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Secrets of successful companiesSecrets of successful companies

“It’s got to be run like a Wal-Mart,” a friend in the industry recently told me. He was referring to the administration of flight schools and how they often have business practices and sales cultures that can be significantly different from many other industries. I will say that I’m very aware that there’s a lot of buzz out there about Wal-Mart, and that feelings go in many directions about their business.

Whatever your personal thoughts about Wal-Mart are, my friend brought up a very good point: that without trying very hard we can learn a lot about improving the business of flight training by simply looking at what other financially profitable industries are currently doing, and then borrowing the best of what they do to make our industry more successful.

With these thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the business development practices that are successfully used in other organizations and see how they can be parlayed into doing what we do with a minimum of effort.

Have a dedicated person to help spearhead your business development efforts.

Chick-fil-A, which operates fast food chicken restaurants in 39 states, will often have a part-time marketing person specific to an individual store to help increase brand awareness in that store’s local area. This person will help coordinate everything from in-store specials and charity events to sales of large catering orders. I know that large flight schools often have dedicated business development people, but that small to medium sized schools mostly don’t. With labor as one of your biggest expenses, it might not make sense to bring someone in full-time to handle only business development. However, if you can bring someone in part-time, or task an existing employee who has skills and talents that would relate well to assisting with your business development, this might be a skillful move on your part.

Consider your return on investment. If the labor expense was $200 to $300 a week extra for a part-time person, how many new students would it take to offset this cost? With the right balance, the energy you’d create around your business would far outweigh the costs.

Invest in the training of your customer service people.

Most schools have portions of their staff dedicated to answering the phone, dispatching aircraft, and dealing with the public that comes to their door. A best practice followed by many businesses in other industries is to offer solid training for the people who deal with the public. No business (flight school or otherwise) can afford not to do this.

Think about the businesses you’ve been to (or have been on the phone with) that have customer service people who are empowered to do hardly anything. It’s frustrating. Regular and frequent training on the policies and principles of your organization allows you to empower your customer service staff to make things right for your customers based on your school’s values and principles, and to operate outside of just saying “yes” or “no” based on policy alone.

When customers leave, you must find out why.

In July of this year, Consumer Reports conducted a customer satisfaction survey. What they found was that, “Sixty-four percent of respondents said that during the previous 12 months they had left a store because service was poor, and 67 percent had hung up on customer service without having had their problem addressed.” They also report that, “65 percent felt 'tremendously annoyed' about rude customer service staff.” Just because your school is a small or medium sized, don’t assume that some of these things couldn’t be happening where you are. They’re present in all business at one time or another.

Customers are expensive to get. When you lose one and don’t know why, you’re missing a tremendous opportunity to a) get the person back, and b) potentially improve your business so you don’t lose more in the same fashion. In the flight training industry, some students will often “gray out” of scheduled lessons in such a slow way that their reduced frequency of training may not be immediately noticeable. You must build and follow a process of recognizing when someone has left (or might leave), contacting that person to learn more about his or her concerns, attempting to get the customer back, and cataloging the reasons for his or her departure.

P. Jerry Lee is president and founder of aviation marketing and sales training firm Mach1 Consultants.

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