The Business of Private Lessons Ė By Steven Appelbaum, President and CEO of ABC

Wednesday, December 03, 2008 : 5:01:42 PM
After graduating from ABC, most trainers start their careers by teaching group classes. While group class training can be rewarding for both trainer and student, private lesson training offers the student (and you) even greater flexibility. It also allows you to expand your student base by attracting students with different needs and expectations than those found in a basic group class setting.

Since private lessons are significantly more expensive, they are likely to attract a different type of clientele. That being said, it is still possible to generate private lesson business from your group classes. If you elect to go down this path, please be sure to avoid a few important pitfalls.

Donít make your group classes a commercial for private lessons. Most people have attended a class or seminar focusing on something of interest. How would you feel if a percentage of the class was dedicated not to teaching the subject at hand, but instead to up-sell you on a more expensive program? Would you feel taken advantage of and less receptive to any of the other programs you are being forced to learn about? If you answered yes, you are not alone as most people do not like feeling as though they are being up-sold.

This is not to suggest that you should never inform your group class students that you offer private lessons. In fact, I would let everyone in the class know what I offered and suggest to them, if they have an interest in private lessons, that you are available to discuss this with them after class. Additionally, make sure every student has your business card or brochure so that they can contact you with any questions they might have.

When teaching a group class, make it a point to work with people who are having trouble after class. Although you will of course do your best to help them, if they require extensive extra work or state a preference for more individual attention, you could suggest private lessons.

Also consider offering any student in class who refers a friend to you who in turn enrolls in your private lesson programs a $50 refund on his or her group class training. You might also offer any group class student taking one of your private lesson programs a similar refund.

Some trainers are confused about the benefits of private lessons. After all, the same cues taught privately can be taught in group at a fraction of the cost. Behavioral challenges can also be addressed in a group class format, and socialization issues as well as the ability to listen around distractions can be more effectively taught in a group class environment. Finally, the average group class cost ranges from $49 to $100 for anywhere between five to ten weeks of training. By contrast, private lessons cost anywhere from $50 to $150 per hour or session. Why would anybody pay $100 for a single lesson when they could pay the same amount for two months worth of lessons? There are many answers to this question.

First, for some people, it is not an issue of money as much as it is of convenience and time. Group classes are scheduled at set times. Attendees must travel to a specific location in order to take part in the class. Some people may not have that time available or donít want to drive to get to class. Private lessons represent an excellent option for students who desire a class on their schedule delivered in the convenience of their home.

Second, problems that occur at home, for example, housebreaking, chewing, digging, stealing food off counters, jumping on furniture, running out of doors or gates, can be more effectively addressed in the environment in which they take place.

Third, not everybody learns the same way. In a private lesson program, the student gets greater amounts of individual attention which allows the trainer to tailor his or her style to the studentís ability. All of these reasons make private lessons a viable and popular choice.

A word on private lesson programs versus individual lessons Ė some trainers charge an individual lesson fee and structure their private lesson training accordingly. In other words, they charge $100 per lesson. If a student needs four lessons, he or she can pay for them one at a time for a total of $400. Other trainers offer group class packages. For example, the same four lessons would be available at a discount price of $350. Although every trainer will have to decide which way works best for them, I prefer package programs. Granted, in some instances, a student might only require a single lesson in order to help him or her attain a desired result. However, most students I worked with would benefit from either a four- or seven-week program. By offering a package, I was able to get more money down (I would typically ask for half down and the balance at the half-way point). I would also be guaranteed that this student would be committed for at least the number of weeks in the package. This last point is a critical one.

When I first started teaching private lessons, I offered lessons individually. I found that many students would only take one or two lessons and then, assuming that they knew enough to do it on their own, would attempt the rest of the dogís training without supervision. I would then receive calls from these same people three or four months down the road asking for additional training. Some clients were upset because they had failed to achieve the desired result the first time. I would then have to come out and start from scratch and/or attempt to undo the damage these clients had caused by attempting too much on their own. Since customer satisfaction was critical to my business success, I discovered package programs gave the student a much higher success rate as I was able to supervise the student for a long enough period of time to significantly increase the likelihood of that studentís success.

I was also able to create a number of successful options with my package programs. For example, if I was unsure whether a student needed a four- or seven-week program, I would tell him or her exactly that as well as suggest they enroll in the four-week with the understanding that if he or she needed to extend it to seven weeks, I would only charge the difference. This proved extremely popular. I also offered anyone who graduated from one of my private lesson programs a significant discount on my group classes. This also proved popular and important since group classes are very effective in teaching dogs to work with distractions.

Finally, Iíd like to discuss the pros and cons to charging by the hour versus charging by the session. Some trainers charge an hourly fee. Letís use $100 per hour as an example. This means that if a session runs an hour and 20 minutes, it can cost a student $133. The advantage to such an approach is that the trainer can make more money. The disadvantage is that it causes both parties (trainer and student) to become clock-watchers. I have also found that students generally donít believe they get the same value when a trainer charges on a strictly hourly basis.

Charging a flat fee by the session eliminates this concern. However, the trainer should take care to guarantee each session will be a minimum of 50 minutes and be cognizant enough of lesson length to not allow their sessions to run so long as to make them unprofitable. Generally, I told my clients that my lessons werenít strictly timed. I would guarantee at least an hour, but if they had additional questions or if a specific technique was taking a little bit longer to understand, I would be there for as long as it took. Customer satisfaction improved when I implemented this policy, and trainers all across the country swear by it. Then again, you could probably find trainers all across the country who swear by the other hourly method of billing as well, so the choice is ultimately up to you. Regardless, private lessons are something every trainer should consider.

In our next article, we will discuss the pros and cons of free versus paid evaluations. Until then, good luck and good training.

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