Lyndzi Barnes’ expectation for her Colorado Springs-based Summit Dance Works clients is simple: “If I don’t hear from you, I assume you are happy.”
But she does her due diligence to seek out their thoughts: Her extensive survey system solicits feedback from studio families on programming, schedules, teacher satisfaction, and more.
Getting meaningful feedback from studio clients is essential to making smart business decisions. But how can you solicit the kind of feedback that will help you move your studio forward? Three studio owners explain how it’s done.
To guide decision-making
Client feedback is serious business at Summit Dance Works, where Lyndzi has developed a system she calls “separate surveys.” Using Google Forms or Monday.com, Lyndzi and her staff send out surveys (sometimes to the whole studio, sometimes to just a portion) that appear identical but contain different links based on age, class, program, or other factors. This allows Lyndzi to see responses from individualized breakdowns of her
One recent survey asked whether students were enjoying guest artist classes. Her “separate surveys” method showed that while her younger students were, her older ones were not. It was an easy decision to cut the older students’ classes but double down on programming for younger ones. With just a regular population-wide survey, she may have seen a divided 50/50 response and not known what to do.
“We’ve separated it out by age, class level, program, income status, school,” she says, which gives her an overall impression but also allows her to get more curated breakdowns “to make the decision that’s accurate.”
Lyndzi sends surveys out to her entire studio at mid-year and end-of-year, after each event (recitals, competitions, etc.), and occasionally when she wants to know about something in particular. “We make a huge amount of decisions off of them,” she says.
To eliminate conflict
Rosalynn Miller used to give her Synergy Performing Arts Academy teachers Coach bags for the holidays every year. “But then I would get upset because I would only see two of them actually using them,” she says. She got the idea to survey her Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, staff at the beginning of every year to ask about favorite brands, colors, restaurants, and more. She used that info to not only buy gifts they actually like but to create staff mini-profiles on her studio’s Instagram.
Rosalynn soon started surveying her studio parents; one of her favorite queries was asking where they’d like to go for Nationals. “I want to pick your brain to make the smartest decision for you financially,” she tells clients. “Here are three options. Whatever location gets the most results back is the winner, and then everyone can hush about it.”
Over the years her survey methods have varied—she once took a public vote in her studio’s lobby—but mostly she uses Google Forms, with multiple big questions strategically grouped into one form. These include hyper-specific surveys (like seeing how parents liked the new costume company the studio used), and more general end-of-year surveys. Mostly, she employs surveys as-needed, “If I feel like I’m looking for major change.”
“But if we had a great season and numbers look good, parents look happy, there’s no need for me to survey a bunch of random questions,” she says. “It’s only if I have that instinct of, ‘I wonder if this is working,’ or if people are dropping classes and I don’t know why.
To make a connection
Vanessa Berry takes a less-formal approach to client feedback at her Rumson, New Jersey school, Kick Dance Studio, where she’s worked hard to create an environment where families feel comfortable coming to her with suggestions.
Rather than employing written surveys, Vanessa gets to know her clients well by asking lots of questions. Her queries might tackle logistics (she’s intimately familiar with all her local academic schools’ schedules, for instance) or ponder personal preferences (“How do you see dance fitting into your lifestyle?”).
Vanessa also has a complaints-as-opportunities mindset. She addresses all issues quickly and personally, seeing them as chances to provide better service or have an educational conversation with a parent. Complaints allow her to dig deeper to discover what the real problem at hand may be: Is it a scheduling issue? A level placement issue? A communication issue?
This may sound time-consuming, but Vanessa says not so. “Parents are busy too,” she says. “I don’t find that they are sucking up my time. Families have my cell phone number, but they are generally very respectful. I prefer to do the majority of parent communications myself. They like hearing from the owner. I think it’s a good investment of my time.”
And the survey says...
Getting clients to give you helpful feedback is only half the battle—the other half is knowing what to do with it (if anything!).
