As the government, slowly, starts to lift some of the lockdown restrictions (with the ever-present possibility of bringing them back), businesses start to look at how they can return to normal.
‘Normal’ is, of course, relative. ‘Normal’ got us to this in the first place, so it’s unlikely things will ever be the same again. Many people keep themselves calm by imagining everything springing back into place as soon as lockdown is lifted. Don’t fall into that trap. Your business, and your life, will have been changed forever by this. You need to adapt and be ready for what comes next.
The language industry will, in similar ways to the travel industry, be hit longer and harder than many others. As airlines announce their restructuring, think what that means for you. Wherever in the world your location, are the national and budget airlines of your clients still flying into the nearest airports you've always counted on? No matter what airport your students might be using, flights are likely to be more expensive, and emptier, so the price to the customer of an immersive learning experience is going to be higher. And that’s even if the appetite remains.
But you got to re-open, but get used to a different future. Elsewhere on these blog posts we’ve talked about diversification of products (and revenues), but your core business will need to resume sometime. So, what will you do in this ‘phoney peace’, as we venture into this new future?
You should be open in two senses - open for business, obviously. Be ready to start up the old model of students in a classroom, even if the numbers may be much lower and the bookings are a trickle, rather than the flood you once dreamed of. Commit to those fewer students exactly as you would before. They will gain from that, obviously, but will also be your ambassadors - telling their peers that it is as safe as it is rewarding to be back in the classroom.
And be open to agents too - you may have spent a few weeks avoiding their emails and calls, or at least responding much more slowly, but they will, again, be a key source of students. So talk to them, honestly and openly, about how it’s going to work, what reassurances their students will need, whether price points, commissions or margins might need to change and how to build that market back up again. While digital delivery might allow you to reach students and new markets directly, don’t turn your back on any revenue potential right now.
Be demonstrably safe
But also be open about what you’re doing - yes, you are re-opening classrooms, but you’re making provision for social distancing, you’re making sure that classrooms, shared spaces, equipment, accomodation and extra-curricular visits and activities are all safe. Many of the biggest markets for students coming to the UK (China, Italy, Spain and France) have been hard hit and traumatised by what their countries have gone through. They are hyper-aware that we have been just as badly affected (if not worse). So make sure they get the message - not just in lists of ‘what we are doing’, but with video and photos of classrooms, of deep cleaning, of PPE equipment - all the things we have learned are important to our health. People need reassurance, so don’t skimp on giving it.
It’s a strange time and people are feeling dislocated. So be empathetic to the situations your students, staff, agents and their families are feeling. Acknowledge their patience, understanding and commitment and support those who are having trouble, whether that’s physically, mentally or financially. People will remember the companies who reacted in the right way in this crisis and also those who didn’t (looking at you Wetherspoons and Sports Direct). Organisations who look after people in the difficult times will retain their loyalty in the good times, so that’s one reason. But it’s also the right thing to do. The personal touch helps.
Elsewhere on this blog, we’ve talked about the need for content marketing, even if you feel you have nothing to say. That doesn’t stop now - you still need to keep your profile up as customers return to the market. Keep talking about your products and services and about the challenges to your students that the pandemic has created. Show that you understand while showing that you’re open for business. Regular content delivery will also help your search engine optimisation, making your digital campaigns just that wee bit sharper.
Keep the diversification
For some, the temptation is to dust yourself off and stop all that digital delivery you did in the difficult times and revert to the comfort blanket of the classroom. Don’t.
Retain your digital product - it’s unlikely to eat into your old core market, which will return, however slowly. The ‘real world’ elements of the classroom model - teacher relationships, networks and friendships, immersion in another culture and so on - all remain.
In the future, digital products will no longer be an attempt to keep the lights on, but will be a way of reaching different audiences - the time-poor, those who can’t afford the travel, those with limited mobility, those who want dip-in courses and niche specialisations. You may not feel comfortable with digital delivery, but your audience does. Don’t ditch it, just get better at it.
It’s both a short and a long term solution.
The schools which survive all this and go back to thriving are the ones who learned the lessons of a crisis - how to remain calm, how to show leadership to both their teams and their customers and how to ensure diversification so that their business was never threatened like this again. Those who react and adapt will be ready for the return to normal. However abnormal that will be.
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