A lot of guitar teachers struggle to grow their businesses because they lose students as fast as they come in…it’s like trying to bail water out of a sinking ship, and they never seem to be able to get ahead. The solution is to improve your student retention and keep your existing students around longer, while you continue adding new students at the same time.
In this episode, I’ll give you 7 “secrets” of good student retention that can help you shut the back door of your teaching studio and keep more of your existing students from quitting. Using even just a few of these strategies can begin to turn your business around in a relatively short period of time and help you stop struggling to get by and start becoming a more successful guitar teacher.
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Okay, so you can’t have a successful teaching studio if you don’t focus on student retention. It doesn’t matter if you get ten new students a month coming in through the front door of your student if you also have ten or more students leaving out the back door too at the same time, because, at the end, your business is shrinking and you’re not being successful. You’re actually going in the opposite direction that you want to go. So, just like marketing is all about getting more students to come in through the front door of your teaching studio, retention is all about getting fewer and fewer students leaving through the back door. So, that’s what this podcast is going to be all about.
And retention doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to be complicated. There are some very simple principles that you can apply that can help you shut the back door of your teaching studio and keep the students that you work so hard to attract from leaving you too soon. Now, all students are going to leave at some point. We all have a measure of attrition in our teaching studios, but the whole goal is to minimize that as much as possible and to keep someone with you for two or three or five years instead of just two or three or five months. If you can do that and continuing bringing in new students at the same time, then your business is going to grow and you’ll be really successful a lot sooner. But without that, without good retention policies and practices, then it just feels like your teaching studio is kind of wasting away. For every one student that comes in, you have two leaving, and it’s very disheartening and discouraging, and eventually your business is going to die unless you turn that trend around.
So, that’s what this is all about. If you’ve been listening to the podcast at all over the last two or three years, then you know that student retention is a pretty big topic that I weave through a lot of different episodes, but I figured it finally deserved its own dedicated episode. So, here, in Episode 96, we’re going to talk exclusively about student retention.
Why Student Retention Matters
And why is it important? Well, focusing on retention makes your teaching studio more profitable. You’re running a business here, chances are, and if your business isn’t profitable, then you can’t keep it going. So, if you want to keep teaching your students, your business has to be profitable. And obviously, the more students you have at any one time, the more money you’re going to make in your business. So, if you have good retention practices, then you’re going to make more money as a guitar teacher.
Also, it’s easier and cheaper to keep the students who already have than it is to do marketing to replace them. Marketing costs you time and it costs you money. Whether you’re running ads or doing flyers and different stuff like that, whatever your strategies are, it takes time and money to bring those new students in. Every new student that comes in has a price tag on his or her head, but the students you’ve already got, if you can keep them from leaving as much as possible, then it doesn’t cost you anything to do that. Okay, providing a good service that people want to keep paying you for is something that you should be doing anyway, and that’s kind of the heart of these student retention principles anyway.
So, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to keep the students you already have than to try to do marketing and replace them. And also, if you stop the bleeding first, you stop the people flowing out of the back door of your studio, then your marketing efforts are going to be more effective at actually growing your teaching studio. If you don’t have to worry about two people leaving for every one that comes in, right – two steps forward, one step backward -, then you can keep the people that are already there and add more new people, and then you’re going to grow your business a lot faster and you’ll reach your financial goals more quickly if you pay attention to good student retention practices.
And actually, it doesn’t make sense to try to keep on filling up a bucket with water if there’s a hole at the bottom and all the water keeps seeping out, right? It makes more sense to patch the hole in the bucket and then, once it’s patched and the bucket has integrity and it’s holding the water, you can work about filling the bucket up because you know that your efforts are not going to be wasted. Okay, so retention is huge. It’s very important.
The Front Door And The Back Door
So, let’s talk a little bit about what it is. So, like I said, there’s a front door to your teaching studio and there’s a back door to your teaching studio. And the front door is all about what we call acquisition. So, acquisition is acquiring clients, acquiring customers, acquiring students, and you acquire new students through your marketing and your advertising efforts. And there’s actually a statistic that you can track – a metric – to show you how well you’re doing with acquisition. It’s called your student acquisition rate.
