The story is familiar because you have seen it before. In fact, it’s played out in the same way so many times that one wonders why those involved in it do not realize what is happening to them. There was that school. It used to be huge! A trend-setter it was! A market leader and then gradually it faded into oblivion. The whole thing did not happen suddenly but over a period of time, yet nothing was done to arrest the fall. Behind it all, what looms clearly visible is hubris with her twin sisters: self-pity and blaming others. Still, the question remains, how do FLS manage to lose their clients?
Necessary distinctions and clarifications
Prior to discussing client loss, we need to do two things. The first one is to make a distinction between the schools that once had clients and are now standing empty and those that never managed to secure their own market-share. In some cases, they did secure some market share, but this was so little in comparison with the total market addressable that it is beside the point to talk about it. The reason for this distinction is that there are different causes or symptoms in each of these cases.
The second thing we need to do is examine how a client, becomes our client. For the demographics of our area, our school is not the centre of the world. Therefore, for those who do not have children, there is a broader awareness of the existence of the school, but no more than that. When these people become parents, they slowly but steadily start looking at all kinds of school and then they notice. Awareness of our school at this stage becomes vital (White, Hockley et al, 2008). If this is positive awareness, the chances are on our side. Once the children of the potential clients reach the first classes of elementary school and choice of an FLS becomes an issue, consideration comes into play. Consideration is what brings clients to our doorstep. If parents consider our school, they will visit. If we manage to convince them we are good at what we do, they may even register. At this stage, though, they are not our clients. This is merely a trial period. After a few years of repeated transactions and positive feedback, these clients become loyal and then in the fullness of time they may even recommend our school to other parents.
I described this cycle because I wanted to highlight the fact that the process of acquiring clients is both long and arduous. It is also super-sensitive as clients may bolt at any point in time, especially if they are quick to make decisions.
The school that used to be full
Under this light, I believe that we need to wonder how we manage to retain the market share that we have secured (and increase it) given how easily clients can be lost. Most school owners nowadays believe that students leave once their parents find cheaper tuition fees. Some also believe that cheap private lesson have infiltrated their market share in an unethical way and by axing the prices have managed to sway clients who have simply opted for the cheaper option. Personally, I beg to disagree. I will not make a secret of the fact that pricing and offering value for money services is vital in retaining our clientele. At the same time, people leave when there is nothing to keep them.
There are two major reasons why once successful schools have lost a chunk of their market share. The first one is that they have rested on their laurels for too long (I did mention hubris at the beginning) or they were never ready for their success.
Resting on our laurels
There are many foreign language schools which keep going round and round on the same autopilot for years. In the past this way of working used to be successful and brought in clients. Today it is not, but nobody dares suggest another way because if the cheese has been moved, all we have to do is wait for it to return. Sadly, this does not happen. If the cheese has been moved, we need to move too. In fact, we needed to have predicted when it would move so as to take measures beforehand. Unfortunately, this is not possible since in such FLS, only some procedures are in place but just so as to pay lip service to ELT Management and “its many benefits”. In actual reality, nobody applies quality controls or takes a keen interest in developing teachers’ and students’ potential. In such schools, there is little innovation and a lot of repetition. Research and development, taking the pulse of our demographics and preparing new services or responding to emerging needs are unheard of.
The motto behind the operation of such schools is “if it ain’t broken, why fix it?” The problem in business, though, is that once it’s broken, it is usually too late to fix it. The hubris hidden behind this mentality and the notion that we hold the key to eternal profitability are dangerous consultants. Very soon hubris is escorted by the desire for profit maximization, so prices rise, but the services remain the same or even, less is on offer at this given price. Profit maximization leads to the other erroneous saying: “nobody is irreplaceable”. Therefore, there is no need for expensive, experienced teachers. Any teacher, unqualified or untrained can get the job done. But if the “superb FLS” employees are untrained and unqualified, what will stop parents from leaving and getting their own untrained and unqualified private teacher to do exactly the same thing, at a lower cost under their own roof? Hence, the loss of clients! At this stage usually hubris is replaced by self-pity and a feeling that we got the wrong end of the deal due to no fault of our own. This leads to endless nagging and finger pointing, both of which create a negative atmosphere in the FLS, which discourages other clients from joining.
Not ready for success
The second reason mentioned above was that some FLS were never ready for their initial success. In our minds, only loss of clients is negative. We never stop to think that not expecting an influx of clients who cannot be served or accommodated is also a failure in management. Such a situation could lead to problems in the first impression the school makes as well as inability to manage and maintain the same standards of quality teaching. In this case, parents and students feel disillusioned because they were drawn to the school by its reputation for supreme quality and had to settle for a second-rate product which did not merit the title. In this case there is truly nothing to hold the clients there. We could also consider at this point the attitude of many school owners towards potential and existing clients. For some owners, clients are important only as prospects. Once they become existing clients, they are a given. Therefore, the two types of customers experience a very different kind of service.
It seems that one article is not enough for this topic to be dealt in detail, so we will continue next month by taking a look into the symptoms of FLS that never managed to secure their own clientele and discussing what can be done to reverse the situation.
Harris,A. 2002. School Improvement. What’s in it for schools? New York: Routledge
Jonhson, S.1999. Who moved my cheese? An amazing way to deal with change in work and in your life. London: Vermillion.
White, R. and Hockley, A. and Van der Horst Jensen, J. and Laughner, M. 2008. From Teacher to Manager. Managing Language Teaching Organisations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press