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Could sport pilot be the key to customer retention?Could sport pilot be the key to customer retention?

It may seem counter-intuitive but there may be no better method of retaining customers and assuring their long-term loyalty to your flight training business than promoting the reduced cost and lower training time requirements of the sport pilot certificate. The advantages of this newest pilot certificate are considerable, both for the student and for the school that provides the training.

Phase I

First and foremost, keep in mind that price matters. Whether you're shopping for a house, a car, an engagement ring, or a new set of tires for an old jalopy, price definitely matters. Generally, the higher the cost of any product or service, the smaller the market of potential buyers. So logic suggests a sport pilot training program that allows your customer to earn a pilot certificate for as little as half the cost of a private pilot certificate will automatically open up your business to a wider audience of potential customers. Marketing is key, of course. However, the school that can offer both the sport and private alternative to their potential customers is well ahead of the school that can only offer one option or the other.

Yes, cost is a factor. But customers like to have options, too. Knowing that they can follow one of two viable training routes that will put them in the cockpit upon completion, your customers will appreciate the fact that you are giving them a choice rather than driving them toward a single option, which they may otherwise interpret as a take-it-or-leave-it sales tactic.

The opportunities presented by sport pilot don’t end on day one of signing up a new student, either. Both the student and the school will find additional value they may not have previously considered, specifically because of the decision to cut costs and training time by focusing on the sport pilot certificate.

From the student's perspective, there is an option for increasing comfort, confidence, and piloting privileges they didn't think would be available to them. The school can benefit from a longer relationship with their new customer than the 20-hour minimum training requirement the sport pilot certificate requires.

Your student’s new and exciting alternative just might be the old standby that your school was previously offering as the only entry-level pilot certificate on the market. That's right. The lure of a private pilot certificate provides you with the opportunity to provide your students with excellent training at an affordable cost as a sport pilot, without giving up the student's original dream of one day piloting a bigger, more powerful airplane than the light sport rules allow.

Flight students are very often mission-oriented people, even if they don't see themselves that way. They may be so driven to learn to fly that they will opt for the sport pilot training program for no other reason than it is the most affordable option. This choice might be analogous to the example of buying a first home. While your goal may be to own a four-bedroom, two-bath home on the water, that is not a viable first home for most of us. We start smaller, with a less expensive house on a less desirable lot. But we continue to hope to be able to step up to the house of our dreams one day.

Your customer, who just happens to be a flight student, has similar aspirations. So let customers start as sport pilots. Once they find that they can afford the training, and they realize that flying is much more appealing in real life than it ever was in their imagination, you can introduce phase 2 of your customer loyalty program.

Phase II

As your customer, when the sport pilot student nears the completion of their training program, they are ready to hear a new message from your staff. They are about to take a practical test that will confer upon them the privileges and limitations of a pilot certificate. But that does not suggest their training with your CFIs must end. In fact, just the opposite may be in order. Most flight students have no idea that it is perfectly acceptable to book time with a CFI after they've completed their practical test. So break the mold and make the suggestion to them. It’s perfectly all right to book time with a CFI now and then to sharpen your skills, build confidence, prevent yourself from getting into bad habits, and maybe most important of all, to begin logging the training requirements for the next certificate or rating they may be considering.

Your students will rarely make this connection on their own. However if you make the suggestion that they can benefit from the insights and instruction of a CFI now and then, while simultaneously logging instructional time that will make them eligible for a private pilot certificate, you'll find a percentage of your sport pilot applicants will take the suggestion to heart and book time. They are in effect transitioning into private pilot applicants, who have the added bonus of being able to log PIC time when operating as sport pilots in between their lessons.

By marketing both a sport pilot training program and a private pilot training program, your business has the opportunity to bring in more student starts than might have been possible otherwise. And because the financial hurdle has been lowered for those who choose the lower-cost sport pilot option, you very well may see more students actually complete their training, too. In the end, some of those students you introduced to aviation through the sport pilot training program will become private pilot applicants who use your CFIs and airplanes to meet their new goal.

Of course not every sport pilot student will choose to upgrade. But because you offered them good service at a cost they could afford, and you continue to make an upgrade possible on a timeframe and within a budget that is potentially palatable to them, you can safely consider them to be solidly in the satisfied customer category. That's so not bad in the big scheme of things.

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