And, since 80 percent of a company's business comes from existing customers, according to Brown, "it's worth it to go through old files," to call students who stopped coming. Managers can find out what happened to turn them off to flight training and discover what can bring them back.
Selling a service
Flight schools typically run into marketing problems, says Smith, because they are selling an "invisible" product, a service. It's tough to price since the value of flight training lies in the customer's perception. It's hard to guarantee since every student is different and also difficult to maintain consistency with the high amount of customer contact and the strong relationships that form between instructor and student.
To tackle these problems, Smith and Brown note that flight schools need to be specific about what they are offering to alleviate confusion and build value in the eyes of potential customers. Basically, customers want to know (1) how can they become pilots and (2) how much it will cost. When someone calls to inquire about flight training, often they are bombarded with all the options included in a program plus the discounts without being given a straightforward answer.
"They're getting what they perceive to be a Chinese menu full of options, and they can't compare two different flight schools....We're losing them before they can even communicate with anyone who can sell them on flying."
Smith recommends having the customer speak to someone specifically assigned to sales to spell out prices and clinch the deal. Also, his flight school breaks training down into manageable steps: an introductory flight; a preview course on flight basics; a solo course leading up to the student's solo certificate; a "flight adventure course" which includes the cross-country training; and the final course which prepares a student for the exam.
Naming a price
Smith has a few general recommendations on setting rates in the flight training industry:
1. Don't base pricing
on logic; "Flight training is often an emotional purchase."
2. Beware of middle-pricing. "If you're in the middle, you're saying you're average."
3. Low pricing is historically "a death sentence. There's nothing unique about being inexpensive. All it takes is for one person to come in and price a dollar under you."
He suggests adopting a "profitability mentality ... In a competitive market, the natural tendency is toward price cutting...Just say to heck with those guys and be profitable."
"If there was ever a time to increase the quality of service and increase our compensation as a result of that, now is the time," says Brown.
"Customers should complain about your prices, or you're not charging enough," adds Smith.
Smith says managers can "build fences" by charging different amounts for different types of instruction, such as advanced or multi-engine. Instructors with more ratings or experience can also charge more.
A dearth of instructors
Since good flight instructors are becoming scarce, Smith says schools should always be interviewing to develop a relationship with available instructors; once a position opens up, the school has several instructors to call. Other suggestions include...
...hiring for spirit, not skill; skill can be taught.
...hiring a "good person" when one comes along, whether there is a position open or not. "A good person pays for themselves."
...setting a goal to interview one candidate a month.
...considering a mix of full- and part-time instructors.
...using ex-instructors with lapsed medical certificates to teach ground school.
Also, Smith notes that instructors usually go through a cycle in employment: First, they are eager to fly and always at the airport; then they begin to get "burned out" and show up just when they need to; and finally, they start avoiding work. From the start of employment, Smith gives his instructors two consecutive days off every week where they cannot come to the airport. Instructors are less likely to burn out, he says.
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