So, if you start the year with ten students. Okay, so I’m recording this towards the end of 2013, and so if you would look back on the year 2013 and if start the year with ten students, and then your acquisition rate is 20%, then if you look back over the last 12 months, that means that you ended the year with 12 students. So, you started off with ten. You acquired two more. You have a total of 12 at the end of the year. So, for that year, your acquisition rate was 20%. Okay, that’s not too bad.
So, acquisition is all about the front door. Okay, the back door is all about what we call attrition. So, you have to factor in attrition because some of those students that you attract during the year are probably going to leave. Attrition is the students that actually quit and leave, and go take lessons somewhere else or just quit, or whatever. So, attrition is a huge part of the equation, and you measure how many students leave your teaching studio using what’s called your attrition rate. So, using that same example, out of those 12 students that you have at the end of the year, if four of them quit, then your attrition rate is 33%. That’s the percentage of students who leave through the back door of your studio.
You obviously want to make your acquisition rate as high as you can and your attrition rate as low as you can. It’s important to take a look at these numbers once in a while because it’s a really good snapshot of the health of your teaching studio. So, the solution to the attrition problem is what we’re talking about today; is retention. Okay, your retention rate is how you track that and it’s the exact opposite of your attrition rate. So, if your attrition rate is 33%, like I just said, then your retention rate is going to be the opposite of that, 66%. It just means that you kept 66% of the students that you brought in during the last 12 months. It’s the percentage of students you kept or retained, hence the word retention, over the last 12 months.
Okay. So, your goals for a healthy, successful business have to include raising your acquisition rate and, like I said, you do that through your community outreach, through marketing, through advertising, through referrals, and all those different avenues will increase your acquisition rate; raise the number of new students coming in. And then your other goals for a successful business is to lower your attrition rate, which will automatically increase your retention rate, right, because they’re the inverse of each other.
So, hopefully this is not too confusing as I’m trying to describe it verbally, but I do have some free calculators on the Start Teaching Guitar website for this. So, you just punch in the numbers and go. You use them based on a fixed time period so you can figure it out based on a month or a quarter, or six months or a year, but you just type those numbers in and then it tells you your attrition or retention rate. And I’m going to put one together for acquisition as well. But go to StartTeachingGuitar.com/Free-Calculators, and I’ll put a link in the show notes for you so that you can go check it out.
But those numbers are important because when you’re working on stuff like this, you really need to track how successful it is to see if you’re getting the results you need out of it and to see how healthy your business is. If you don’t have good metrics and good data, then you’ll never know if your efforts are paying off. Okay, so metrics are huge.
Now, talking about retention, the biggest principle of retention that you need to understand is summed up in the word ‘perception’. Okay, you have reality and then you have the perception of reality, and sometimes there’s a big gap between the two things. And when it comes to your business, no matter how much you over-deliver, unless your students perceive that, it’s not going to make a difference. So, whatever you do to improve your student retention, to add more value to your business for your customers, then you need to make sure that whatever you do, you let them see you do it. Okay, you have to do the things I’m going to tell you about in a way that the benefits are completely obvious to your students so that they see right away: “Wow, this is of benefit to me. This is of value to me. What this teacher is doing is directly benefiting me and it’s not costing me anything extra,” for example.
Because if they don’t perceive the value that you’re offering them, it’s just like you never did anything at all. That’s one of the most perplexing and irritating things about business. You know, you can do all of these awesome things for your customers, but if you don’t do it in a way that they can understand it, perceive it, appreciate it, and see it for it’s really worth, then it’s just like you didn’t do it at all. You know, sometimes it could even have a negative impact on your business if you don’t set it up so that it’s perceived in the right way.
