Cancellation policy for missed lessons?

January 5, 2011 at 04:22 AM ·

Hi, I've been teaching privately for over 2 years now and I am considering bringing in a cancellation policy. It is my only source of income but more and more students are cancelling on the day and although for a while I found myself replying with a text to say "that's fine, see you next week" it has now gotten ridiculous, and as much as I like to be a friendly and accomodating teacher it's really starting to drive me mad - some weeks I've lost in excess of £100 through such cancellations.

I have a few questions to ask about this - is it ok to bring in a new policy for old students who 'signed up' for lessons before I brought it in? I've never really sold myself as having no policy, I have simply never mentioned it and always been fine about students cancelling on me.

I prefer students to pay on the day of their lesson rather than a lump sum in advance as this works best for me, but would I need to change this?

I considered simply saying that students must give 24 hours notice of cancellation without a word about any extra charge or how many times they are allowed to cancel within a given amount of time. What are people's thoughts?

It really is becoming an unfeasible option for me to keep this up as a job, and if I don't do something about it I'll have to eventually find some day work for regular pay (which would be a shame as I do love teaching!) and terminate the lessons.

Could anyone give me some examples of policies or any ideas for one?

Many thanks, Lucy Phillips


Replies (21)

January 5, 2011 at 10:44 AM ·

As this is your only source of income I really appreciate your dilema, and I see no reason why you should have to put up with students repeatedly cancelling....100 Pounds is a lot of money in one week to lose because of their inconsideration...

One option would be to have them pay up front in 4 or 5 week increments...then it isn't too much to have to pay all at once...people hate wasting money and if you could do this, then you'd have a reluctance of your students (or their parents) to cancel their lessons.

Another option would be to offer re-scheduling their lesson for that particular week.

For those students who come religiously to lessons, you could still have them pay as they go, but the ones who repeatedly cancel as well as your new students, you can have the "pay up front for 1 month at a time" as the new option, regardless of how long they've been your student

Of course there will be times when a student is ill, but you know who the genuine ones will be as opposed to the ones who continually cancel...Some of them may well not have the money for that particular weeks lesson, but you could work that out with them...

There are many businesses who use the "pay up front" system where 10 weeks up-front payment is asked...Swimming lessons, dancing classes, yoga, zumba etc.  Gyms ask or a full  years subscription or have the monthly direct debit from your bank account, so you, as a music teacher, shouldn't feel that by asking for a "month at a time up front"payment is unreasonable.

January 5, 2011 at 01:21 PM ·

My teacher now operates a 6-week "term" with a 2-week gap between terms, corresponding more or less to the new school term arrangements in the UK. There are two longer gaps, in the Summer and at Christmas. The 2-week gap is used to provide "catch-up" for missed lessons, for pupils who might want an extra lesson, or for one-offs. This seems to work well. The usual 24-hour notice of absence is expected, but course a sudden illness or an emergency is always treated reasonably.


January 5, 2011 at 01:40 PM · I ask for 2 days' notice for a cancellation that is not an emergency, and have a short list of items that constitute same. For me, if the student doesn't go to school or is sent home because of illness, I ask them to NOT come to the lesson. School or PM activities are occasionally canceled here for bad weather, and on those days I also don't hold lessons. Once in a while something like car trouble, a forgotten dentist appt. or such comes up, and if the student otherwise "follows the rules", I let that one slide. Otherwise, I expect to paid for the lesson. I don't go out of my way to schedule make-ups. If it fits in easily, OK. This is not my only income, so I don't have that worry, but there is not only the missed lesson, but the time I spend preparing, including practicing lesson materials, gathering same, making long-term plans & preparing practice assignments to consider. In my experience, those who cancel late willy-nilly are not that involved. They are one step away from quitting lessons, or quitting altogether. If you can afford to, assess this w/the ones taking advantage of you, have a straightforward talk, make a long-term plan that includes pre-payment and stick to your guns. It is easier if you have one business plan, so consider setting up the same thing w/everyone. If there is a student or two who really can't pay for the month or other term, make special arrangements. It's not a bad idea to get the whole thing in writing & hand out, too. If you can't bring yourself to change your policies w/your current students too drastically, at least consider starting off w/a developed business plan as you add new players. Sue

January 5, 2011 at 02:31 PM ·

I understand your predicament completely, and urge you to make some livable boundaries for both yourself and your students. 

