You've probably heard all the arguments for and against charging a fee for trial lessons, except this one: do that which aligns with your business model, brand, goals, and work-life balance. (If you have read A Fresh Perspective on Missed-lesson Policy, you'll already be familiar with my argument). I'm not saying "you do you" - that's different, and it's lazy and ill-thought-out advice. Instead, be objective, think critically, and examine your business because your decision needs to be consistent with every other aspect of your studio. I'll explain this principle using my music school, Advantage Music Academy (AMA), as an example.
AMA offers almost primarily one-to-one lessons. Consequently, the investment in one student is much more significant than for one student in a group class, especially if it involves an initial consultation to establish the student's level when they come with prior learning experience (more about this later). We spend time preparing, and we pay the teacher a wage. In a group lesson context, there's no special preparation required for that one student, and, for most music schools, the wage is the same irrespective of the number of students in the class. We mitigate the risks of wasting resources by charging a fee for trials.
AMA is all about professionalism, which includes having the highest pedagogy standards. If AMA offered free lessons, we'd devalue our pedagogy—the very thing we consider to be our greatest point of difference for which we charge a premium. Many argue that you should charge a fee because "my time is my time". Indeed, it is time—I can't argue with that logic—but it's not why AMA charges a fee. We charge a fee because we brand ourselves as professionals who sell education, not time or lessons; competing using financial incentives would contradict our brand as a professional upscale music school. Our competitors compete with each other on price, we compete on professionalism. Afterall, someone has to be the most expensive.
Mid 2022, a local competitor, only two kilometres down the same road, tried to sell his music school to me. He had been in the area more than twice as long as I had at the time. He had two other locations as well but had about two-thirds of the student numbers we had across his three sites. I came into the market with nothing but $5,000 in my pocket and 19 students. His school was in such a terrible state physically and financially that it was an easy pass. Here's the thing: our fees were a whopping 40% higher than his. He might've been trying to compete on price, but we certainly were not, it shows, and the results speak for themselves.
AMA charges a fee because it weeds out time-wasters and cheap customers. It's a big red flag if prospective students are unwilling to pay for a trial; it says they are cheap customers who aren't all that interested and don't value what we do. Moreover, cheap customers tell their cheap friends, so you get more cheap customers. My wife is an audiologist. She told me about a time she gave a discount to a doctor working in the same medical centre as he often refers his patients to her. The problem was that he also referred a doctor-friend who fished for a specific brand because "I've heard there's a discount on that one" as if he knew anything about hearing devices. Cheap customers tell their cheap friends.
If a prospective student complains about having to pay for a lesson—the very thing they have come to you for—what else will they complain about? How willing are they to buy the required learning materials? AMA is not interested in serving cheap customers who aren't really that interested in or value what we do. We aim to attract and keep long-term students who love and value what we do and tell others about it. Charging a fee for a trial lesson contributes to attracting those students.
Offering a free trial could also set an undesirable precedent. If we willingly give a free lesson, what else might customers expect? To pay less when they are away on holiday? "Make-up" lessons for illness? We have a clear missed lesson policy: "make-up" lessons are not even in our vocabulary. Offering a free lesson and having strict missed-lessons policies are contradictory. But if you have some flexibility with missed lessons, offering a free trial might be consistent with your policies. AMA's goal is to attract customers who don't expect, even ask for, "make-up" lessons because they understand what they are buying. By charging a fee for trial lessons, we establish at the very beginning that we do not work for free.
As the director of a music school, trial lessons make no difference to my work-life balance as I have staff who deliver those lessons. But if you run a home studio, work-life balance is something you might consider. Are you willing to risk a student not showing up when they have not paid? If you go about your day in the student's absence, it may not bother you to offer free trials. You might argue that a free trial sends a strong message that you will invest in each student because you are willing to give up your time for them when you don't even know them. That's for you to weigh the risks and benefits and how it affects your life.
What we do
We charge $37 (AUD) and only once, irrespective of how long the trial lesson is or how many lessons one family books. The fee covers our costs should the prospective student not show up. If they book more than an hour, it won't cover the costs, but we're willing to take the risk (which is much smaller when they pay something). It weeds out time-wasters and cheap customers. It attracts serious customers. Consequently, we have an almost flawless conversion rate; I can't remember the last time a prospective student didn't enrol after a trial lesson. When a student has prior learning experience, I invite them to a consultation with me to discuss their goals, interests, and learning needs and establish their level. This way, I can better help the teacher prepare for the lesson so the student can experience an actual lesson. I say something to this effect:
"Could you bring [kid] in so I can establish their level and advise the teacher accordingly? This will make my job a lot easier because I can help the teacher prepare so they can dive straight into the lesson without worrying about trying to assess where your child is at."
A consultation is not a free service we offer; we don't advertise it, and we don't have anything on the website about it. We don't want prospective students saying, "that music school offers free consultations; you should go check it out." If they ask about the cost, I say, "it's not a lesson; I just want to get a sense of where your child is at", and I never say that it is "free" because such language is inconsistent with our brand. I offer the consultation as though it is a favour to me. I emphasise that I want to do it - there is a difference! Rather than selling what we do, the introductory lesson serves the student's needs. Rather than saying, "this is what we do", we say, "what do you need?"This reinforces our branding because it conveys that we are serious about what we do and want to get it right, and we are fulfilling our promise of a student-centred approach.
For the same reason, we call our trial lesson an "introductory lesson". We don't want to communicate that the lesson is some kind of test run or sample, somehow not the real thing, or that the student or teacher are judging each other; instead, it is a lesson. Who is on trial here? "Introductory" refers to meeting the teacher, becoming familiar with the environment and what playing the instrument feels like. We want to send the message that nothing and no one is on trial here; of course, they will love what we do! The assumption is that they're already enrolled; this is just the first lesson to get comfortable and acquainted without financial risks. Sometimes, I don't even tell the teacher if a lesson is an introductory lesson—the teacher just assumes the student is enrolled.
As we assume the student is already enrolled and treat them as though they are, spending 30 minutes or less with that student to chat about their learning is barely a sacrifice. We want parents to discuss their child's learning with us because it contributes to customer retention—it's a small investment on our part. When a parent gets upset about missing a lesson, we remind them that it doesn't change the value of what they receive for their money (unless, of course, they miss every other week) because they pay for an education, not individual lessons. To charge for a consultation would be contradictory because it's really not all that different to discussing a child's learning.
At AMA, almost every prospective student shows up for their paid introductory lesson; statistically, the number of prospective students that fail to show up is meaningless. With consultations, we have less success: sometimes, they either do not show up or reschedule a couple of times. You may wonder, then, why we don't charge. Well, that is a fair question. We stand by the decision; however, if a prospective student doesn't show up, we'll reschedule, but if they miss that one, we won't book them again because, by that point, it's apparent that they're not the kind of customer we want to serve. However, the rate of no-shows is still so low that it doesn't have a negative impact. As the consultations are with me, if a prospective student fails to turn up, I carry on with whatever work I'm doing at that time. Therefore, there's no opportunity loss and no wasted wages.
The takeaway message is that everything works somewhere; nothing works everywhere. The question to ask: "what aligns with every other aspect of my business?" Consider second- and third-order consequences—we don't want to set an undesirable precedent.
Steven Armstrong is a multi-award-winning former lecturer of musicology with postgraduate qualifications in educational leadership. He is the founder and director of Advantage Music Academy—a music school of over 300 students in Western Australia widely recognised for its professional approach to pedagogy.