1. Invest in yourself
You are your own greatest asset, and you should cultivate your own skills through training, professional development, and personal growth.
“I knew no one else had as much invested in this company as I did, so I decided I would invest in me,” Toledo, Ohio, child-care provider Lois Mitten Rosenberry says. From the very beginning, even when money was extremely tight, she included child-care and business conferences in her budget. “It's opened up a lot of opportunities to me,” she says. “It's made me a better person and enabled me to take the company to where it is today.”
In addition to training, join professional associations; most communities have an association of child-care providers, along with a wide range of organizations designed to support small-business owners.
2. Find out how you're doing
Mitten Rosenberry asks parents to evaluate her centers and the care their children are receiving and uses that input when developing improvement plans. She also uses secret shoppers to find out not only how her own centers are doing but how they compare with other centers. Occasionally, she brings in national consultants to analyze her performance and provide constructive feedback.
3. Differentiate your services
Position yourself in the marketplace as a child-care center that is unique. Mitten Rosenberry was concerned when a large chain moved into her community. But one of her advisors told her not to see competition as a negative but rather to use it as a positive. “Learn to create a business that's so different from your competitors that the parents of the children will always choose you,” she says. As she adopted unusual and innovative concepts in her centers, she began attracting attention.
“In differentiating my product, we received a lot of exposure on television and in the newspapers,” she says. She won a number of awards in the general business community as well as the child-care industry, and each award generated more news coverage. “For as small of a company as we are, people are amazed at the publicity we've received,” Mitten Rosenberry says. “But it comes from finding that niche, that way to do your product differently that gives you an edge in the marketplace.”
One of the ways Mitten Rosenberry differentiates her centers is in how calls are handled when people are looking for information. As the first conversation begins, a record is created, tracking the caller’s name, the name and age of the child (or children), what the parent is looking for in the way of child-care services, and any other information that's discussed. When the parent comes in to tour the facility, the administrator makes it a point to refer to the child by name and is able to focus on the aspects of the center that are consistent with what the parent wants.
Child-care operator Linda Dupie differentiates herself by her hours of service, focusing on the before- and after-school care market. Most family and commercial child care centers don't like having one of the slots taken by a child who won’t be there all day, and parents are delighted to find a provider who's looking for that type of business. Also, Dupie says, being licensed sets her apart from homebased providers who are not similarly credentialed.
4. Get commitments from your customers
You make a long-term commitment to your business, so it’s reasonable to expect your customers to make a commitment to using your services. Don’t be afraid to ask your customers to sign a contract obligating them to use your services for a specified period. Certainly the contract can include an escape clause that lets either you or the customer out of the agreement under certain circumstances, but a contract tells your customers you're committed to them and their children, and you deserve the same in return.
5. Follow up on everything you do
Take the time to study the impact of all the management and marketing you do. When you make a management change, review the effect it has on your operation. And only do as much marketing as you have time to follow up on. For example, don’t do a direct mail campaign if you’re not going to have time to answer the calls it generates. Don’t ask for referrals if you’re not going to follow up on them. If you exchange business cards with someone, always call them within a few days to see if they have any interest in your services.
6. Keep a professional distance
When you spend as much time with children as child-care providers do, it’s easy to develop strong feelings for them. But keep those feelings under control. “You may love the kids and the parents, but you need to keep a professional distance,” says Janet Hale, owner of Gingerbread House in Exeter, California. “Children will come and go, things happen in families, and while you want to be there to support the family, you can’t let them devastate you.”
“I’m surprised at how attached you get to these little people,” says child-care service owner Christine Srabian. “You don’t want to see them go when they grow up.”
Keep in mind that you're essentially an extended family for the children, and they're likely to be very candid and open about what’s going on at home. You’re going to hear things that shouldn’t be repeated. “Keep everything you know about the kids confidential,” says Hale. “We hear lots of stuff—that daddy hit mommy, that grandpa left grandma for a younger woman. If kids are comfortable and love their teachers, and most of them do, they'll say what’s on their mind. And that could be that daddy left town or is in jail.” Don’t repeat anything the children say about their home lives, and routinely reinforce this in staff training sessions.
7. Be prepared for the bad days
Having a child-care center isn’t perpetual recess—it’s long hours, hard work, and plenty of stress. Know that you’ll have “those moments,” when things are going wrong, the children are being difficult, and you’re on your last nerve. At those times, take a moment to reflect and remind yourself why you started your business.
8. Enjoy the rewards
Child-care providers say no other business can match theirs for personal satisfaction and emotional rewards. “Even though we try to keep a professional distance, we become involved with the family over time,” says Hale. “It warms my heart to see single mothers or struggling families make it, get good jobs, and get off public assistance.”
There’s also the tremendous gratification of watching children grow and develop physically, socially, and intellectually, and to know that you're playing a very important role in shaping the future of each child in your care. Beyond that important long-term benefit, there are the minute-by-minute rewards of being a child-care provider. After all, what can equal the warmth of a child’s hug or the joy of their laughter?