My own cancellation policies have varied over the years according to how valuable my time was to me.  When I first started and I was still drumming up business, I had no contracts with my students and I taught whoever would show up to my door.  Cancellations were higher than average in my area because Alaskans keep crazy schedules, and they travel a great deal.  Thankfully, over the years, my studio filled and I ended up with a consistently long wait list.  I became increasingly frustrated with last minute cancellations and mid-semester quitters because I would remember all of the people I had to turn down because my time slots were full.

I decided to switch to semester tuition, which works much like a college course.  You are paying to reserve your slot, and it's up to you whether you come or not.  I do not offer refunds for sickness or schedule conflicts, but I offer make-ups if possible to those who let me know in advance.  I also encourage them to trade time slots with other students if they have a scheduling conflict that week.

Two positive things came out of this decision: I was able to keep my rates down and still pay my bills because I no longer lose income due to cancellations, and the productivity of my studio shot way up.  A student who continually cancels is hardly worth having because it is a sure sign that they are not committed to practice, either.  A strict policy, as harsh as it may seem to some, encourages decisiveness and dedication, two qualities I crave in a student.

In my studio, the average student misses one or two lessons a semester.  If a student shows me he is diligent and really cares about his attendance, I will most likely be able to make up that missed lesson or two because, as I stated before, I like having a productive studio.  

The grief that I've removed from my life by keeping a strict cancellation policy has made me a much happier, stress-free teacher,  and it makes my job something I look forward to each day.  I hope you are able to form some type of structure that works for you! 

January 5, 2011 at 02:55 PM ·

I've been in business for myself since 1996.  Taking some pointers from authors Bruce Williams and Paul and Sarah Edwards, I made it a firm policy at the start to secure payment up front, once I'd given a definite price quote on a job.  As country singer Patsy Cline, 1932-1963, phrased it: "No dough, no show."

The Edwards point out that your business must be able to support itself.  If it can't, then there's no way it can support you.

What's especially irksome about someone not showing up is that it can take several minutes to stop the work, call the person, find out what's going on, and then get back to work -- just as it can take several minutes to stop an orchestra, point out what's wrong, fix it, and then get rolling again.  Do this three or four times in a session, and you've sacrificed a half-hour -- maybe a lot more.

Unlike you, I deal with most of my customers 1:1 by phone and e-mail without face-to-face meetings.  If I'm expecting someone for an in-person 1:1 meeting, I mark the calendar and call this person to confirm the appointment.  Of course, with your pupils coming week after week at the same times, all this calling would be prohibitively time-consuming and wouldn't make good business sense.

January 5, 2011 at 05:50 PM ·

I am amazed you got along for two years already without one! 

The school I do part-time work for takes 10% up front and then bills in increments.  They also reserve a set number of days during the year -- usually right before a holiday break -- for make-up lessons.

It may be that a repeat canceller is an unmotivated student, but keep in mind too that until a certain age they are largely dependent on their parents for money and transportation as well as moral support.  It crossed my mind that with the economy being what it is, somebody may be coming up short at the end of a paycheck and too embarrassed to say so.  If you don't feel like you can tactfully broach this subject without awkwardness (I'm not sure I could), I would stress -- as another poster mentioned -- that minimizing last-minute cancellations helps keep your rates affordable for everybody.

January 5, 2011 at 06:06 PM ·

I was in your shoes once.  With that in mind, I'd like to address your questions.

It is okay to introduce an attendance policy to current students that haven't had to follow guidelines.  It is your studio, and you can run it the way you want to.  The parents of current students might be fine with the new policy, or not. 

If you do introduce attendance policies to current students, some of the frequent misses might start to keep to their lesson times.  Or, they might leave you for a teacher that doesn't have guidelines in place.  But, if you are already out 100 pounds a week, what have you got to lose by trying?

If the frequent misses leave you, that frees up your teaching time to take on a student that will follow attendance policies.

