Updated: Aug 7, 2019
What is ON-BOARDING and why is it so important?
Your dance studio has a culture - a unique vibe, ethos and personality. It also has dozens of policies, procedures and processes, all of which are so “normal” to you as the owner, and to your existing clients that have been with you for years, that it can be hard to imagine anyone not “getting it”. Yet one of the most common challenges communicated by dance studio owners in polls and in social media groups, is that parents just don’t get it. I think that as the directors we are simply too close. What we see as commonsense, a parent who is new to dance might see as confusing and strange.
“Onboarding” is a term I like to use for the educating of the new customer (both the student and the parent). It’s a crucial process that if done successfully can alleviate stress and overwhelm, can help to make a new customer feel truly welcome and can fast-track their loyalty to your studio. It also maintains your studio culture, because it sets up an understanding and appreciation for the nuances of how your dance studio operates right from the beginning.
No one likes to feel lost or clueless, and coming into a new studio as an outsider is for most people an unpleasant experience. Without a carefully designed onboarding plan, what usually happens is that the dance parents take it upon themselves to “educate” the newbies, and that can lead to all kinds of problems. Grievances are aired, information is miscommunicated and not everyone gets all the information. Dance studios can be cliquy at the best of times, and it is our duty to our customers to make them feel safe, comfortable and that they are truly welcome.
According to Tony Robbins, humans have a 6 core needs, and one of them is a feeling of connection, belonging and significance. To run a dance studio where everyone is satisfied, it’s imperative that we help facilitate and provide for these needs.
This isn’t just for the student and for the parents, it’s also for one other important group who come into your studio… your staff. Let’s break down the three different onboarding strategies for the three different groups of people.
It starts with having a very easy to read, clear, concise and reference-able handbook or policies document. Prices, payment policies, uniform, FAQ, concert information etc. And honestly, this document - if done right - is 80% of it right there. The trick is to walk the fine line between providing enough information but not causing information overwhelm (which is the leading cause of “I-didn’t-read-the-newsletter-itis”. Your handbook should be always available at the studio and on your website, and it should become common practice for parents to “check the handbook” before asking a question. We make it a condition of enrolment that parents sign that they have read the handbook.
The initial point of contact is usually the enrolment enquiry, whether it’s by phone or email, a walk-in or through an enrolment day. This is your studio’s first opportunity to begin to educate the parents about the culture and policies of your business. The entire interaction should be in keeping with what you WANT your studio to be. For you, is that friendly, strict, organised, excited, professional, accepting etc?
I have an infographic that I drag into email enquiries upon confirmation of a trial appointment, that answers the [predictable] 5 questions that all parents seem to ask before a trial. Things like what do they wear, the address of the studio, what do they when they get there etc. Not only does it save me a lot of time not having to answer these questions individually in email form, but it puts the parent at ease, letting them feel like they’re going to be walking in knowing what to expect. This calmness and feeling of trust that is cultivated right from the beginning even rubs off on the child, because let’s face it, more often than not a stressed parent leads to an anxious child.
The next opportunity is the initial class, or the trial class. The family is now at the studio, and it is 100% worth the effort to give them a personal tour of the premises. They will feel valued and it will ease nervousness for the parent (and the student). The first time they are at the studio should be like orientation day at Kindy. So much needs to be covered…
- A printed copy of the handbook to keep at home
- A friendly chat with questions to the parents to get to know them
- Pairing them up with some other mums and dads from the studio to cultivate friendships
- A fridge magnet with contact details so they never have to look them up again
- Have they joined the studio Facebook group?… help them do it
- Have they followed the studio Facebook page and Instagram page?… help them do it
- What relevant information have they missed so far this year (eg. Newsletters)
- Introduction to the teachers who will be teaching their children
- Personal 1 on 1 assistance with setting up any logins or online payment processes in use at your studio
- Uniform purchase and shoes etc. (The sooner their child is in uniform the quicker they’ll feel part of the studio, plus will be far less likely to give up any time soon simply due to the financial investment.)