For Lyndzi, answers often stem from a simple majority. Seeing that a convincing percentage of her studio population is aligned tells her how to move forward. The more challenging decision comes when there’s no clear winner in a list of choices, or when her clients are split down the middle. In those cases, she’ll go to her staff to get another set of opinions and come to a decision. But even a 50/50 split is helpful information. “Then we know we’re going to have to convince about 50 percent of people, so we know how much time and effort we’re going to have to put into selling this thing,” she says. Similarly, if she gets strong support for an option that isn’t her personal favorite, she knows that she has to do better next time at selling her desired outcome.
Vanessa, too, looks for a majority opinion as she listens to her clients. Sometimes a strong mandate from clients is an opportunity to take a business risk: last season so many parents voiced a desire for outdoor classes that she invested in an outdoor stage and charged a premium for those classes. And after getting lots of requests for shorter sessions, she began offering a fall-only session at a higher per-class price.
Make transparency work for you: Lyndzi sends out a report on her year-end survey to show clients the feedback that went into her decision making, and to stress that their participation really does matter. This cuts down on clients who are disgruntled when decisions don’t go their way—they’ll be able to see that, unfortunately, they were in the minority.
When marketing exciting changes or new programming inspired by client feedback, be sure to mention the important part that parents played. It’ll reinforce that you really do want—and listen to—family feedback, and that your business decisions have strong backing.
Lyndzi, Vanessa, and Rosalynn have used client feedback to shape decisions regarding staffing, studio schedules, budgets, and more. One less obvious benefit? A reduction of staff complaints. “It helps me when the teachers insist that we need longer class periods, or that they need to be in ballet four times a week,” says Rosalynn. She can then point to her survey results, which show that students are already feeling stressed and don’t have time to do their homework.
Being strategic about getting feedback can also help with retention, says Lyndzi, who sends her end-of-year survey in April and asks questions like, “Are you planning on coming back?” “That will give us insight on how many people are happy and how many people are not,” she says. “Who do we need to work on saving?”
Rosalynn agrees. “The years we have put in the elbow grease to survey our parents, to explain the ‘why’,” she says, has created long-lasting relationships with families who join the studio when their child is 5 and remain through graduation.
Knowing that your decisions are rooted in the reality of your client’s needs can grow your confidence as a business owner. When one customer gets loud it can sometimes seem like their opinions are widespread, says Rosalynn—surveys can help owners avoid potentially bad business moves when they’re just a vocal minority. “When you come back with facts and numbers,” she says, “it takes the guessing out.”
Quick Tips: How to Run a Successful Client Survey
Make it easy. Keep your surveys as short and sweet as possible. Make them accessible (think: a big, bold button in your newsletter) and give clients ample time to fill them out.
Use incentives. If your surveys don’t get a desired response rate, try incentives. Lyndzi’s survey participants get a Starbucks coupon and are entered into a drawing for prizes, like an iPad or free recital tickets. She personally thanks everyone who participates.
Time it wisely. Get feedback on events or programs when they are fresh in clients’ minds. “If you’re going for recital feedback, it should be within 24 hours,” says Rosalynn. “If you wait four months, you might as well not even do it.”
Ask the right questions. Being strategic about how you ask questions will make it easier to draw conclusions. (Pro tip: Calculating a percentage from a multiple choice question will take far less time than going through 50 fill-in-the-blank answers.) Use multiple and ranked choice questions when possible, and give clients an optional space to elaborate. As for question content, “Don’t ask about things you aren’t willing to change,” says Rosalynn.
Give an anonymity option. Both Lyndzi and Rosalynn give clients the option of filling out their surveys anonymously, which encourages honesty. You can still ask identifying questions to gauge students’ ages or the program they’re participating in to put their responses in context.
For Student Surveys:
Allow older students to fill out surveys in class—whether with paper and pencil or on their phones—to sidestep parents filling it out for them at home. Keep student surveys as similar as possible to parent surveys to allow for easy comparison. Discrepancies between parent and student feedback can be illuminating, Lyndzi says, and can show competing priorities or when you need to spend time getting parents as bought-in and as excited as their children.