Case Study – Switching to recurring payments for our tennis coaching programme

Some time ago, I wrote about switching our club membership to a direct debit / recurring payment model. Now it’s time to talk about doing the same with the coaching programme.

Just to avoid any confusion, Direct Debit is the name here in the UK for payments that are set up to be automatically taken from the customer’s bank on a regular basis. It may have other names around the world, but I’ll use that one. We’ll call it DD.

I have an interesting role here at Sutton Tennis & Squash Club. As club manager, I’m responsible for membership, which led me to write the post mentioned above – and as head coach, I obviously manage the coaching programme. After the great results of moving to DD for membership, we knew that we wanted to do the same for the coaching programme, and we made the move in September last year (2020). Here is what I’ll cover:

  1. Where we were before and the reasons for wanting to change to direct debit.
  2. Where we are now – the results! I like to include that bit in the middle rather than the end.
  3. The process and details.

Like most posts on this blog, this isn’t so much to say that this is the best or only way of doing things – there are plenty of coaches who have been doing this for a long time and probably doing it better than us – it’s just to share what has worked for us – but I will say it has been great for us.

Where we were before and why change?

So what we are really talking about here is our junior group coaching programme, although others include adults in this model. And like the majority of UK coaches, our model was to run ‘courses’. In our case, the courses were the school term / semester and would last for about 12 weeks. Here are the problems with that system:

The start and end of every term involved large amounts of admin

What admin? Well………

  • Plan the term dates, work out the cost.
  • Inform all the parents, put the info on our website, into emails etc.
  • Ask the parents to sign up, whether that is online, by email, by form, by phone.
  • Repeatedly chase the parents to sign up – it was the norm that a percentage of parents never actually signed up, but turned up on the first day of the new term – so we would never really know our numbers until a week or two into the term.
  • Collect payment. In a perfect world, all parents would sign up and pay online in advance – and that was improving as we went more towards online bookings – but there would still be a fair percentage who did not pay and had to be chased. Almost every term, we still had outstanding payments towards the end of term.

Actually, it wasn’t the ‘start and end of term’ that involved so much admin – it was all the time! Because by the time we had collected all payments, become sure of all our numbers, got to know all the children, got our ratios of coaches to children right and got all the children in the right groups, it was the end of term and time to start it all again!

I’m exhausted just reading this back!

Parents were required to take action to sign up, rather than take action to cancel

In the post mentioned above, I mention that people are bad at taking action, whether it is to start something or stop something. I refer to that funny Friends Episode where Chandler & Ross keep trying & failing to stop their gym membership. Actually, why not, here it is again………..

So we need to create a system where the parents have one bit of action, which is to sign up, and no more action needed, unless they want to cancel. This is the case with most other areas of life, from gym membership to Netflix, but we’ve been a bit behind in the world of tennis coaching.

Every term was different

Of course, the majority of children would sign up again from term to term, but still there would be some drop-offs and some new children. So the start of term would be disorganised. We wouldn’t be sure of our numbers, how many coaches we needed, how many courts and the levels wouldn’t be quite right. It would be like starting all over again each new term.

With the DD model, there  isn’t a start and finish, sessions are just continuous, although there are some breaks built in here and there. New children join all the time, but as it is a gradual thing, it doesn’t disrupt. They may need one session to see which group is right for them, but that is very different from a ‘start date’ where there are lots of new children, all who need assessing & moving around, parents who may not know where to go and have questions.

Our financials were unpredictable

I can still remember the stress of the end of a term / start of a new one. Would we need more coaches / less coaches, more courts / less courts? Coaches would need answers about their hours. We really wouldn’t know until at least the second half of the term how the finances were looking.

Cash-flow was in big hits three times per year rather than steady.

It was a big up-front cost for parents

Around £100 for a course, often double or triple because of siblings. Quite a big scary committment for a parent. Monthly is so much easier.

To sum up, it was more work for us and the parents, more likely for people to drop out, a worse service to the customers and worse financially to us and them.

