“I need to speak with the camp director right now.”
These are some of the most universally dreaded words for camp professionals.
Over my past 37 years as a camp owner/director, dealing with angry calls, emails, and evaluations from disgruntled camp parents tops my list of least-favorite job duties in a career I’ve otherwise adored. Some of the horrible things parents have said to me about my staff and program have stuck with me. Years later I can still remember their tone of voice, their name calling, and some of their outlandish accusations.
Unfortunately for everyone who works with youth (including teachers, coaches, and camp professionals, among others), dissatisfied parents and confrontations appear to be on the rise.
Irate parents are not fun to deal with. While being prepared doesn’t make these calls any more pleasant, good preparation can lead to fewer anxious nights and regrets about how we responded.
Here are some response strategies that are not effective:
- Dismiss them as crazy and complain about them profusely to anyone who will listen.
- Ignore them and hope they’ll go away.
- Send them a refund.
- Write a lengthy email outlining how their child’s own behavior contributed to the issue.
Here are some of my favorite strategies and talking points for handling disgruntled camp parents.
Tip 1: Answer the Call
Pick up the phone. Voice is always better than text.
In our email and text-centric world, it feels so much easier and more comfortable to respond to an angry parent email with an email of your own. Don’t do it. Your email — no matter how carefully crafted — will not convey the tone you want to get across to your customer. Plus, you’ll spend way too much time in a back-and-forth email string that will only lead to further frustration and misunderstanding. Not to mention a very robust paper trail about errors you and/or your staff may have made.
If they called you and left a message, call them back. If they emailed you, email them a brief response to set up the call. Here’s an email template:
Dear Mr. Disgruntled,
Thank you for reaching out and letting me know your concern about (fill in the summary of the concern).
Let’s set up a call to talk. I’m available to chat between 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. this afternoon. Let me know a good time and the best number to reach you. (Helpful tip: Send parents to your scheduling link and keep it updated with your “office hours” so you don’t have to spend all day scheduling calls.)
Your Calm, Cool, Collected, Compassionate Camp Director
Tip 2: Disarm Them by Not Being Defensive
Before you make the call (or pick up the phone when they’ve called you), take at least three deep breaths to help calm your nervous system and get into your “thinking” brain so that you can be professional — and not emotional — on the call.
It may be helpful to practice the call with a coworker who wants to channel their inner irate parent in a role play. Ask them for honest feedback. Do you sound calm, respectful, and reassuring? Great! Is there any condescension or defensiveness creeping in? Not great.
Better yet, make this brief role play part of your training for all frontline staff who may potentially be on phone duty or in conversation with disgruntled parents.
Regardless of the topic of the parent’s frustration, and even if they are completely off base with their complaint, start the conversation by thanking them for their feedback and for giving you the opportunity to follow up. For example, “Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I really appreciate the opportunity to follow up with you about this.”
Never raise your voice or get upset with them (even when their voice is raised or what they are saying seems to be completely unreasonable). If you feel your heart rate increase and that you’re moving into your emotional brain, pause and take another deep breath. Emotions resonate, and you want to share your calm, not join their chaos.
Tip 3: Show Interest in Their Concern
Show interest in their concern by asking a lot of questions, acknowledging their expertise about their child, and empathizing.
Stick with the 80-20 rule for these conversations. Let them talk at least 80 percent of the time. An upset parent likely is not thinking clearly and will not hear what you have to say. They will only calm down and be able to talk more rationally if you give them a lot of opportunities to articulate their issue(s). Open-ended questions about their child and the concern/problem they are calling about can help them feel heard and will also help you (and possibly the parent) clarify what the root of the problem is. Sometimes another concern is actually the cause of the issue.
Embrace the conversational pause. Listen well to what the parent is saying and take notes. If you can get some actual quotes of what the parent is saying, that’s ideal and can be helpful for follow-up later.
One word of caution: starting with, “What I hear you saying is . . .” in this type of conversation may come across as disingenuous. Alternatively, you could respond with one of the following:
- “I want to make sure I’m understanding the problem/source of your frustration. Can I ask you a few more questions?”
