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The fifth fundamental

Making sure your students come back

We all know about the four fundamentals: straight-and-level flight, turns, climbs, and descents--the basic skills that we teach our students. That is, of course, if they ever finish their training. But what's the fifth fundamental, the one that keeps students returning, lesson after lesson? It's service--and not just any service, but service with a high level of quality.

That fifth fundamental translates directly into dollars for both the FBO and the CFI. How many dollars? Some industry experts believe that 80 percent of students drop out before completing their training. That's a lot of money walking out the door because of poor service quality.

I established the link between service quality and a student's success in flight training as part of my master's thesis at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2004. The eye-opening findings showed that students who quit their flight training rated their service experience significantly lower than students who finished their training--not by a little bit, but by a statistically significant margin.

Five dimensions define service quality: tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy. Tangibles consider the physical aspects; in other words, the spit and shine of the flight school, the condition of the aircraft, the presentation of the flight instructor, and supporting training materials.

The remaining dimensions consider the intangible aspects, such as these: Does the instructor show up on time? Is the aircraft ready for dispatch? Does the flight school have a true desire to help students and provide them with prompt service? Do the flight school's management and instructors inspire the students' trust and confidence, and are students treated as individuals?

Tangibles in flight training are often dismal. We have all seen it: faded paint, ripped upholstery, and a pile of old papers in the baggage compartment. I'll never forget a sad-looking old Cessna 150 that served at one of the first flight schools for which I worked. No carpet, no interior plastic, torn seats, and zinc chromate sprayed randomly. "She's perfect for flight instruction," the owner enthusiastically told us young flight instructors. Not all our customers agreed; one student took a look inside the airplane and just said, "No."

My study also showed that students focus on service quality intangibles, such as reliability, responsiveness, and assurance. Poor service quality in these dimensions might include instructors who are late or don't show for a lesson; a school that doesn't inform the student ahead of time that the aircraft was taken off line; or schools that ignore their student's complaints. Think back to your flight training days--which service quality dimensions kept you coming back for more?

Marketers have studied customer behavior in hundreds of ways, but one fact always emerges clearly: If a customer suffers a poor service encounter, it's likely he or she will decide not to do business with that company again.

Other market research shows that only 10 percent of dissatisfied customers will even give businesses a second chance. Think about that. If only 10 percent of unhappy customers come back, that means 90 percent typically will not only terminate their relationship with you, but also will eagerly spread bad word-of-mouth about you and your less-than-stellar service. That is not a prescription for long flight school life or high CFI income.

As flight instructors, the health of our income stream depends on always treating students as valuable customers. A student's perception of service quality plays an important role in retention and loyalty for flight schools; it also helps to strengthen profits and lower marketing costs.

Still don't believe that service quality is important to your students? Consider this: When that unhappy student walks out of your flight school, you can bet a boat, motorcycle, or sports car dealer will recognize your student as income on the hoof and be more than happy to serve him well. So treat your students like valued customers--ones you would like to see again.

By Gil Aguilar

Gil Aguilar holds both a bachelor's and master's degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He is a CFII and is qualified in seaplanes. In addition, he holds both advanced and instrument ground instructor certificates and is an adjunct instructor at ERAU, where he teaches rotorcraft operations.

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