Patricia “Lee” Bell was teaching 10th-grade English in the 1980s when parents started asking where they could go for SAT test prep. She thought, “Why not me?” and partnered with a math teacher to tutor after school in her home and at the library.
A couple of years later, in 1988, Bell rented a space in Wilton Manors and founded Individual Dimensions in Learning to provide tutoring and test preparation classes. Over the years, she has offered SAT and ACT workshops in-house at private schools, and developed small-group and individual academic enrichment programs. At her peak, Bell had nine classrooms and a pool of 30 teachers.
But then the recession hit, schools began building test preparation into their curriculum, and business declined. Bell had always relied on word-of-mouth to bring in new clients, but fewer students were walking through the door. She tried traditional advertising, with limited success.
“I’m not good at tooting my own horn,” Bell said.
Today the company is down to four classrooms, a pool of 18 teachers and three part-time high school office workers. With annual sales of $200,000, Bell said she would like to serve 50 students or more a week, but knows some weeks she has far less. About 80 percent of her clientele are high school kids seeking test prep.
Bell asked the Miami Herald for a Small Business Makeover, and the Herald brought in Broward SCORE, a nonprofit with volunteer counselors from the business community that mentor small business owners.
The SCORE tune-up team included David Harris, director of marketing, Greenway Golf Course Management, whose expertise is in operational management, fiscal controls and marketing; Michael Bush, a franchise broker with Transworld Business Advisors and former tutoring franchise owner with an expertise in marketing; and Teana McDonald, president of 3E Connections, a boutique social media and public relations agency.
“Your business came about naturally because of your background. But with the decline of the economy and schools adding in-house tutoring, you have to shift to adapt to what the market needs are,” Harris said. “You had momentum, but eventually momentum is going to dry up unless you keep up with direct marketing.”
Quantify success: Compile data about the colleges that clients are getting into and how their test scores are improving, Bush said. “Parents want to know how you are helping kids,” he said. Use the statistical information in marketing materials and display college banners from former clients in your office, Bush said.
Bell said she compiled stats of test-score success in the past and that shewill update the numbers in the fall and incorporate the figures in her advertising. She also will contact students to get college banners for office décor.
Differentiate your business: “Your marketing materials tell what you do. They don’t tell how you are different,” Harris said. “What are the parents worried about, and how can you help them?” Evaluate the competition, Bush said, and look at their pricing models and structure. Review their website, marketing materials and social media so you can generate ideas, McDonald said. “Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look at the competition, see what they’re doing and improve on it,” she said.
Bell said that after looking at national chains, she sees her niche as a more personalized approach. “I’m different because I know the local schools and kids, and I don’t use a standardized approach to testing and instruction,” she said. “I pride myself on helping kids with individualized services.”
Delegate: Stop trying to do it all and divvy up the work, Harris said. Have the high school employees post to social media. Have the website designer revamp some promotional materials. “You may have to spend a little money for a while,” Bush said. Offer incentives to staff members to visit schools and help get new kids in the business’s door, Harris said.
Bell said she is putting measures in place to have her teenage workers handle some social media postings, under her supervision. She said she prefers to handle school visits herself, to maintain those personal relationships.
Consider a long-range tutoring program: Establish a continuous program that gets kids in the door multiple times a week over a long period, Bush said. This commits parents and kids to the process and generates a monthly income. This model also has been used successfully by tutoring franchises, said Bush, who used to own a Huntington Learning Center. Partner with a company that can finance a long-term tutoring program, Bush said. This will help parents stay invested.
Bell said she sees the potential and will investigate the concept.
Expand to elementary schools: The K-8 market is an underserved population, Bush said. By serving only high school students, “you’re looking at a very narrow niche of the market and you’re ignoring the rest of it,” he said.
Bell said that over the summer, she will create a new K-8 division and hire an educator to oversee it. She plans to kick off services in the fall.
Try targeted direct mail: Bell was unsuccessful in generating leads during the recession with direct mail; but now that the economy has rebounded, Bush said, people are spending money again: Send direct mail with a reply card to homeowners with kids in the target age range. A company like Kessler can supply a list fine-tuned by income and home price, he said. “But you need a call-to-action, and you have to hit people six to eight times before they respond,” McDonald said. Harris suggested a drawing for a tuition discount or free diagnostic testing to encourage responses. “Every response is a potential customer,” he said. Make the mailer more compelling with high-quality photos using stock images from iStock photo, McDonald said. “Make people want to stick it on their fridge,” she said.
Bell took action immediately, buying a targeted list of parents of high school students in specific geographic areas. She redesigned her mailer with professional photographs, a QR code linking to her website and a drawing for a $500 tuition credit. The card was mailed in May to promote her summer programs. Bell plans to monitor results and send out mailers on a more regular basis.
Visit school guidance counselors: When Bell started her business, she visited and forged relationships with private school counselors to help bring in leads. Word-of-mouth worked so well that those efforts dwindled. “Go back to visiting counseling offices and see what they’re doing. Get back to basics,” Bush said. “And don’t exclude the public schools.” Look for opportunities to set up tables at college night, orientation and open houses at schools, he said.
Bell has taken steps to begin meeting with principals and counselors again to reintroduce herself and solidify relationships.
Use social media to engage: Use social media as a way to engage, not just as an advertisement for your business, Harris said. Bell said her high school employees have been pushing her to post to Facebook more, but she doesn’t like it or understand it. The SCORE team advised her to use the teens’ expertise with social media and have them make posts.
Bell said she has started to look at social media with a fresh eye, and will work with her social-savvy teens and her marketing advisor to create more engaging posts.
Try Facebook advertising: There are inexpensive ways to direct ads specifically to your target market with sponsored posts, McDonald said. “It’s a great tool to use, with an engaging picture or a thought-provoking comment with a call-to-action,” she said. Test ad content, McDonald said. If nothing happens after a couple of days, tweak the message or the photo. “Don’t just wait and think it’s eventually going to work,” she said.
Bell said she is considering sponsored posts, and will investigate more.
Streamline web page: Use client testimonials on your web page and marketing materials, McDonald said. Add a blog to improve SEO, and use location-based keywords like “Fort Lauderdale” to help local parents find you, she said. Pare down crowded website copy by using videos that can also be posted to YouTube and Facebook, McDonald said. “Figure out where your target market hangs out on social media, and go there,” she said.
Bell said she is reaching out to clients to update testimonials and is considering adding a blog. She and her marketing advisor are tossing around ideas for a video that will incorporate satisfied students.
Establish yourself as an expert: Make use of insider knowledge of emerging issues in education, such as Common Core and changes in the SAT, to position yourself as an expert. “If you have a heads up on changes in the industry, position yourself to pitch to reporters who may be writing about it,” McDonald said. Network with education-based groups to solidify your reputation as an expert. Join and become active in LinkedIn group discussions relevant to academic tutoring, to increase your chances of being found in Internet searches of tutoring experts.
Bell said she will work on compiling a media list and sending out press releases as her business expands. She said it’s difficult to network at night meetings, because she tutors at night and has to pay a sub if she’s gone. But she likes the idea of becoming more active in LinkedIn groups and sharing her expertise.
“This is my baby, and I’m trying to give it a rebirth,” Bell said. “I want to get the word out to people who don’t know us — that we’re worth the drive, and worth the investment.”