Where we are now - the results

I’ll go into the process in the next section, but I’ll say that the results have been great. I cannot imagine ever going back to how things were before, and everyone that I have heard talking about this subject says the same thing.

We made the switch in September 2020 and haven’t looked back. Here is how our programme now looks:

  • Every child in our programme is on a direct debit. There are ‘packages’ – which I’ll detail later – depending how many sessions per week and how many children in the family.
  • We still run camps in the school holidays, which anyone can sign up to. The children on the programme have some of these included in their package, but anyone else can also join these.
  • After a trial session, the monthly direct debit is set up, which then comes out of the customer’s bank every month until they stop.
  • There is really no admin after the customer has set up the DD and arranged which session(s) they will attend. Of course there is communication with the parents, but this is more about the important stuff – like their child’s tennis. Not about payments and signing up.
  • Our groups are very consistent. There may be gradual growth with new children joining, and children will move groups from time to time, but it is gradual. So the children know each other, the coach knows all the children, the levels are correct.
  • Our finances are stable, realiable and require very little work. Sending out invoices, chasing payments, working out fees are mostly a thing of the past.

To sum up, it is FAR less work for us and the parents, less drop-outs, a better service to the customers and better financially to us and them.

The process and the details

What would be the deal / the terms?

The big questions were:

  • Do we charge monthly / weekly?
  • Do we run the programme all year instead of only during school term?
  • Do we stop and start the customers’ payments if they want to stop during the school holidays?
  • What is the notice period when someone wants to cancel?

One thing we were determined about was that we didn’t want people stopping and starting their payments. That would defeat the object of the whole thing. But we also didn’t want to run the programme through the school holidays. This is because parents who did not want to commit through the holidays would either have to stop and start their DD or pay for sessions that they don’t receive. This could deter parents and create admin for us.

So how could we have people paying continuously, but account for stopping during the school holidays? Well, you can see our actual page HERE which describes the programme to the parents, but here is what we we came up with:

  • We worked out the cost for 50 hours of tennis in a year and this became the monthly cost. In our case, this is £37 per month (50 x £8.50 per hour, plus 5% payment processing fees).
  • For children attending more hours per week or families with multiple children, there are different ‘packages’ of different prices, with discounts built in.
  • But we say that 40 of those hours will come from the regular weekly term programme, another 10 hours can be made up at tennis camps in the school holidays throughout the year AND we give them a bonus 10 hours of camps.
  • So, a child on our basic ‘Bronze’ package would attend lessons for one hour per week all through the school terms, but then book some hours of tennis camps at their discretion, up to a total of 20 hours. As our camps are 3 hours or 5 hours, that is actually not many days of camp that they need to attend to make up their hours.
  • For the handful of parents who really didn’t want to pay for camps, we worked out the price for only the term time sessions. They still pay a continuous direct debit, but the cost is worked out. This is only a small minority of the parents.
  • We ask for a month’s notice for cancellation. So if they cancel in January, they would need to do all of February before stopping. This deters parents from being flaky / stopping and starting, for instance to try to miss out a couple of months bad weather.

Here is a picture of our packages straight from our website:

It's a bit like explaining the offside rule in football. It's quite complicated to explain, but actually works very well in reality. So the parents set up their direct debit, the children come to their lessons during the school term and then book 20 hours of camps over the year. There is very little admin involved.

How do we manage it?

We use software called Tennisbiz to run our coaching programme. I’ve written about that HERE. This software manages most aspects of the programme, including Direct Debits. It links with GoCardless, which is one of the better known providers of direct debits, but no doubt there are others out there.

So our process is to offer a free trial session, then send the parent information about how to sign up (basically This Page). And that is it really. I feel like there should be more to say, but there isn’t. That is the beauty of this system.

Of course we have systems for tracking attendances and communicating with parents, all of it done through Tennisbiz, but that really sums up the process.

Conclusion

Switching to the direct debit / recurring payment model has done everything that we hoped, and more. Here are a few highlights……..

It has been impossible to cover everything and answer any potential question in this post, but please comment below and I’ll be happy to answer. If you’d like to work with me more closely, contact me at karl@tenniscoachblog.com.

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