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Be a little differentBe a little different

Learning to fly is a confusing process for prospective student pilots. Picking the right flight instructor and flight school is virtually impossible when you have no base of knowledge as a consumer. That’s why many students simply go to the local airport and pick what they see with no additional research. You can help prospects with this decision by standing out. Differentiating yourself from your competition is a key strategy to help a potential student understand why you deserve his business more than anyone else.

Differentiation is the act or process of distinguishing a product as different form its competitors in order to attract business. Flight training offers a perfect opportunity to differentiate because the basic product is always the same. Every instructor and every school teaches people to fly. Beyond that, it’s up to you to make sure the customer understands why your school or instructional offering is different from another.

Independent instructors. It can be difficult for independent instructors to get a solid list of clients when they first begin. Through differentiation they have the opportunity to make a great start. Here are three ways to stand out from the competition:

  1. Focus on one type of instruction. Rather than trying to be good at all types of instruction in all airplanes, get really good at one type or in one airplane and you’ll quickly make a name for yourself. People are constantly wondering where to get good glass transition training, type specific training, and specialty training such as aerobatics, tailwheel, mountain flying, seaplane, and more. Take glass transition training as an example. If you learned to fly on a Garmin G1000 and you have a lot of experience with the system, there’s no reason you can’t start the day after you earn your initial instructor certificate with glass transition training programs. Market yourself as an expert and people will be interested.
  2. Sell yourself publicly. Many successful independent instructors have found success through their public marketing efforts. By putting yourself out there as an expert CFI through writings, appearances, or simple networking, you have a better chance of growing your client base. Start with a good blog, attend airshows and introduce yourself, and make sure to go to every local pilot meeting. Doing so will show you have an interest in the community and a commitment to your profession, which definitely would set you apart.
  3. Market a specific trait. Every instructor is really good at something. Figure out what that is and play it up big. Realtors do this with slogans and cheesy marketing materials, and it works. Are you patient? Maybe your students have a superb pass rate. Are you really good at making the technical part of flying fun? Or have you developed a curriculum that focuses on scenario-based training? Whatever the trait is, develop it and make sure all your potential customers know about it. Soon you’ll be known as the instructor who gets it done or the instructor who gets even the hardest student through.

Flight schools. A brick and mortar flight school will generally have an easier time differentiating because there’s a physical outlet and a business name attached to the enterprise. That said, it’s still not an easy task, though it is a necessary one. Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Price. The traditional flight training model calls for declining prices from competition and the owner’s perception that all customers are price-sensitive. Although it may depend somewhat on the local economy, it seems clear that price is only one of many factors in a student’s buying decision. Many schools are successfully raising prices well above their local competition, confident that their product is better. There’s no denying that price equals value in the mind of many consumers. Creative pricing could be another way to stand out, whether through packages, payment plans, or flat-rate courses.
  2. Fleet. Do your competitors operate an entire fleet of old Cessnas? Maybe it’s time to buy a Diamond or a Piper. Any combination on this theme works. If you are at a small or rural airport, maybe a fleet of Piper Cubs is the way to go. Analyze your local market and try to match what you perceive the interest to be.
  3. Customer service. Every school should be pushing to provide the best possible service. If your school is already there, make it well known that you take good care of your customers. From the first contact through the end of the training course, there should be no doubt in the student’s mind that he or she is in the right place. And the way to effectively do that is with customer service.

There are dozens of ways for independent instructors and flight schools to set themselves apart. It’s simply a matter of identifying a brand, a message, and a tactic, and sticking with it. Get a reputation as the best source of training in your area and the students will come.

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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