(And Made Everyone Happier In The Process)
By Michael Raine
Music lessons are an integral part of the business at The Music Room in Palatine, IL, as they are at many MI stores across North America. With 22 teachers on staff and between 400 and 500 students at any given time, scheduling, unsurprisingly, can get complicated. But then there’s this staggering number: between August 2013 and July 2014, The Music Room had 2,500 lesson cancellations. That is 48 cancellations every week, not accounting for holidays.
So what did store owner Carol Cook do about it? She banned cancellations and rescheduling while creating a system that worked better for everyone.
First, let’s take a look at what the policy was before the big change was made in January of this year. Previously, students were able to make up missed lessons within other students’ cancellations.
“The onus was on them to search this calendar that we would post online of available openings listed by teacher’s name,” Cook explains. “They could do that if they were looking to make up a lesson that they had missed, or even one that they hadn’t missed yet but were going to miss in advance. It just had to be in someone else’s paid spot. That was the basic idea. It seemed like it was a win-win situation for everybody; the store got paid, the teacher got paid, and the student had an opportunity to recover a lesson that was or would be missed.”
Within those parameters, as mentioned, there were 2,500 missed lessons in one year. Of those, 1,688 called to give notice of their cancellation and 812 simply didn’t show. Of the total, 946 lessons were rescheduled in another student’s cancellation, and of those, 279 called to cancel and reschedule a second time. Of those 279 rescheduled lessons, 88 failed to show up or call to cancel.
“So we were like, ‘Wait a minute here. We’re sending the wrong message and the message we’re sending is that your music lesson is less important than everything else that is going on in your life and that our sole responsibility is to reschedule you around your other activities. It just became really outrageous,” recalls Cook of her thinking. “It was probably outrageous all along; it is just that I stopped and went through and counted up a year’s worth of cancellations and reschedules and it was just prohibiting us from really doing what we do best, which is teaching and providing excellent products and services for our customers. So that was the impetus.”
Under the old system, as is still the case, there were no refunds. “That is one thing that I have been very strict about all along,” says Cook. “They paid to reserve the spot regardless of whether or not they attend and the teacher is paid for it, as well.”
To start with, Cook knew she wanted to change the way they were billing students. Previously, The Music Room’s program billed students on a rotating four-week schedule, and, as Cook says, it was confusing for both staff and customers. “So one change we wanted to make was to go to a flat, monthly billing. We determined that if we did go to a flat, monthly billing, we would be able to offer the fifth week, if there was one in a month, at no extra charge. So that right away seems like an incentive,” Cook says, recounting some of the info she told a NAMM U audience at this summer’s show in Nashville. “So I’m starting to gather incentives so that when I tell everybody what is coming ahead, I could show them, ‘These are the things that we’re going to give you instead,’ like the bonus of a fifth week. It probably works out about the same all the way throughout the year, if you count up everything, but psychologically I think it makes a difference for people to hear that.”
The most significant change was the introduction of two lesson streams. As Cook says, “Customers always need to have a choice.” In this case, they now have the choice of enrolling on a fixed schedule, where the same timeslot is held for them every week with no option of rescheduling individual lessons. (They can still change which reoccurring timeslot is held for them.) The second option, which costs slightly more, is to enrol on a floating basis where they schedule lessons one at a time and do have the option of rescheduling with 24 hours’ notice. “That wasn’t difficult for us because usually people can make one lesson at a time. So we weren’t expecting that to be abused and that has turned out really well for us because it’s given the customer an option where they can feel like they have some flexibility,” she says.
As she alluded to before, Cook wanted to create incentives, beyond the slight cost savings, for the students to enroll on a fixed schedule. Significant among these is the creation of TMR Academy. This is a series of seminars, workshops, and group lessons on various topics, from instrument maintenance to playing 12-bar blues, that are offered at various times throughout the month. About four to six of the TMR Academy classes are held each month and they cost about $15-30 per class for non-students and students enrolled on a floating basis. For fixed schedule students, however, they are all free.
“Of course,” Cook adds, “the message that we were trying to send is, ‘We want you to be at your lesson and we don’t want you to view your lesson as the least important thing on your radar, and therefore, we want to reward you for strong attendance.’ So we created the Perfect Attendance Rebate, which is substantial if a student misses no lessons for a year.”
As they were implementing these changes, Cook and her team decided to emphasize a few incentives that existed previously but that many students and customers weren’t aware of. One is the loyalty program, which gives the customers one point for every $10 spent, with each point being worth a dollar. There is also the lesson referral program. When a new student signs up for lessons, if he/she says an existing student referred them to the program, both the referrer and referee receive 20 points in their account. Third, there is the family discount, where if two or more people from the family are taking lessons, or one person occupies more than one weekly timeslot, there is an eight per cent discount off all of the timeslots.
As Cook emphasizes repeatedly throughout her conversation with Canadian Music Trade, “Any time there is a major change in any operations or policies or practices, the most important thing is good communication. You’ve got to be able to deliver that message and be prepared for the questions.”
Cook drew up a detailed timeline for the rollout ahead of the January 2015 change. The Music Room sent out emails and snail mail to all students beginning in October 2014. In those emails and letters was a full explanation of the change, the two enrollment options, and the incentives. Any customers that had outstanding missed lessons were given until March 2015 to reschedule them.
Of course, Cook also needed to speak with her teachers. “Some teachers were uncomfortable with it in the beginning. They felt like they were going to lose a lot of students, but I think it just required me sitting down with them and giving them a voice and a chance to talk it out,” explains Cook. “Even though they were paid for students who didn’t attend, it’s a little demoralizing and boring. They want to feel like they’re making a contribution and so I think they also wanted to make a change but they were nervous. I think that, by and large, they are happy.” She adds that a couple teachers did leave because of their disagreement with the new direction, but the new teachers that have taken their place are “thrilled” with the new system.
“[The teachers] are like, ‘You mean I’m going to be paid even though the student doesn’t show?’ because that is a huge issue for teachers,” says Cook, saying it’s her job to protect the teachers. “You can probably make more money teaching on your own, but you’re going to have to worry about collection and rescheduling; it’s rampant in our culture today because kids are so over-scheduled. But teachers are happy to have me run that interference for them and make sure that I deliver what I said I would deliver, which is what I do.”
Aside from the teachers, Cook says she also ensured that the floor staff knew the ins and outs of the new lesson system. She anticipated that the young sales people on the floor would be approached by customers with questions about the changes to the lessons program, even though they aren’t directly involved.
“The staff are kind of on the front lines, and so it really has involved working with them and sort of playing different scenarios of possible questions, so when those questions do come up, we talk about it; how was it answered? Is there a lesson for us to learn?”
In pretty short order, The Music Room has gone from dealing with multiple cancelled and rescheduled lessons every single day to virtually eliminating them completely. And as Carol Cook attests, both the staff and customers, for the most part, are much happier with the new system.