So, if you structure your studio in a way that maximizes the perceived value in everything you do, then, quite frankly, you’re just going to blow your students away. They’re going to be amazed by everything that you do for them. So, now that I’ve kind of set the table a little bit, now let’s talk about the seven secrets of student retention. Now, I use the word secrets in a very broad sense, right? These aren’t secrets at all, but it rhymes with student retention and the number seven, so I thought it would be a cool title for this episode. But these things aren’t going to be anything that you haven’t heard a little bit about before, but if you take these principles, one or two of them even, and apply it, you’re going to see some really good results.
So, I’m not saying you have to do every single one of these things in order. These are just seven different things, different tactics that you can use, and some of them work really well together, but if you do a few of these, they will improve your student retention.
Secret #1: Focus On Their Musical Goals
Okay, so secret number one is to focus on your student’s musical goals. Focus on their musical goals. Now, notice there are two different kinds of musical goals you could focus on. You could focus on their goals or you could focus on your goals. I’m suggesting that if you want to improve your student retention that you focus on their goals. What are you doing? You’re giving them what they are paying for. Don’t shove your musical goals on your students. Figure out why they wanted to take guitar lessons in the first place, and then help them achieve those goals. Help them reach that. Deliver on that, on what they originally were motivated to take lessons for in the first place.
So, when they’re first getting started, your goals for them and their goals for themselves may be completely different at first. That’s totally okay. Okay, I’m not saying that you need to forget about your goals and the things that you need to emphasize as a teacher. I’m saying start out with their musical goals first and then you can work yours in later, once they’re feeling really good about lessons and about what’s going on. So, whether it’s learning songs that they love that they hear on the radio or whether it’s trying to play like a particular guitarist that they admire, whatever their goals are, make sure you give them what they came for. And then yes, you should mix in the other important aspects of musicianship over time, like reading, theory, and composition. All of that stuff is very important. Yes, you should teach it, but what I’m saying is don’t teach it at first and don’t dominate the lessons with things like that unless it’s what the student already wants to learn. Focus on their musical goals, and then chances are they’re going to stick around a lot longer.
Secret #2: Recognize Their Achievements
Secret number two is to recognize their achievements. So, your students are going to be making progress all this time that they study with you. Hopefully, if you’re doing a good job and they’re doing their part, they’re going to start to reach some of those musical goals that I just talked about. And any time they reach a musical goal or they hit a milestone in their playing, like they go from the beginner to the intermediate stage, they master a certain kind of technique, they can play a song or a solo that they weren’t able to play before, whatever it is, celebrate.
It doesn’t matter how small the achievement is. Make a big deal about it. And that starts with verbally praising your students any time they do something well. That’s the first place to start. Don’t hold back your praise. Verbalize it, because whenever we praise our students, then they really feel good about what they’re doing, and that’s an important part of student retention; is making them feel good about what they’re doing.
Notice whenever they do something well. This is another cool strategy. And then just jot down their achievements in your lessons notes. So, I’m sure you’re putting lesson plans together before your students get there. If you’re not, you need to take lesson notes after they leave. Just jot down for a minute or two what you worked on in that lesson. And if they did something well or they reached a goal or they had some kind of new achievement, write it down in your lesson notes. And then, once a month or every three months or every six months, use that info to put together a progress report for them so that they can see how far they’ve come.
You remember what I said about perceived value? So, they may have really progressed on the guitar over the last six months, but a lot of times, our students are only going to be focused on what they can’t do. So, they’re not going to remember: “Oh, six months ago, I couldn’t play the solo to Hotel California, for example, but now I can,” but they’re already on to something else, and they may have already forgotten about that. So, if you can give them, even if it’s just a quick email once every month or every three months, saying this is what we accomplished together, you’re raising the perceived value of your lessons, and you’re recognizing their achievements, and you’re helping them feel good about what they’re doing in their guitar lessons. Okay, so it’s very important to kind of report on their progress as they go.