Some other ideas…
What about offering them a free coffee from the studio kiosk, as a gesture of kindness (and to “onboard them” to the process of buying things from the canteen and seeing what’s available.A little gift goes a long way and there are so many clever things you could give that would help the parent feel instantly “part of the tribe”… like a bumper sticker for example (I wonder if they’d be just a tiny bit less inclined to quit if it involved a secondary process of peeling a sticker of their car.) This is also a great time to start exploring the other branches that could potential grow on the metaphoric tree of customers… in our introduction pack we include 5 flyers, with a little note paper clipped to them saying “If you have any friends that might also be interested in our classes, we would love it if you share our details with them”.
As a little side note, behavioural studies have shown that when people tell someone how good something is, it actually makes them like it themselves more. The act of communicating satisfaction with something re-affirms the satisfaction and strengthens it. We buy into our own arguments as to why it’s good. Think about it, I’m sure you’ve done this yourself. And so there is no better way to “shortcut” or “fast track” the loyalty and sense of belonging of a customer than to encourage them to spread the word. From a psychological point of view, it also positions their perspective as “already in”, with a message of “come join us” to the rest of the world, which again re-affirms their feeling of being part of the tribe.
Your studio could have a parents social club. Invite them to the next get together. Most parents LOVE to volunteer, IF the conditions are just right in so much that is doesn’t represent too much of a commitment. And when someone volunteers, they feel a stronger connection. There’s an interesting theory that the most effective way to make someone that doesn’t like you, start to like you, is to ask them to do you a favour. The reasoning around how and why this works is complicated, but for some reason to help someone else bonds you to them. If a parent helps at the studio, I think it bonds them to it.
At the end of the first day, or trial, should be the check in. Take a few minutes to chat with the parent and the child to see if they were happy, to ask if they have any questions and to let them know you’re looking forward to seeing them next week. As a principal who also teaches a lot, I arrange this with the parent beforehand, incase I miss them later. I don’t want to be in class and then have them leave without me getting the chance to check in with them, I feel it’s such an important part of the process. So I’ll say to the parent “make sure you come and see me after Lucy’s finished her classes for the night, because I’d love to hear how she went.”
The next interaction is the following week and it’s what we call “The follow-through”. Once is an event, twice is a pattern. An extra friendly welcome back greeting from reception and/or the teacher. “How’s your week been?”, “I’m so glad you’re back” etc. And one more check in about if they had any questions or if there’s anything that they’re not sure about. This is potentially an opportunity to work in an up-sell. “I’m not sure if I mentioned last week, but we have a Lyrical class right before Lucy’s Jazz class that I think she would also really enjoy. If you want to bring her early next week she can try it free of charge if you’d like. Totally up to you.” (You could double the client revenue, just like that.)
By now, the aim is that they’re feeling comfortable, connected and part of the tribe. But it’s a great idea to schedule a call or quick little email about one month after the student’s first lesson to say somethings along the lines of “Hey [parent], I just wanted to check in with you and see how Lucy is enjoying her classes with us. I spoke with her teachers and they said she’s really thriving in the class and already improving. Let us know if there’s anything you need, whether it be additional classes, uniform or if you have any more questions or feedback. We’re so glad that Lucy has decided to join our [dance studio] family.”
Birthday bonus. I use Dance Studio Pro and they’ve got an automated birthday email service, but even if you have to do it manually - send a message to the family on a student’s birthday to wish them a good one on behalf of the studio. Or better still, send a handwritten birthday card. Is it a little bit time consuming? Yes. Is it worth the “wow-factor” of the child’s excitement about receiving a special birthday card from their teachers? Definitely!
