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Partners in Education

When I first entered the piano business more than 10 years ago, I was surprised by the rocky relationships most retailers had with their local piano teachers. Over the years, members of both groups have accused one another of insincerity, mistrust, manipulation and neglect. I noticed piano retailers often feel snubbed or exploited by the teaching community while piano teachers feel that dealers only care about them when they need help making a sale. The result has been two isolated groups that should be enthusiastic partners but, because of their differing industry perspectives, often end up ignoring or even working against one another.

What puzzled me most was that neither side appeared to be happy with the status quo. Everyone wanted to work together but hadn't found a mutually beneficial way to do so. That is how the idea for Partners In Education (P.I.E.) began at Louisville, Ky.-based Gist Piano Center.

How Piano Teachers See Retailers
As the director of sales and marketing at Gist, I couldn't understand why piano teachers didn't flock to our business. We have a tremendous recital facility and all the print music anyone could ever need. Still, most of the teachers I spoke with were very cautious about discussing any kind of long-term relationship with Gist. The more I offered them, the more cautious they became. It took some time to realize that piano teachers don't see our business the way I do. Due to decades of mutual exploitation, many spent the entire discussion looking for the catch. I realized that I wouldn't be able to see measured improvement in my teacher relationships until I could prove that I actually cared about them, their businesses and their students.

To be fair, most piano retailers don't call their local teachers unless they want something. Dealers rush to the phones when they have a piano sale coming up or when they've hired an artist and need to fill some seats, but they rarely call to ask teachers about their businesses.

Likewise, I was promoting my business without giving any thought to the needs of the people in my business. I never called to check on a teacher when I heard she was ill and never acknowledged birthdays or student achievements. I was treating my teachers like businesses and not like people who happen to own businesses. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised by their wary responses.

Caring My Way Forward
Before my outreach programs could build momentum, I had to demonstrate integrity, trust, mutual respect and genuine concern for my teaching community on a consistent basis.

Communication was my first step. I set up private meetings with a number of teachers on their turf and asked for advice. I purposely chose to meet with a few teachers who were friendly to my business and a few who weren't. It helped me get a well-rounded and honest perspective. A few of the questions I asked were: What made you want to become a piano teacher? What kind of method books and equipment do you use? What kind of special programs or recitals do you participate in? When is the best time of day or year for you to attend special events? What advice do you have for me as I plan programs for our community?

Their responses helped me refocus my time, budget and promotional efforts on programs that would capture their interest and enthusiasm. The responses also established a valuable dialogue that I could use for feedback at every level of my partnership program development.

Building the Why
I began to build a partnership program that would appeal to the piano teachers in my community. I chose to include benefits that only Gist could offer. Some examples are:

• Print music discounts. I eliminated our everyone-gets-a-discount policy in favor of a partners-only program. Now, only P.I.E. students and their teachers receive a print music discount.

• Free annual piano tuning. I used this benefit to get accurate information on teachers' personal pianos and to make sure their students were working on well-maintained instruments.

• Exclusive access to special teachers-only workshops or luncheons. I set up a regular series of informal luncheons and workshops that are often themed. They created a fun, low-key environment to introduce new products or programs and continued the relationship-building process.

• Exclusive promotional consideration. I chose not to flood my website with a random list of piano teachers in my area. Instead, I developed profiles with social media links and video clips for each of my partner teachers. This helped me funnel business referrals to teachers who are actively working with me.

• Free recital space. I decided to make free use of the recital space an exclusive benefit of our partnership program. As the program developed, I chose to leverage recital events with print music specials, coupons and in-store advertising. We even mixed our YouTube videos and video from our piano vendors together and set up a video "pre-roll" to play before each recital.

• Recital DVDs. We purchased an inexpensive digital camcorder and a DVD duplicator so we could record our in-store recitals and provide free DVDs to our member students. The DVDs are Gist-branded, and we make additional copies available for $5 each.

• Theme recitals. One of my piano teachers suggested that we host a group recital, identify a particular theme and invite our partner students to attend. I budgeted a small amount of money for decorations and snacks.

The Price
I knew that building a promotional plan around the education community would cost money. With some careful budgeting, however, I was able to redirect funds from expensive mass-marketing campaigns, such as radio, TV, newspaper and phone books, into something with a much higher return on investment. Some of our theme recital events only cost us $250. That's less than the price of a single newspaper ad, and — unlike the paper — we are guaranteed to get at least 20 families into our store.

I assured the teachers in my area that this program was free. There would never be a membership fee. All I asked for was contact information for their students. This gave me a targeted and steadily growing mailing list to focus my promotional plan around. It also gave me the chance to sell our partnership program to students directly rather than asking a teacher to promote it for me.

Partners in Education
Once I had an attractive partnership program, I needed a solid, consistent vehicle of communication with member teachers. E-newsletters, social media sites, YouTube and our store blog have been excellent tools to develop and maintain a two-way dialogue with our partner teachers.