And some other things you can do for recognition: you could set up a poster on your studio wall. It could be like the Wall of Fame, or whatever, and then you can put names and achievements listed on there so that all of the students who come in for lessons can see. You know, that’s kind of a cool thing to do. When you have student recitals, for example, you can recognize them publicly from the microphone and in the program. If you send a monthly newsletter out to all of your students, you can mention them in the monthly newsletter and congratulate them on a job well done. You could even put together a special page of your website where everyone can see it. You can call it Success Stories, or something like that, and then just give them props on that page. Put their picture and their name, and then a description of what they’ve accomplished, and maybe even an audio or video clip if they are comfortable with that. You know, but you’re recognizing their achievements, so when you do that, you increase their motivation. And high motivation always results in high retention, but you’re also reminding them of the perceived value of the value that you’re offering in your lessons and helping them to perceive it better.
Secret #3: Make Their Lessons As Enjoyable As Possible
Okay, so recognizing their achievements is important. The third secret is to make the lessons as enjoyable as possible. This should be common sense, but a lot of guitar teachers are so focused on the work that you have to put in to become a higher-level musician that they forget that the process is supposed to be fun and rewarding. So, don’t drill your students to death with exercises and boring practice routines, and a bunch of musical pieces that they don’t like and they’re not interested in. Instead, find ways to make learning the guitar fun.
So, one way to do that is to use games wherever you can, and you can adapt different kinds of games for both adults and for kids. So, one of the things I like to do is I like to use guessing games once in a while. So, with a new student, when we’re working on a little bit of ear training, for example, I’ll play some chords and I’ll have him guess whether they’re major or whether they’re minor. And that’s a really good exercise to do. It’s fun. It’s kind of a challenge for them, and it kind of breaks up the monotony of the lessons a little bit too, but it helps develop their ear. And once they can kind of pick out the difference between major and minor, that’s a part of their musicianship at that point. It doesn’t usually go away.
And you could do the same thing with major 7th, minor 7th, and dominant 7th. Which one am I playing? And let them guess. It’s really good ear training. Another thing you could do when they’re a little further along is you could play chords in a progression and have them guess what they are. So, is this the one chord, is it the four chord, or is the five chord? And you could play it in a way that it gets setup with the one and they can learn how to start playing by ear off of the one, four, five.
You could also, later on, try to get them to guess which inversion you’re playing of triads and chords, and stuff like that. You could probably come up with a bunch of your own. Guessing games work good. Visual aids can make it more fun. So, like flash cards, which are great for learning music theory and anything that needs memorization. Charts. You can use props in your lessons. I mean anything you can think of to kind of engage them on a visual level.
Field trips are another cool thing you could do on occasion. So, you could round up all of your students and have them meet you at the music store, for example, or you can organize a group trip to a local concert for all of the students that are interested in going. You could take them as a group, right? This is kind of gutsy, but you could organize a bunch of your students and then go out on the streets, and go busking, where you just have everyone play songs for tips, and it would be kind of like a public recital on the street corner or something like that. I mean you definitely want to check with the local laws in your area and make sure that’s okay, but those kinds of things are fun. It’s not just regular, old, plain vanilla guitar lessons, where this guy is showing me some stuff and I have to go home and practice. There are other aspects of it that make it more enjoyable.
You know, you could also give them interesting assignments. So, you could say, “Okay, I want you to go to this ZZ Top concert that’s coming up. There’s actually a ZZ Top concert coming up in Denver in February, but you could say, “Okay, I want you to go to that concert, and then I want you to pay attention to what Billy Gibbons is playing, and I want you to report back on what you learned by watching him,” or you could say, “I want you to go home and play for three family members or friends and then I want you to ask them for their feedback. Ask them what they liked. Ask them what they think I could do better.” And then another one could be: “I want you to find a musician that you’ve never played with before and have a jam session with them.” It could be someone in your studio, another student, or it could be someone at their school, or someone that they know. Just give them interesting assignments that’ll stretch them a little bit, but things that are going to be fun.
