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Professionally Speaking

Get in business

Tips for building your clientele

This will probably stir up some controversy, but here goes: It seems to me that many--perhaps most--flight instructors are a bit anti-business.

This has always confused me, because so many CFIs are in business for themselves to a great extent. You may draw a salary, and you may not meet the government definition of an independent contractor, but you are often self-employed to the extent that you can increase your own income.

If you are paid a percentage of the income you produce or some amount per hour for the billed hours you fly as a CFI, then you have some control over your income. For a portion of your total potential income you are self-employed. Yet many CFIs strongly resist the very idea that they should seek new students or increase the revenue from current students. At the same time, almost all CFIs do agree that they need more money (as do I).

Consider--just for a moment--that you are running a business. In this business, as in most, you cannot control the competition--you can only work on the customers you attract. True, much of your business may come from a flight school, but you do have some control over the rest of it.

Do you act like you are in business? Do you have a database of your customers and potential customers? Do you have your own Web site? How about a blog (web log)? Most primary students would read every word of their CFI's blog on flying.

Do you keep in touch with past or prospective customers in any way? Do you contact them before their flight review is due? Do you know when it is due?

Does the front desk staff at your flight school know that you welcome the opportunity to discuss the flight school with every prospective student?

The most successful CFIs I have known got a major part of their business from past customers and referrals. That seems to be true of most every personal-service business. What do you do to increase your referral business? Here are some things I have found to be important in my own business:

First, give business cards to current and past customers. Say, "Here, Joe, tell anyone who has an interest in flying to call me, even if they just have questions." Then if a prospect does call because Joe suggested you, thank Joe today. Do not wait until the prospect becomes a customer. The prospect may never become a customer. Thank Joe for referring someone to you--the behavior you want him to repeat. Make it a pleasant experience, so Joe will want to do it again. Your goal is to have Joe constantly on the lookout for people he can send to you.

These ideas work. I have watched CFIs apply them for 30 years, and they have worked for every CFI who used them. For decades instructors have called and (lately) e-mailed to tell me about their success using these methods. Once you start thinking of yourself as being in business you will quickly think of more and better ideas on your own.

Like it or not, you are in business. Make the most of it.

Ralph Hood, an aviation speaker and writer, has been flying since 1971 and has more than 3,000 hours of flight time. He is a multiengine commercial pilot with an instrument rating. Visit his Web site.

By Ralph Hood

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