Parents as Pests Customers

Taking a customer-service approach with parents of your dance students will allow you to let go of frustrations and create a satisfying customer experience that’s good for your business, too. A studio owner and a consultant offer tips. 

Chasta Hamilton, owner of Stage Door Dance, in Raleigh, NC. Photo by Revolution Studios

It’s easy to characterize parents as the perpetual thorn-in-the-side of studio owners—they can be demanding, and annoyingly free with their opinions on dance education. But they’re also your customers. They deserve not just excellent customer service but an exceptional customer experience, says Annette Franz, CEO of CX Journey Inc., a customer-experience strategy firm. What’s the difference? you might ask. “I define customer experience as the sum of all the interactions that a customer has with a brand over the life of their relationship with that brand—plus the feelings, emotions and perceptions about these interactions. Customer service is just one of those interactions,” says Franz, author of Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of the Business).

How to Build a Successful Customer Experience

Keeping your relationship with parents professional and not personal doesn’t require sacrificing an ounce of your studio’s vision. “As crazy as it sounds, it’s not all about the customer,” says Franz. “It’s about the business itself, too.” Here are nine essential concepts to keep in mind when creating a successful customer experience at your studio. 

Be consistent.

Part of building a cohesive culture at your studio is to communicate your expectations for parents. For Chasta Hamilton, owner of Stage Door Dance in Raleigh, NC, that means making sure every parent interaction sticks to the same ideas and values. “From their digital experience—whether that’s visiting your website, reading an e-mail from you, getting a call—to the pre-studio experience to the actual studio experience, you have to be consistent in your approach,” says Hamilton. “What they’re experiencing in the lobby, in the classroom, their interactions with office administration and desk staff—everything has to be really strong.”

Establish your core values.

“Do you have core values in place?” asks Franz. “Are you really just teaching dance, or are you, say, also lifting up the self-image of little girls? Your employees need to align with that, and when that happens, they’ll be passionate about what they’re doing—and that will translate into a great customer experience.” 

Hamilton is clear about her studio’s core values. “All of our programming is built on principles of technique, performance, community and character. We operate under the motto: ‘Be more at Stage Door,’” says Hamilton. When she had to address a recent cyberbullying incident, it was “very easy to step in and handle it, because I’d been so clear in our expectations of our students and families.”

Practice empathy. 

Try to let go of your frustration when you’ve been asked the same question for the umpteenth time and remember that studio life is likely a new experience for many of your parents. “The majority of people are trying to do their best,” says Hamilton. “I used to get really frustrated if people had a question about the recital and nitpicky details that I take for granted, because recital is second-nature to me. But it isn’t second-nature to someone who’s never experienced it.”

Listen actively.

It sounds simple, but you can’t overstate its importance: Let your customers know that you hear what they’re saying. “If a child is having a difficult experience and their parent comes to you frustrated and concerned, the conversation for us always starts with: ‘We hear what you’re saying, and we want you to have the best experience possible,’” says Hamilton. “If you approach them with kindness, you’re going to build a lifelong client.”

“Listening is a two-way street,” says Franz. “Have a conversation and then say, ‘I heard this from you, and this is what we’re going to do about it.’” 

Deepen the relationship. 

Taking the time to develop a successful relationship with dance parents starts with understanding what brought them to your studio. “You can’t design a good customer experience if you don’t understand your customers’ desired outcomes,” says Franz. “What are they hoping for their kids? For themselves? That’s a huge piece of information when it comes to designing and offering a better customer experience. Until you understand that, you can’t create an experience that delivers value for them.”

Maintain your perspective.

One bad apple won’t spoil the bunch. “When there is a situation with a really terrible customer, it can feel like it’s overtaking your entire business,” says Hamilton. “But don’t lose perspective. If you set boundaries and have an established brand, then expectations are set. And if expectations are being pushed or challenged, it’s easy to communicate that. That’s when you can say, ‘I appreciate you, and I respect the time you’ve spent with us, but unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be a good fit for your family anymore.’”

As leader, be a role model.

“The owner of a studio is the leader of the business—the CEO,” says Franz. “You have to model the behavior that you want to see from everybody else, and you’ve got to reinforce it. You have to recognize when somebody does a great thing, and you also have to be committed. Don’t just say, ‘These are our core values’—you have to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

Be adaptable.

The customer of today is not the customer of last century, and that should be reflected in your studio’s approach. “Today’s clients are nervous about commitment. So we say that our main program runs alongside the calendar year, but if you have to withdraw, we need a 30-day notice. Is that annoying? Yes. But do we bring in more money because we try to be flexible? Also yes,” says Hamilton. “You can’t be so rooted in your traditions that you’re going to discourage a potential client.”

Be proactive, not reactive.

 “If you have 20 people coming to you asking the same question, maybe ask yourself, ‘Did I communicate that? Or was it unclear?’” says Hamilton. “After every event or experience at my studio, we debrief and say, ‘How did this go? What did we do this year that made it better? Where did we drop the ball, and what should we change?’ Going with tradition becomes comfortable, and that makes it easier not to evaluate what you’re doing.”

The Bottom Line

By adopting professional customer-service tactics when dealing with studio parents, your nerves will be less frayed and, most important, your business will be stronger. And it doesn’t mean giving up an ounce of your vision for your studio.

Rachel Rizzuto writes the business column for Dance Teacher and is a second-year MFA student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.