Okay, make the lessons as enjoyable as possible. And remember: different students might define fun in different ways, but you want to find ways to make learning more enjoyable wherever you can and that will improve your student retention. Okay, why? Well, because people that are having fun are going to want to keep doing the thing that is helping them have fun. If it’s not fun, they’re going to want to stop doing it. Okay, so try to make it fun. I’m not saying water down what you do. I’m not saying give people second grade music education, but just try to weave elements of fun and enjoyment into it.
Secret #4: Add More Value For The Money
Okay, secret number four: add more value for the money. So, another way to improve retention is to give you students a lot more than they think they’re actually paying for. So, this comes under the category of under-promise and over-deliver. See, the things that you add, you know, your value added services or whatever, they don’t have to be expensive, but try to add a few free services for your students along with the lessons that they pay you for. So, it could be things like access to your online student portal. Access to your student community forums. If you do recitals on a regular basis, you can wave the recital fee and add value that way.
You can give them access to other online tools that can help them work on things like sight-reading and ear training. You can give them discounts on Guitar Pro and things like that. Those are all easy things to do. And again, the value that you add needs to be perceived value. So, you have to make them aware of what you’re giving them or they’re not going to appreciate it.
So, one way to increase perceived value is to assign a price tag to everything that you offer them. So, let’s say you’re giving these free things. Well, in the list, if you give your students five or six free bonuses along with their lessons, then make sure you attach a price tag to each one so that they know how much value they’re really getting. So, access to your online student portal. You can say yeah, it’s worth 15 dollars per month, or whatever. Access to your forums: another 15 dollars per month. Your recital fee: normally 35 dollars. Free because you’re one of my favorite students, or whatever, and these other online tools. Just make sure that you assign a price to them so that your students know that, if they had to pay for this, this is how much it would cost, and then it’ll help them understand the value that they’re getting for free.
Okay, so you want to under-promise and over-deliver. Add more value for the money and that will help to improve your student retention as well. Okay, see, a lot of these things work together.
Secret #5: Build A Community Around Your Teaching Studio
Secret number five is build a community around your teaching studio. This is very important and this is something that not a lot of teachers seem to do, but students learn better and they stay around longer when they feel like they’re part of a larger community. So, I alluded to a few of these before, but you should find ways to bring all of your students together and encourage them to build relationships with each other. The more they build relationships with each other, the more connected they’re going to be to your teaching studio.
So, you should throw holiday parties for your students. You should do recitals on a regular basis and bring them all together. You could do community service projects with your school. You could like adopt a piece of the highway and have your students go with you and clean it up, or you could do projects to help the poor or something like that. You could do other kinds of outings that bring your students together outside of normal guitar lessons. You should also put together an online community for them so that they can interact with each other 24/7, whenever you’re not even there. So, a set of online forums that they can access on your website is a good way to go. If a lot of your students are on Facebook, you could setup a private Facebook Group and they could interact with each other there as well. It’s another good way to go.
Okay, but what you want to do is you want to find ways to foster community and good relationships amongst your students, and then your retention rate is going to improve. It’s just going to make your studio a cooler place to be. It’s going to be adding a lot of value that they wouldn’t otherwise get from a normal guitar teacher. Okay, they actually get a group of friends. They get a group of peers. They get all of these opportunities that come from the larger group of your studio that they would normally not have access to just in private lessons. Okay, so that’s a great way to increase retention.
Secret #6: Reward The Behavior You Want To See More Of
Secret number six is to reward the behavior you want to see more of. So, if you want your students to study with you longer, then give them some incentive to do that. And there are a million different ways to do that probably, but I’ll just talk about a few.
The first thing you could do is like a loyalty program. So, here, in the US, they have an oil change company called Jiffy Lube. Okay, and Jiffy Lube gives you a punch card, where, every time you go and get your oil changed in your car, they punch the card and then, when the card is full, then you get the next oil change free. Okay, or something like that. So, you could do something similar in your studio. Whenever a student has paid for and completed a set number of lessons or a set number of months, or something like that, then give them something free. Okay, just track it and then give them a free gift. A free lesson. Give them something, and make a big deal about it. Okay, people respond to praises and they respond to raises. So, they respond to affirmation and praise, and they respond to financial incentives too, and gifts and things like that. So, to reward them for their loyalty, give them something free and then make a big deal about it. Celebrate it. Put them on your Wall of Fame as your most loyal student of the month, or something like that.
