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The four horsemenThe four horsemen

In the past year, I’ve had the chance to conduct anonymous market research with more than 150 flight schools in North America. My method of doing this research is akin to what most would call “mystery shopping.” Only a small amount of the research has been done in person. Most are done by simply calling the school, posing as an enthusiastic prospect who has a sincere interest and curiosity about learning to fly, and then seeing where it goes from there.

In coming up with a typical model for the sample subject, I like to make sure that I gave each of the flight schools I research a fair shot at understanding that I really could be a new customer for them. At every juncture on these calls, I let them know that all the typical barriers to purchase that a flight school may see with new prospects aren’t there with me.

To be clearer, here’s what I mean:

  • I make it understood that the financial piece is not an obstacle, and won’t be a consideration for my decision to start training.
  • I let them know that I have unconditional spousal approval for flight training.
  • My career is flexible and will allow me to train at least twice a week, and most of the day on Saturday.
  • I say I have “always wanted to do this,” and “can’t wait to start.”
  • I also say I have a brother or other relative who is a pilot, and I’ve flown with him on numerous occasions.
  • Finally, I mention I’m new to the area and don’t know my way around yet.

Short of having a third class medical certificate in hand, I’m pretty much representing an ideal prospective student for these schools.

When I started conducting this research, I fully expected to find a number of schools—something like a third to a half—that were missing the mark in this area.

I could not have been more wrong.

In my first two months of embarking on this research, I kept waiting to find a cluster of schools that really got it. I tried different areas of the country, different school sizes, and mixed it up until I finally came to realize that, for most schools, dealing with a new prospect is a big problem—in fact, it is a pandemic within our industry.

After doing this research, here’s some of what I now know:

  • Impersonal interaction. When you call a flight school to learn more about flight training there is a greater than 85-percent likelihood the representative of the school will not ever ask your name. For those who do, it’s usually at the end of the call, and I don’t feel strongly they even bother to write it down most times.
  • Laissez-faire staff. While just more than 75 percent of schools will offer an introductory type flight, they will almost never try and set an appointment for it. This is a problem, because adults will make appointments if you ask them to. Appointments for an introductory flight ensure the prospect understands you are serious about having them come to your school, and will (hopefully) be eminently prepared for their visit. Also, if the student prospect happens to miss the appointment, you have a great reason to call them again to reschedule.
  • All transmit, no receive. The most prevalent sales tactic is “gushing.” By that I mean the company representative literally talks on and on, and on about stuff that often doesn't matter a bit to the sales process. I’ve rarely gotten the feeling that misinformation is being offered, but I find it often difficult to get a word in edgewise and ask questions about flight training. I believe that out of the four problems I’m outlining here, this one is the biggest—and most costly for the schools. As the saying goes, “People want to know that you care, before they will care how much you know.”
  • Dispassionate or unenthusiastic. It's not so much what you say, as how you say it. We’ve all seen the infomercials with someone trying to sell us a random variety of products. A spokesperson uses certain words, and has a certain inflection, pace, and timbre to their voice to show that they're enthusiastic about a product or service. I’m not suggesting that flight training be sold in the same way that a Sham-Wow is sold. But, painting a mental picture and appealing to the emotional needs of the buyer is something that anyone who is offering their product must do if they expect to be effective. From my research, I now fully understand that most flight schools are especially bad at this. Flying is fun. Learning to fly is fun. Being able to take friends along with you on a flight is fun. Reinforcing these emotional reasons to buy is an important and necessary part of the sales process for flight schools. 

Flight schools must do a better job with customers who reach out to them by phone or in person. Out of all the people who could have contacted your school to inquire about flight training, these people did. You owe it to them, and to your bottom line, to do the best you can with them right out of the gate.

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

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