How you charge for lessons is your choice.  Charging a lump sum of tuition (year, semester, month, etc) is simpler for everyone all around.

An easy way to research different approaches is to google around.  Try violin lesson policy, or piano lesson policy, etc.  You can get great ideas from established studios.

There are also books out there that address music studio businesses.  I found Mimi Butler's The Complete Guide to Running a Private Music Studio most helpful.

And last, if you decide to create an attendance policy, put it in writing.  The best of luck to you!

January 5, 2011 at 06:39 PM ·

Yes, everything must be in writing.  Have them sign it.  Send it again in an email.  Leave reminders on the phone.  Post it on facebook for all the world to see.  Feel like an absolute moron for being so overbearing and repetetive.  Then, prepare your speech for when they skip their lesson and approach you for a refund anyway.  Remember, be kind...

January 6, 2011 at 09:08 PM ·

Even if you operate a strong and clearly delineated "pay in advance" policy always have an undocumented "back door" for sympathetic handling of real emergencies, family bereavements, and similar.

January 7, 2011 at 04:55 AM ·

My approach has aspects of a few other respondents. My basic policy is not to charge in advance, but by the lesson. But then i explain that I have a 24 hour notice policy, or the cancelled lesson must be paid at the next lesson that they come to. At my discretion, I may make allowences for emergencies. It doesn't matter if you haven't had this policy before. Just tell any particular pupil that from now on, this is your policy. I've had a student ot two who tended to cancel down to the wire once too often. In that case I changed my policy to 48 hours notice.

January 7, 2011 at 05:20 AM ·

I do a pay a month in advance system for all the instruments I teach.  Make up lessons are available with advance notice of cancellation and only one per 3 month period (I learned my lesson with some students racking up hours of owed make-ups.)

Right now I'm experimenting with a significantly higher fee for students who wish to schedule and pay for only one lesson at a time.  Theoretically this should make up for any revenue lost by cancellations.

As far as policy changes for old students, I've never lost a student because of that, and I've made them read and sign a new policy sheet outlining any changes.

January 7, 2011 at 09:27 AM ·

It's a hard lesson to learn in business. And one that I'm not sure I have completely mastered. But you can be so desparate not to "lose"  a customer that you'll put up with all kinds of cra bad behaviour from those who pay you the latest and the least, often to the detriment of good customers.

January 7, 2011 at 06:23 PM ·

If you run your business the way you wish you could, you would end up with the kind of clientele you wish you had.  One thing I learned over the years--and this was through a great deal of coaching from my husband--was that if I put up with poor treatment from people, I will end up with a poor studio.  It doesn't pay to lower your standards, even if you're desperate.

January 8, 2011 at 06:40 AM ·

As a student (currently without a teacher), I can completly understand that the time allocated to me is time the teacher cannot allocate to some other method of revenue, either a gig or a student. Therefore, I have no problem paying for the time slot even if I don't use it. If I do cancel with adequate notice, it is up to the instructor to identify if the time is released in a manner that makes it of value. If not, I still pay.
That said, a little flexibility is required in any human interaction. The opportunity to make up a lesson, or an opportunity to miss one without the fee, or something like that. Not every hour or munite of every day is productive; it is the teacher's place to identify how rigid the system needs to be.
Students that cannot see the student/teacher as a workplace environment should be educated that this is serious business, and not just a lark. It needs to be respected.

That is part of why I don't currently have a teacher. I have such a chaotic schedule I cannot arrange any lessons in a pattern that will be useful. I need to work on that, then I will be ready to be instructed.

February 4, 2011 at 11:21 PM ·

another question. Is it always the student's responsibility to schedule a make-up lesson for one missed. My son is taking lessons and sometimes he's out because of vacation or illlness. But I also have had the teacher cancel (two weeks in a row) and once not show up at all. He has never called me to schedule a make-up. BUT he expects the full months payment up front. I'm getting a little miffed, and have thought about paying by the lesson, or getting a new teacher, but my son loves this teacher.

What's the best course of action? For now, I have asked for a make-up for a day my son was ill and the teacher accomodated. And I will keep track and continue to ask for make-ups for lessons missed. But shouldn't the teacher bear some responsibility for lessons missed because HE is out? This guy seems to not care if my son gets all the lessons he's (I've) paid for or not!