Another thing you could do is – these are just ideas, ok? I’m not telling you to do all of these things. Just some things to consider. A sliding scale type of tuition model is another thing you could think about. So, in a situation like that, the longer a student has studied with you without interruption, then the lower their tuition rates are. So, all your new students start at a slightly higher rate, and then the longer they stay with you, every month it goes down a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more, until, after a while, they’ve been with you for so long that, if they leave and start taking lessons with you again, they’re going to lose that discount and have to start over again from the beginning.
So, the discount should be small, but significant enough that the student doesn’t want to lose it. You know, so maybe it’s like 25 cents a month, or something like that, the tuition rate goes down, but you know, it’s just an idea that may or may not work for you, depending on the way that you operate your business, but it’s an option. Okay, sliding scale tuition.
And another think you can do is what people in the airline industry call status. So, just like the airlines do, like United does, for example, you could give your longer-term students special status that they won’t want to lose. So, maybe they become members of a club or they get access to special things that other people don’t get access to, just because they’ve been with you for a long period of time. Okay, and your students, the rationale behind that is that they’re going to want to keep that status and they’re not going to want to quit so that they don’t lose it. Okay, so find ways to reward the behavior you want to see more of. And in this case, it’s staying with you and not quitting.
Secret #7: Lock Your Students In For A Set Period Of Time
And then secret number seven: lock your students in for a set period of time. So, one way that works, but isn’t always very popular, is to force your students to stay. You know, all the other ones were about giving them the best experience possible by giving them incentive to stay, giving them rewards when they stay, and all of those kinds of things, and those are all things you should all be doing. But if you want to and if this is the way that you run your business, this is totally cool. It’s not my favorite way to do student retention, but it can work; is to use contracts.
Okay, martial arts studios and health clubs and all kinds of other places use contracts all the time, and that’s their way of keeping people from quitting too soon, because when they sign up, they make a longer-term commitment. So, you would use written contracts for this and then you would offer them a discount if they commit to staying with you longer. So, it works. It might put some people off from signing up in the first place and, like I said, I don’t really like this method all that much because I don’t like locking people in and kind of strong-arming them into something that they may not even understand that they’re getting into, but it does work if you communicate your terms well upfront. Okay, and it’s not an unethical thing to do. It’s just the way that some businesses operate, and it may be something that works in your teaching studio too.
So, you want to offer them a discount in exchange for that longer-term commitment. And I recommend having an attorney help you put the contract together so that it’s worded correctly, that it doesn’t get you in trouble later on, down the road, and things like that. But I just want to encourage you. If you decide to use contracts, just be gracious with people that have extenuating circumstances. And if they move away or if they have an illness, or something serious going on, where they really are having a financial hardship or whatever, let them out of the contract. Don’t be like: “No, you signed the contract. You’ve got to stay and keep paying until it’s up.” I mean just be merciful with people. And even though the contract is there to protect you and them, right? It guarantees them a lower rate, and then it guarantees you repeat business. If, for some reason, they need to get out, just work with them and, you know. That’s all I’m saying. Be a good guitar teacher and a good business owner, and treat people the way that you would want to be treated.
So, those are the seven secrets of student retention. I just want to point to one really good resource for hundreds of ideas that promote student retention. I want you to check out a cool book that I’ve mentioned before. It’s called The Dynamic Studio, by Philip Johnston. And I’ll put a link to it on Amazon.com. Check that book out because it’s got tons of ideas and ways that you can make your studio more student-centric and improve your retention all the way around.
You don’t have to lose more students than you attract. You can close the back door of your teaching studio and actually grow your business. Yes, it is possible. And student retention doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Just pick one or two ideas from this episode and start putting them into practice. Your students are going to thank you and your business will be more successful as a result.
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