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Wisdom from the Trenches: Parents as Partners

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Parents as Partners

Overheard at a dance convention: “Don’t you just wish your students were all orphans with credit cards?”

An irreverent way to view dance parents, perhaps, but not completely unwarranted. Many studio owners cite “the parent problem” as an on- and off-the-clock frustration. In a recent More Than Just Great Dancing!® Facebook forum poll, members’ top three gripes about parents were that they:

  • don’t read important information;
  • gossip and stir up internal drama;
  • act entitled to special treatment for themselves or their child.

At some studios, owners choose to sneak in a back or side entrance in order to avoid these Difficult Debbies. Stories have been passed around of owners hiding under the front desk or praying not to be seen when a particularly maddening mom knocks on the front door.

Studio owners deserve better! The good news is that it’s easier than ever to turn dance parents into partners—it just takes some careful choreography.

Think of it this way: dance partners have to be invested in making collaborative movement work or someone will get hurt. The same is true for your relationship with clients. Just like a ballerina trusts that her danseur will catch her in that exciting fish dive, both you and your client must trust that each will do right by the other.

Establishing this foundation of trust is crucial and must be done intentionally. Without intention there is no partnership—studio owners must curate their clients carefully and recognize their own role in this dance. Build self-selection into your process and work to attract quality clients serious about dance education with tactics like pricing, scheduling, and class requirements. In general, bargain basement prices will attract a discount-shopper customer, and the looser your schedule or dress code the more casual (i.e. less committed) client you will bring in. Once you’ve articulated what it takes to join your studio community, set expectations for what daily life at the studio looks like with clear communication on guidelines for dancer and parent code of conduct, lobby behavior, classroom etiquette, etc. Remember, there’s no right or wrong here, it’s simply a matter of who do you want to work with? Who is your ideal client? The more you can bring your clients into alignment with your culture by attracting the right people to begin with, the more successful your parent relationships will be.

You can establish a baseline of integrity on your end once you recognize what’s really at stake when your client drops their child off for the 4pm tap class. The truth is, studio owners and teachers are taking responsibility for clients’ two most beloved things in the world: their child and their money!

It’s best to set—or reset—expectations any time enrollment is opening or renewing. This is of course easiest with a brand new client who has no prior history, but there are always opportunities to make a new beginning with an existing client. The idea is to establish a foundation of trust that will last from any initial transactions through the lifespan of the client’s relationship with your studio.

Now for the sticky part. As much as we want to “converge,” or meet our parents where they’re at, divergence is inevitable and necessary. Set healthy boundaries with a consistent schedule of business hours (no Facebook message responses at 11pm), be clear about communication channels, and have a set of written guidelines or a parent code of conduct they must read and sign.

As much as you need to find out what parents’ preferences are—are they OK with two-piece recital costumes? Do they want to come to class on holidays or prefer those days off?—you need to set hard and fast rules for what you want and need.

Give yourself permission to draw a line in the sand. Marketing guru Seth Godin says, “Everyone is not your customer,” and that’s a solid point to remember. It’s okay if your studio isn’t the right fit for everyone.

Your business model should be exclusive—it should attract the people you want to do business with and “repel” people you don’t. Setting healthy and clear expectations and boundaries is the most effective way to do this. And while designing your business with this in mind might make you uneasy, it’s surely better than sneaking in by the back door of your own business because you’re afraid of the mean mamas in the lobby.

If you and a parent/family aren’t a good fit, what do you do? In my 25 years as an educator and owner, I have never hesitated to direct a family to a competitor. In the end, everyone wins.

The goal is for clients to become ambassadors of your business—or at least not detractors. Careful caretaking of this two-way relationship will propel you to success. Imagine opening your inbox with no fear. No more hiding under the desk—march confidently through your own front door.

Reducing stress from client-related anxiety starts with you, not the parent. Change your world by choreographing a new pas de deux with your studio’s parents—one that’s built on a foundation of clear communication, healthy boundaries, and a willingness to bid problem-focused parents goodbye. It just may be the greatest piece of choreography you’ll ever create!

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