"Traffic is horrible! I don't think I'm going to get there in time."
"I have rehearsal the next several weeks, so I can't make my lessons."
"I woke up with a sore throat and a cough. I feel awful. I don't think I can come today."
"I've loved lessons with you, but I just don't have the cash right now to continue."
Yes, my friends, these are very typical responses you will receive from your students when you run your own private studio. How do you plan to handle this?
In my latest posts, I've discussed solutions to common challenges with running your own studio. I talked about where to teach your lessons, how to find students, how to get paid for your work, and in this post I'll discuss how to deal with the most common and biggest concern of most teachers: lesson cancelations.
So here's the complication: Singing lessons are a very personal thing for us and our students, and not just a regular business transaction.
Teaching singing involves a lot of deep emotional work for the students and helping them work through their "stuff" that hinders their ability to express themselves as they desire. You end up being a compassionate listener, a de facto therapist, and a keeper of many of their secrets and vulnerabilities.
This makes it very difficult to not be flexible when they forget payments or miss lessons. You know all the "stuff" they're going through and it can seem harsh to lay down the law.
For that reason and more, I highly suggest you setup cancelation, reschedule, and refund policies that you feel comfortable enforcing. You need a system that works with your personality and comfort level so you don't fall trap to losing large sums of expected income last minute.
There are many different ways to do this so let's go through some of the options. It's really a trial and error sort of thing as you figure out what works for you and your students.
1. Monthly flat fee
I've seen the "flat fee" method a lot with instrumental lessons and with music store studios. In this method, you charge a flat rate per month, for example $100, due at the first lesson of the month. The student gets one lesson per week for the same duration (ex: 30 minutes). No refunds or reschedules, including if a student is sick or unavailable, or if there's inclement weather or traffic. They just miss that lesson. No reschedule or money refunded. Some months have 5 weeks, so this allows for a missed lesson to be "made up" at no additional cost.
I love this idea, but for me, it was not feasible. There were too many holidays and conflicts that made this difficult. However, other teachers love this method and have used it for years.
2. Limits on cancelations and reschedules
Many teachers allow a certain amount of cancelations and reschedules per "term." A term could be a quarter or a semester term (usually between 8-16 weeks).
For example, say your term is 12 weeks. You allow one cancelation and one reschedule. I did this at my high school position (read about how I taught lessons on-site during the day!) and it worked great. I would charge the students for 11 weeks, but offer 12 lessons, and I would work to reschedule one lesson during the term.
For my situation at the time, it was the most effective method I used. There will always be one or two challenging students/parents, but hopefully, it's not the majority.
For the private studio at my house, I personally could rarely get parents/students to pay for a full term upfront. For awhile, I ended up charging students for one month of lessons at a time, but worked with a term for cancelations and reschedules. It worked okay for me, but I found following through with my cancelation policies was very uncomfortable. People would get mad or be very uncomfortable with the whole thing. I had a hard time with it! It's one of those things that has to fit the person and the students they have.
3. Make-up week
I personally have not tried this method, but many of my colleagues use "make-up week" and love it. They teach on a term schedule and then have a free week usually toward the end of the term to makeup any missed lessons. For these teachers, it works great!
For me, I didn't have the flexibility in my schedule to do this, so that is why I created the "pay for 11, get 12 lessons" policy as I stated earlier. To me, it was the same idea, but with the makeup lesson on a more flexible timeline.
4. Lesson by lesson
If after trying many options for getting paid prior to the scheduled lesson, and having no success, some teachers end up just charging per lesson as it happens. This is most common with more college-aged and adults students. If you have responsible students that value your time and rarely cancel, this might be a good option for you. Receiving payment may still be odd, but you will get more and more comfortable with it.
For my recently graduated students (college), I charge on a per lesson basis and they expect to pay each lesson. Again, they are responsible and rarely cancel, no show, or forget their payment.
I have a square card reader for my phone where I just swipe their credit card. I'll just start getting it out at the end of the lesson and say something like, "Alright, I'm getting my reader out." to help remind them in a delicate matter that it's time to pay. For students that pay by check, I'll ask, "Did you bring a check today?." It could work well for you depending on your comfort level reminding them of payment and the students you have.
5. Pay before lesson
I saved my absolute favorite for last - the method I've been using for about a year now and LOVE it. Again, it's not for everyone, but for me, it solved many issues.
I no longer have to ask or really talk about money. I very rarely have cancelations and reschedules. I don't provide refunds and I save a lot of time.
Here's how this came to me: I was laying down at the end of a yoga class one morning and thought, "Hm, I always pay for yoga by registering online before I come. When I've had meetings or coachings with professionals online, I always pay to reserve my spot. Why can't I do this with my private students?."
I started looking into scheduling sites and found Acuity Scheduling. There are many other companies out there that do a similar thing, this one just happened to fit what I was looking for in a site.
Here's what I did: I created an account and now I have all my students schedule themselves by using the online calendar and they have to pay immediately to reserve the spot. Oh my gosh, I love it so much. My admin burden as also decreased because I don't have to spend any time going back and forth trying to find a mutual time for a lesson. They see the calendar, book, and pay, and I see them at the lesson and can focus on just teaching. Happy, happy face.
Interestingly, I now have students reserve lessons for the whole semester (which I couldn't get them to do before) so they can have the same spot each week and no one else will book it. It's completely first come, first served.
They also know that once they reserve, they have to alert me that they'll miss a lesson at least 12 hours before the lesson. If they do, I will move that lesson to the next available time. If they don't, they forfeit that lesson. Like I said before, I rarely have to do this because they schedule every single lesson themselves, so they're more aware of their schedules and conflicts.
The only challenge I've found is that some students that book several weeks in advance may forget when their last scheduled lesson is. I will have to look ahead and give that student a heads up that "next week is your last scheduled lesson" so they don't show up for a lesson that wasn't reserved.
So there you have it! Five different options to try out! I'd love to hear how these work for you or any other systems you've used that you like!
Feel free to comment or message me your thoughts, and share with others!
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