Modernize Your Lesson Program Today

At the 2015 NAMM Show, James Harding, president of Gist Piano Center, delivered a food-centric session on how to modernize music lesson programs. He walked attendees through a sampler of menu items on how to create a satisfying customer experience and build a successful music retail future. The session featured proven tips that he’s implemented to make his store’s lesson program more modern, appealing and profitable.

For starters, Harding debunked the myth that there’s less interest in music now than in previous years. He cited a recent Gallup Poll stating that 49 percent of Americans have tried a music lesson at some point in their lives and a NAMM Poll stating that 7 percent of Americans consider themselves active music makers. “We have a massive growth potential for reaching customers through lesson programs,” Harding said.

He asked the audience to think about their target demographic. According to Harding, it’s families in many cases, but retailers often focus on only half of the family. “If you want a way to double your studio attendance, consider a program that gets one or both parents in your store for a lesson at the same time as their child,” he said.

Harding added that creating comfort in your store is a must. He challenged retailers to ask themselves if people want to spend time in their stores and insisted that customers know if your store’s not a friendly, comfortable and fun atmosphere. He suggested providing free Wi-Fi in your showroom and brown-bag lunch programs for people working nearby to take lessons.

Reduced expenses. Harding explained that his first step in modernizing his program was to stop offering lessons and start offering studio memberships. This includes a certain number of private lessons per month, plus other benefits and services (recitals, special programs, workshops and seminars, themed events, and more), for one monthly fee. It’s managed through auto-pay services, so there are no billing problems for his store. His policy is no refunds or credits, and he keeps it simple and clean by sticking to that policy. Another benefit to studio memberships is they save administrative time by preventing such headaches as makeup lessons and missed lessons.

“The biggest expense we can have with a lesson program is lost revenue,” Harding said. “Studio memberships eliminate that.”

Employee teachers. Harding decided to hire his teachers, so he had more control and staff engagement. He shared that they often appreciate not having to pay self-employment tax and getting a competitive package that makes them feel like part of a team. He also has regular meetings with teachers, so they’re involved and offering feedback.

Streamlined operations. Harding said that his breakthrough modernization was monthly billing for studio memberships, linked to a customer’s credit card, checking or other financial account for automatic payment. He uses a payroll service, so he spends less time on the back end and receives certain discounts (direct deposits, for example). He shared that he no longer worries about getting quarterly payroll taxes done on time since they’re handled by his payroll vendor. Harding added that setting his teachers up with email addresses has also helped streamline operations. It lets his staff communicate electronically and efficiently.

Word-of-mouth advertising. Harding uses Facebook and YouTube, as well as Yelp and Twitter, to build communication and momentum for his store.

He recommended that retailers use YouTube, if they’re not already. “Your YouTube videos reposted on Facebook, linked to your Twitter, will help build massive traffic to your website,” Harding said. He advised retailers to create a hashtag for their stores, such as #GistPianoAcademy, #PianoLessons or #GistPiano, and use it everywhere. It will help with your search rankings.

According to Harding, Facebook’s “Check In” feature is underutilized. Before a store recital, he asks the audience to check in on Facebook and create a hashtag. Harding also hosts photo contests on his company’s Facebook page, and the person who gets the most Likes for his or her photo wins a prize. He shared that he had a 3,600-percent increase in activity during the two weeks surrounding a recent contest, and students were eager to participate. Plus, Harding said he asks students to leave reviews on Gist Piano Center’s Facebook page.

Additionally, he encouraged the audience to write a ton of press releases. According to Harding, your local news may end up doing a feature on your store, as they did for his store’s recitals.

Last, he stressed the importance of building friendships with teachers outside of your store. They’ll refer students to you if they’re full and may be more open to working together than you might think.

Watch the video Q&A with Harding to hear about how many studios, students and teachers are in his program; online registration; how to transition teachers to payroll; and how lesson memberships are structured.