- “I’d like to understand. Tell me more about what you’ve seen/heard.”
- “What can I do to relieve your fears?”
- “How can I help you feel more comfortable about (camper’s name) being at camp?”
If it works in the conversation and feels natural for you, here are some phrases you can use to acknowledge their expertise in regard to their child:
- “You are the expert about (camper’s name) and know him/her/them best.”
- “I appreciate you calling about this, because it’s important to me that we work together to ensure the best experience for (camper’s name).”
- “Has anything like this ever happened before?”
- “How have teachers/counselors better handled situations like this in the past?”
- “I’d like to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Do you have any suggestions for how I/we could have handled it differently?”
- “This must be frustrating/disappointing for you. I’m sorry that’s the case.”
Tip 4: Stick to the Topic
Stick to the topic of their child’s experience and your follow-up plan.
When discussing a camper, parents will often want to put the blame on other campers or your staff. Do not give them any fuel about other kids. Instead, let them know who you will talk to — usually their child’s camp counselor and other adults who know the campers and the situation — to get more information.
Possible responses when a parent is blaming a camper/counselor include:
- “That sounds like really inappropriate/unkind behavior. I’m going to follow up with the counselor to find out their observations/insights.”
- “That’s not how our counselors are trained to respond in this type of situation. I’m going to talk with other staff who were at the activity/in the area to see what they observed.”
Be very specific about your follow-up plan. If there is more than one issue or complaint, outline your steps for each different issue.
- "If it sounds good to you, this is how I'm going to follow up . . ."
Some ideas for steps you might take include:
- “I’ll pull (camper’s name) aside and see how this week is going.”
- “I’m going to talk with the head counselor who has been working closely with the group and get some more information about the situation.”
- “I’m going to have lunch with the group and observe their interactions.”
Be sure to make arrangements to get back in touch with the parents afterwards. For example, “Can I call you back this evening, after I’ve had a chance to follow up with (camper’s name)’s counselors/the camp nurse? What time works best for you?”
Tip 5: Train Your Frontline Staff
Your frontline staff need to know how to respond to “I need to speak with the camp director.”
Generally the person taking the call is not the camp director. An excellent way to respond (have this posted over the desk of whoever answers phones) is: “They (or use camp director’s name) are out in camp with the campers. Is there something I can assist you with, would you like me to give them a message, or would you prefer being transferred to their voicemail?”
It is super helpful to get a bit of information about why the parent wants to talk with you, so you can do some research and be better prepared to call them back.
At my camp, we advise our office staff to only radio us while the complainant is still on the line if we have specifically informed them that we are waiting for their call and want to be radioed. Even if staff answering the phone can find you quickly (such as when you’re in your office), that information does not need to be given to parents. Being constantly called to the phone when we are at an activity, walking around camp, or talking to campers or staff limits our ability to do our job well, so it’s best to train all staff — and parents — that you are not always readily available.
Other helpful phrases for frontline staff handling the initial complaint call:
- “Thank you very much for calling/letting me know your concern. I will get your message to . . . (whoever handles this type of call)."
- “I understand how upsetting this is for you, and I will make sure the right person gets this information and gets back to you right away.”
- “I will get your message to one of our directors so they can look into this and get back to you.”
We camp professionals excel at providing our campers with positive, meaningful, and growth-filled camp experiences, but we can fall short when it comes to providing parents with an equally positive experience. All of us, no matter how many disgruntled parents we’ve dealt with in the past, can benefit from improving our communication skills when responding to challenging situations. Even if your campers’ parents never step foot on camp property, you can exceed their expectations and grow their loyalty to your program through your timely and professional response to their concerns. Some of your best, longest-term customers may even come out of your most difficult calls.
For More Information
For more tips on dealing with concerned parents, check out these resources:
Audrey Monke, with her husband Steve, has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp (Lakeshore, California) since 1989. On her website (sunshine-parenting.com) Audrey shares resources for parents and youth development professionals about summer camp, parenting, and happiness. Her podcast (Sunshine Parenting) features interviews with parenting authors and experts, including camp directors. Audrey’s book, Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults (Hachette, 2019), shares strategies for bringing the magic of camp home.