February 5, 2011 at 02:56 AM ·

This is what I was taught in my Business of Music class:

For private lessons, it's not good for the student to pay at the time of the lesson. For one thing, one could argue that it's really not good for the teacher to get paid directly by the student, if the student is a child then you should get the money from the parent. Otherwise the child might develop a sense of entitlement, as if they are simply buying a commodity.

So, you can have "terms", such as trimesters or semesters. What you do is you figure out how many lessons there will be in the entire trimester (you can just count the weeks if the student has weekly lessons). Add all the lessons for the trimester, and then figure out how much the tuition is for the entire trimester, let's say it is $150. So then you divide this amount evenly in three, so that the student pays $50 a month regardless of whether one month has more lessons in it than another. This is good for you because that way your income won't fluctuate as much. It's also good for the parent because they don't have to sit down and figure out how many lessons they're paying for, they just know how much the monthly tuition is and they write out the check for that much.

As for cancellations, everybody's policy is a little different. Here is my take on it: If the student notifies you of a cancellation no less than three days in advance, you will reschedule the lesson if you can find another time that works for the student. If they notify you within three days of the upcoming lesson, then they just lose their lesson. You can still try to reschedule if you feel like being nice, but there's no obligation for you to do so because of the short notice. If the cancellation is because of you, then obviously you must do whatever it takes to reschedule, or offer a refund for the lesson missed.

It offers some motivation for the student and their parents NOT to miss a lesson if they have already paid for it at the beginning of the month and they know that they may simply lose that money if they don't show up.

Of course, this may seem a bit stern. In the end you are the teacher and teaching is a vocation, it's not just about the money but also about doing what is best for the student. However, I do believe that this is good for the students. It is not as if you are trying to rob them. You will be helping them develop a sense of how professional relationships work and they will not take you for granted.

I hope this helps!

February 5, 2011 at 04:58 AM · As a student, I feel that I am paying for my teacher's time. Since she cannot usually fill my slot with another student if I cancel, I pay her for the full month no matter what. It's about respecting the teacher's time and recognizing this is how they earn a living,

February 5, 2011 at 02:56 PM ·

I really like Emily's policy.

February 5, 2011 at 04:55 PM ·

The policy has to be in sync with the life style of the teacher.  Its possible to have a scheduled lesson prepaid with a fixed time slot and a use-or-loose policy (with hopefully, as pointed out by Trevor, a Real Emergency kindess makeup).  However, only if the teacher is equally reliable.  Teachers who have to travel, perform, rehearse or whatever should have much more flexible teaching arrangements - even on a daily basis. 

This is essential also for some students - particularly older ones who have jobs that (as mine does) demand travel, unpredictable meetings etc.  I can only manage a regular time slot if there is flexibility for the demands of my work.  OTOH it is not unreasonable to ask me to pay more per lesson for that luxury (assuming of course that the teacher does not require the same).

February 5, 2011 at 05:15 PM ·

 I fully agree with Elise here.  I run a professional business with numerous clients and staff and I need flexibility and short notice re-arrangement for my lessons.  My teacher is a working orchestra violinist and also needs flexibility sometimes to accommodate rehearsals or whatever.  We give each other as much notice as we can, and generally it works fine.  

February 6, 2011 at 12:03 AM · In response to Lori: yes, you should insist on makeup lessons or refund if your teacher has missed! You have paid for these lessons and you are getting ripped off if he is taking your money for nothing. However, do double check the terms of your payment. For example, in the school at which I teach, students pay at the start of the year for a package of 28 lessons over the course of the year. The school year itself is more like 35 weeks so there are weeks built-in to give room for sickness, snow days, vacations, etc. For my private studio, currently I have my students pay monthly, at the beginning of the month. If they know they are going to be gone, they have to let me know before they pay; that gives me plenty of notice to make use of the extra time or potentially reschedule them. After that, no refunds are given except in emergency situations (I'm not going to charge for a lesson if the kid is throwing up or grandma just died). My policy for reschedules is: if you give me notice, I'll see what I can do. I tend to be much more flexible for dependable students :)

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