The next time you should reach out personally (unless there’s something specific you need to talk to the parent about, and apart from the obvious warm greetings and small talk in the foyer of the studio if and when you see them, is at the end of the season. There's an upcoming article about the importance of an automated enrolment “rollover”… but to summarise, the question of if their child will be returning next year (or season, if you’re in the US) shouldn’t be a question… change this habit. Create a culture and a behavioural norm in your studio where the question is simply posed as “Which classes has Lucy decided to do next year?”. The term "RE-ENROL" can become "CLASS SELECTION". It eliminates the thought of “should we come back?”, and focuses it more positively under the framework of “let’s look at the timetable and see which classes are available. I like to try and get around to each parent personally, holding scheduled meetings with some, and calling others on the phone - offering to help “GUIDE” them through the class selection process for next year. It's shocking how susceptible parents are to suggestion if it’s catered specifically for their child. “Lucy did so well in Jazz and Lyrical this year. Her teachers and I are so proud of her, and we think she’s showing remarkable progress. It’s also been so lovely to see her make new friends in the class, and we have seen her confidence grow. Her technique is improving so fast, and she has a natural aptitude for Ballet so we would love to help Lucy expand her training to include some Ballet and Contemporary, as we think she has so much potential. The classes are all in a row on Wednesdays next year and we have a special discount rate of $ for kids who do all four as a package. Would you like us to hold a spot for her and book her into those classes now?” Get it done for them. One thing off their list, and less chance of them forgetting or randomly deciding to take up horse riding instead.
First they need to meet the teacher and start building some trust so that they can feel comfortable and safe. Then they need a friend… choose someone who you think will be a good match for them and introduce them and ask them to be their buddy for the next few weeks.
Give plenty of extra instruction in class… imagine how scary it must for a young student to come into a class where everyone already knows each other, and knows what to do.
I remember I was teaching a class once, and after warm up I called out “corner” and everyone in the class went straight to the corner to get ready for kicks, leaps and turns except for one girl who was brand new to the class - she looked around confused and then walked to a different corner. When I asked her what she was doing, she said “Oh, I thought we had to pick a corner of the room, like the game.” Everyone had a giggle, but it made me aware just how indoctrinated our students already are to our class structures, idiosyncrasies as teachers and generally what’s expected of them - and the importance of taking time to put every new student at ease by explaining and offering instruction.
Rules… what are they? When is talking allowed in class? What is the etiquette when addressing a teacher, coming into class late etc? What is the uniform for each class? Hair, make up, nail polish etc? Don’t expect your students to be mind readers, and if you are clear with expectations and responsibilities then the rules are far more likely to be followed. I know this all seems so obvious, but take a second to think how effectively you're actually doing this? I know that when I thought this through for my studio, I was failing epically at the patient onboarding on new students.
Clear expectations of their job description and what is required of them. You should have this all covered in your contract, employment agreement or staff expectations document.
- When and how are they paid?
- What are rules you have in place for staff?
- Attire, language, social media etc.
- Who do they contact if they have a concern?
Beyond the details of their job, it’s important to make every staff member feel valued, important and respected.
- Introduce them to the rest of the team
- Set up a social dinner for people to meet - even if they normally teach on different days
- Give them a studio T-shirt (don’t make them pay for one)
- Make sure you add them to the studio social media groups
- Write up a mini bio to post on your studio wall about them so that your customers know who they are and what made you decide to hire them
- Interview them in a fun short video so that everyone in the studio can get to know them
- Take the time to really show them around the studio and explain how things work in your school
- Set up, right from the beginning, an open dialogue and a professional relationship whereby you can confidently approach them with constructive criticism when necessary or discuss behaviours or incidents that you have issues with, and vice versa. But don’t micromanage!
- Give them the support they need without disempowering them.
The best way to make sure every new parent, student and staff member is “set up” to thrive in your studio with an effective and efficient onboarding process is to have a checklist that is literally ticked off for each one. In the resources for Studio Savvy members, you'll find 3 different checklist templates, that you can customise to suit you. Edit them, add extra things to the list and save them to your compendium and have them ready for you or staff to fill out each time you get a new parent, student or staff member. This will have a huge positive impact to the constant mission to “leave no man behind” in your tribe, and will play a big role in boosting your retention. Do it right, and they’re yours for life.
BONUS: A clever way to finesse a next-level, outstanding onboarding process for clients is to incorporate “trickle emails” or “drip marketing”, these are a series of emails that are set to send on a fixed timeline from the date the client has enrolled. Why this is ideal, is that it solves the problem of information overload. You can create a series of infographics or even videos, that can be consumed quickly and pace them out over the first few weeks of enrolment. Mail Chimp is a great example of a service that manages this sort of thing.