Since P.I.E. began in 2009, we've had some pretty dramatic results. Gist Piano Center's P.I.E. program is now the largest piano teacher program in Kentucky. We have 58 member teachers and more than 3,000 students in the program. We've seen a 300-percent increase in store traffic in both of our Kentucky locations. We're even seeing a huge increase in our theme recital participation, which began with 25 students in 2009 and now averages around 150 players.

But the most exciting trend for us as a piano dealer is the positive trend in referrals. We offer our partner teachers a business development grant for each student buyer they send our way. We've gone from paying a couple of grants per year to at least a few each month. In fact, as I completed the paperwork on a recent piano sale, my client informed me that he was purchasing the piano from our dealership because of our Halloween recital. He felt more comfortable working with us because we demonstrated our commitment to piano education.

As the program continues to grow and develop, we're looking to add new benefits for our members. We've even begun talks with local venues for P.I.E. discounts on concert tickets, private preview showings and even backstage experiences for some of our teachers. We're working with our print music vendors for special gifts and discounts, and we're talking with our banks about special P.I.E. program financing options.

P.I.E. has transformed our teacher relationships and reinvigorated the Kentucky piano business. The economic climate might be crazy, but we're genuinely optimistic about our future. As partners in education, we can make learning the piano an intensely gratifying experience for the next generation of music makers and give music a future in our communities. MI

James Harding is the director of marketing and sales at Gist Piano Center.

A Piano Teacher's Perspective on P.I.E.

I moved to Lexington, Ky., in the fall of 2009, started a large piano studio, and wanted to join the local Music Teachers Association (MTA) to meet other teachers in the area and to become involved in the music community. I found the Bluegrass Area Music Teachers Association on the MTNA website, and I discovered that meetings were held at Gist Piano Center.

When I first walked into Gist Piano Center, I was pleased to find an inviting store and a room full of friendly faces. Right before the meeting started, the director of marketing for Gist gave a brief description of P.I.E.

The first time I heard about the program, I was quite skeptical. I kept wondering what the catch was since there was no fee to join. It all sounded too good to be true. Due to my skepticism, I did not sign up to be part of it that day.

Over the next few months, however, my skepticism toward P.I.E. began to change. The director of marketing invited me to lunch and asked about my piano studio, the kinds of music and materials I used with my students, the specific method books and materials I wanted a store to keep in stock, and the kinds of pianos I used in my studio. During the next few weeks, we exchanged a few phone calls, and I made my second trip to Gist for the following local MTA meeting. After that meeting, I decided I wanted my piano studio to be part of the P.I.E. program, and it's a decision I don't regret.

The first step to becoming a P.I.E. teacher was notifying the students in my studio that I was going to be part of an exciting, new program. Gist provided me with a letter to send to my students that explained the program, the benefits my students would receive and that there was no cost involved. I requested permission from students through the letter to share their e-mail addresses, home addresses and phone numbers with Gist. My students were assured that they could remove their names and information at any time. I didn't have one student request to not be a part of the program.

During the next two and a half years, my students and I have reaped many benefits from P.I.E. I have a teacher profile on the Gist Piano Center "find a piano teacher" Web page that displays a short video clip of me discussing my personal teaching philosophy, lists my educational background and includes a map to my studio. I have received numerous phone calls and e-mails from interested students saying that they watched my video, found my contact information on the Gist Web page and would like to take lessons.

I hold all of my studio recitals at Gist, and as a P.I.E. teacher, I don't have to pay a fee to reserve Gist's recital hall. The pianos are always tuned prior to each performance. There is a nice stage and 50 comfortable chairs for audience members, and the Gist staff helps with the reception and cleanup afterwards. When my students perform concertos, I am able to request the setup of two pianos in any arrangement that I wish for no additional fee.

Also, my students and I enjoy Gist's theme recitals. They are wonderful events that provide P.I.E. students additional performance opportunities in a fun, relaxed setting. Every October, Gist hosts Halloweekend and goes all out on Halloween decorations in the store and recital hall. Gist provides treats for the students and families at the conclusion of the recital, and it handles all the organizing, program printing and advertising for the event. Students have fun performing spooky tunes in their costumes.

As a member of the P.I.E. program, I also receive a 15–20 percent discount on print music (my students receive a 10-percent discount on print music) and one free piano tuning a year.

I've had about five students purchase a piano from Gist in the past two years. Each time, I receive a business development grant between $100–$200 from Gist. Because of the P.I.E. program, Gist has evolved from simply being a place to purchase a piano into a center for music learning. Because of the warm, positive relationship I have with Gist and its employees, I am comfortable referring my students there since I know Gist has their best interests in mind. Gist's P.I.E. program betters all parties involved, improves the music community as a whole and ultimately places music education at the center of its business. MI

Nan Richerson is a piano teacher in Lexington, Ky.