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Give customers the 411Give customers the 411

How many times have you read a menu in a restaurant and under the price column it says, “Depends?” The concept of not knowing how much something is going to cost before we make a buying decision is unusual, to say the least. But for most flight schools, that’s exactly what we’re trying to sell. And don’t think the problem occurs elsewhere in adult education because taking a college course, or learning to ride a motorcycle or scuba dive all have set pricing. In flight training, then, we stand almost entirely alone.

The problem starts when we have the price conversation with a potential student. “How much does it cost to learn to fly?” they ask. “That depends,” is the answer if you’re like most flight school owners and managers. And for many people, the conversation stops there. Many people budget everything very carefully in life, and not being able to do that in flight training could be a deal breaker.

Although one solution is to establish a guaranteed fixed rate, such as Redbird has done at its Skyport in San Marcos, Texas, or bigger schools such as ATP do for its courses, many smaller outfits don’t think they can afford the liability of taking a slow student through the process. Have one or two of those a year and you could be sitting in a big hole.

The answer for most people is information. In AOPA’s study into the ideal flight training experience, a category defined as “information sharing” came through as very important to the students, lapsed students, and certificated pilots involved in the focus groups and phone research. In fact, it factored as more important than scheduling, quality aircraft, organized lessons, test preparation help, community, and recognition.

The good news is that of all the major categories, information sharing came out with the highest performance score. The bad news is that the score was only 6.57 out of 10. Although many lessons can be learned from this category, a few key things stood out—student success rate, realistic estimate of time and costs, references, and disclosure of CFI experience. When you put it all together, the conversation about time and costs is fed with student success rate and references, and CFI experience to make one picture of the value the customer will hope to receive from the school, not unlike the description on the restaurant menu of the dish and the chef’s pedigree.

It’s easier to find success in the money conversation if you follow a few simple steps.

  • Have a conversation in the first place. Don’t leave this up to CFIs or the front desk staff. They can provide some information, but it’s up to you as the leader of the school, and thus the sales process, to sit down with your prospects and explain the process.
  • Provide a range. Feel free to tell the customer how much things would cost at the FAA minimum, but be sure your next statement explains how few people ever actually hit that minimum. It may not be a bad idea to show a worst-case scenario as well.
  • Show it on paper. Make a sheet that lists the costs, provides a range, and then breaks it down into manageable chunks. Further down, list the strategies the student can employ to keep costs down, such as flying often, doing home study, etc. You can increase the credibility of this section by including quotes from students who have used these strategies to their advantage.
  • Provide references. On the reverse side, provide references of successful students so your potential customer can reach out and talk about costs. This is also a way to connect pilots, and community was another factor in the study that was shown to increase success.

Finally, think about making a fixed-price course. It can be a scary prospect, but many schools have tremendous success, in part because customers are comforted with the idea of a set budget.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

"Flight Training" Editor
AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.

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