True Confessions of a Tutoring Client Poacher

Let me just start by saying my passion is and always has been helping people learn new things and challenge their misconceptions. It is that drive that led me to pursue my teaching career and has, most recently, served as the motivation for my foray into writing. I never planned on becoming a tutoring client poacher, but sometimes situations arise, and we become what we least expect…

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I never set out to poach tutoring clients.
Upon graduating from the Rutgers in the spring of 2007, I expected to slide into my first teaching job and my career would be off and running. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Despite the difficulty finding a teaching job, I was determined to make it on my own. I moved in with a buddy and began work as an IT recruiter. It was a job.

As fall approached, I realized that, for the first time since I was three years old, I wasn’t preparing for the first day of school. It hit me one morning as I was getting ready for work. I was a few months in, and I had begun to get the hang of the business world, but it wasn’t where I belonged. I found myself in the midst of a personal crisis.

Right around that time, a family friend reached out to see if I had any desire to come help out at a local tutoring center. After some thought, I decided tutoring might be the key to satiate my desire to participate in the world of education. I would do my recruiting work during the day and give up a night or two each week to work at the tutoring center (having a little extra money to throw at my school loans wouldn’t hurt either).

After a short interview, I accepted a position and began a tutoring load that included test prep, elementary math, AP chemistry, AP physics, and pre-calculus.

Opportunity Knocked
It turned out my employer at the recruiting firm wasn’t too keen on my moonlighting as a tutor. He didn't see it as a necessary outlet for my passion and instead viewed it as a lack of commitment to his company. I wasn’t fired, per say, but it was strongly suggested that I should accept two months’ pay as severance and leave the company.

Tutoring suddenly took on a newfound importance. I jumped through the hoops to get my substitute teaching certification and spent the winter grabbing whatever jobs I could to make ends meet.

One winter evening after a tutoring session, one of the students from my AP chemistry study group approached me in the parking lot. She handed me a slip of paper with her mother’s phone number on it and said, "My mom wants you to call her.” I was a bit confused, but I called the number when I got home.

The student’s mother was very direct. She asked if I would be willing to tutor her daughter privately at the library rather than at the center with the other two chemistry students. I prepared to explain that I would not be able to do so (ethics and all…) until she made the offer I couldn’t refuse. She would pay me directly in cash what she had been paying the center for my services.

Ethics Shmethics…
Until then, I had no idea how much money I was bringing into the tutoring center. It turned out, the owner had marketed me as his “tutoring wunderkind” (his term, not mine) who could tutor any and all subjects. My client load at that point had grown to eight students spanning three different AP courses, ten students attending two standardized test prep sessions a week, and a nightly table session filled with elementary students.

For all my effort, I was still making the same hourly rate that I had been offered on my first day with the company — back when tutoring was merely a passion project, not my livelihood.

Sure there had been a verbal promise that I would be considered for a raise after I had worked there for a year, but after that one phone call, I felt substantially underappreciated. I had barely been getting by. The tutoring company, on the other hand, had been making twice my hourly rate in profit on each student I tutored!

It wasn’t difficult to calculate exactly how badly the company had been taking advantage of me. I was constantly working with more than one student at a time, and except for the test prep group, I was responsible for the planning, materials, assessments, grading, and logging results for every session I conducted. In many ways, I felt as though I was the company.

Having thus rationalized my situation, I threw ethics out the window and accepted the offer to become a private tutor.

Before long, I began slipping notes to my students’ parents offering them a substantially better bang for their buck as a private, one-on-one tutor. At the end of two months, I had built my client list to the point that I no longer needed to work at the tutoring center.

Three Ways to Avoid Getting Poached
A magician never reveals his tricks, but as I have moved on from my tutoring days, I have no problem sharing my insights to help independent tutors and tutoring center owners avoid following the same fate.

Here’s how you can avoid creating the conditions that encourage tutors to poach clients:

Respect your tutors as people, not just employees.
I didn’t get into tutoring to make money. I wanted to help kids learn. Sure, the money was nice, but there's more money to be made elsewhere. So more than likely, your tutors are driven by something other than a paycheck. Pay close attention to the things that truly motivate your employees, and be respectful of the fact that many tutors sought out the job at least in part because it would afford them the opportunity to pursue other interests that would interfere with a traditional work schedule. Take every opportunity to demonstrate respect for your employees. When I felt disrespected, it became that much easier to throw caution (and ethics) to the wind and poach my way to a small tutoring empire of my own.

Tutors should be free to focus on tutoring.
Your tutors are smart, driven people. Generally, they'll be happy to do whatever they need to do in preparation for upcoming classes. But if you ask them to spend too much time on administrative tasks, they'll begin to wonder what they need you for. So do whatever you can to ease their workload between tutoring sessions. Give them the best training, tools, and support you can: comprehensive materials and powerful online tools, including instant analytics, video solutions, student support, custom quiz generators, email progress reports, and course planning software. Remember, you are providing a service to both your students and your tutors. If the service you supply is easily replicable without you, then both sides will come to see you as a middleman, who brings nothing to the table.

To illustrate this example, consider the difference between dining in a restaurant with table service as opposed to counter service. When you order off a menu at your table while a server greets you, fills your glass, and answers questions about the menu, you feel obliged to tip. Or you should, anyway. The server has literally brought something to the table. Now consider the alternative, counter service. When you order off a giant menu on the wall behind a walk-up counter, you do not feel obliged to tip. Why is that? Because all that guy at the register did was push buttons and call out a number when your order was ready. The chef did all the work. The guy at the register is not adding any real value to the transaction.

In both of these scenarios, the chef represents the tutor — the one most obviously creating value. True, the restauranteur is creating value by operating the facility and buying ingredients, but that's not how customers think. Customers say, "My compliments to the chef." They don't say, "My compliments to the restauranteur!" All of this creates a situation that's ripe for poaching customers.

The customer could hire the chef directly and save 50% on the bill. And the chef could conceivably double his wages by working independently. Fortunately for the restauranteur, the chef would have to buy a food truck to make this happen. That barrier to entry has the effect of protecting the restauranteur from his chef going rogue. Tutors, on the other hand, can pretty easily poach clients at will — often undiscovered.

The best way to prevent your start tutors from becoming your next competitors is to make them as comfortable as possible. Paying them a competitive wage is important, but not as important as creating an environment where they're happy. That means letting them focus on tutoring while you handle everything else: recruiting clients, communicating with parents, supplying quality materials, assessing growth, booking sessions, and even planning lessons. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to deliver value to both student and tutor.

Market the learning (not the tutors) as your product.
In my case, I became the brand that was more valuable than that of the tutoring company. The fact that a parent sought me out helped to open my eyes to that fact. When a tutoring company focuses on promoting the abilities of star employees, it is practically begging those tutors to steal the clients for themselves.

Had the tutoring center implemented its own systems and branded materials, the clients I poached would have had to make a much more difficult choice. They could stick with the learning center’s proven strategies, comprehensive materials, powerful tools, and reputation for success or they could choose to work with me and a textbook. Sure, I might still have pulled a few clients, but I would have had to approach them and make a good pitch. They would never have approached me.

So tutoring center owners, be warned. I'm no longer in the game anymore, but there are other poachers like me out there. We’re smart, we’re driven, and depending on how you run your tutoring business, we're either your most valuable asset or your worst nightmare.

For more help avoiding common pitfalls, check out our eBook, Seven Marketing Mistakes Tutoring Companies Make — and How to Avoid Them.

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