ to be some big, evil, heartless faceless entity. People should pay because they are obligated and we provided the service, as mutually agreed upon. But, in rare instances, with some parents, after you’ve gone through everything else you know to do, this may be a motivator for them – if they like you or have a sense of fair play. Saying to a parent "It is part of my job and I am held accountable for receiving payment on this account" is fine – and true. Be more careful with the "I’m going to get in trouble with my boss" tactic.
- Put up reminder signs in your entryway or on the door: "Just a Friendly Reminder - Tuition is Due Tomorrow (Monday)" if this is okay with your AM. This is especially helpful if you have taken over a center and need to "retrain" the parents, or have many that pay late. Please keep in mind, that this does not replace any of the other things you need to be doing and cannot be a substitute for that necessary sit-down, private talk in your office! If a sign is up all the time, parents will stop seeing it, so consider doing it on weeks with holidays, etc. when traditionally parents forget to pay before being off.
No, collecting money from parents is not fun, but it is a part of your job. Think of it in terms of all of the equipment you could buy or the raises you could give with what has walked out your door!! I once had someone I respect a great deal tell me that I had to "grow up, be a big girl, and just do it." She was absolutely right, and I felt much better about myself and my job, and less like a victim when I did.