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Black Belts of the Front Office

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Focus on “Frictionless” Customer Service. What intrigue me the most of professional organizations like MAIA, Satori System, Premier Martial Arts, PerfectMind amongst others, was their focus on front office personnel and processes. Their emphasis on ensuring a seamless process in the solicitation and on-boarding of all new students is what is making or breaking the on-going success of martial arts schools across North America, especially during these COVID uncertain times.

I have attended a couple of Program Director/Front Office webinars put on by some of the aforementioned organizations and it was obvious with the level of dedication these groups have shown for this part of the business. In addition, the most successful schools were those where the Instructors and Front Office staff had a very integrated relationship, which benefited the students tremendously.

To provide for a broader perspective on this increasingly important staffing requirement, we reached out to the Century Martial Arts School Owners network in order to gather some thoughts and comments from those in the know.

We have interspersed their comments throughout this article primarily to reinforce the fact that the martial arts business is maturing and the Program Director position is being recognized as an integral part of these innovative and forward-looking Martial Arts schools.

An Evolving Front Office

Good Instructors are important and step one in the development of your school, but for the development of your business, step two is the hiring of your Program or Admissions Director. Most will be experienced sales people as well as knowledgeable administrators. It is this sales component that is all important in ensuring the success of a martial arts school, no matter how talented your martial arts instructor is. In other words, without students, a great instructor is a wasted talent.

A Program Director must be comfortable in making Cold Calls, Warm Calls, Follow-Up calls as well as simple Courtesy Calls. Program Director/Admission Director is both an administrator and a salesperson all rolled up into one!

School Owners:

“During the day our PD answers calls, books appointments and answers questions.”

“The PD is the point of contact from the time the prospect comes to their first class until they sign up.”

“Our PD keeps the studio tidy between weekly professional cleanings and says Hi to anyone new who walks in.”

“The PD also makes sure that uniforms are in order and that all the equipment is in its place after class.”

When researching the various Program Director job descriptions, I was amazed at the level of responsibilities assigned to the position. It was obvious that the position was not only essential to the success of the business but the student’s overall development as well (See Table 1). In a one-person operation, most of the front office tasks must be handled before or after teaching classes. When your active student count is small these chores are manageable but once you get to where you are teaching more than 75 students, then you’ll find that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish all of your daily tasks by yourself!

SOHO is an acronym for a small office or home office operation and a single person martial arts school is a perfect example of a SOHO. Quality Program Directors are able to professionalize all processes whereby they can transition a business from a SOHO to a SME (Small or Medium Enterprises). Unfortunately, it is well known that the demise of most SOHO businesses is the lack of professionalism which includes knowing when to delegate …. or better said, you must know when to start hiring talent!

In my non martial arts career, even at the Management level, I was responsible for an immense amount of administration, which makes me a little bias towards these unsung Front Office Black Belts. While in most industries, the administration side of the business is well thought of and even seen as a cornerstone of their success, unfortunately, in the martial arts world, this part of the school’s business was initially thought of as a necessary ‘evil’ that simply needed to be done after teaching classes. It wasn’t thought of as important as it does today, and this is due to the complexity that is modern business.

Having operated several schools over the past few decades (70 ’s, 80 ’s & 2000 ’s), I have seen how dramatically the Front Office or School Administrative requirements have evolved over this time. With my first school, which was run out of a church hall, we used a large briefcase with all the school and students’ details maintained within it. We would simply ensure that everyone’s student card was stamped with both attendance and Dues Payment date, usually on the same card … and little else.

I have watched how the Front Office has evolved from a table in the corner of the Dojo (which usually was a rented hall or gym) to a full time and separate office/room that is now considered as important as the Dojo/Training Hall itself.

The position has evolved from where all the office or administration tasks were an afterthought completed late at night, after class, to a full-time semiprofessional management position.

A Management Professional

Initially when a school grew to a size that basically demanded a front office person, this usually fell to the instructor’s wife, mother or significant other to manage, but not anymore. Office Management, Sales and Marketing experience matter now more than ever. In today’s Sales and Marketing oriented business models, the careful and selective use of social media is slowly becoming a fulltime position in itself. Together with maintaining accurate and comprehensive details on each student, today’s Program Director must also be a “tech expert” in order to properly manage a modern Martial Arts business.

School Owners:

“Most important was ability to learn to use the software which is used to keep track of the students. “

“Our PD had previously started and operated an IT consulting business.”

While the Martial Arts Instructor is responsible for all motivational speeches, it is the Program Director that conducts in-depth conversations with the student (and Parents) that, over the years, also positively influences their development as a person. The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” appears to be more relevant in today’s hectic paced society. This has resulted in more families wanting to incorporate the Martial Arts school as part of their child’s “village”. This sizable responsibility can only be fully achieved through the combined effort of the school’s instructors, the Program Director, the Parents and especially the student.

School Owners:

“They are the real anchor of a studio and game changing so instructor can instruct.”

“For us, this is our PD's main job!”

“Our Program Director checks in with parents each day and keeps an eye on how each student is doing in school.”

“The PD lets the instructors know when a student is being bullied at school and gives Mom's a few confidence builders to work on.”

“Our PD cheers on students who are struggling and goes up to them after class to tell them how much better they did today as well as pumping out information about tournaments and events and gets everyone excited to attend.”

Of course, the sales aspect of the Front Office position cannot be emphasized enough. We all agree that the ultimate salesperson for your school is the Instructor or Instructors as this is the Product you are selling. Nevertheless, as with any business just having a great product (or service) is only half the battle to success. You must market your product and the best way to do so is to get the word out there as to how great your product is. This is the strength of a qualified Program Director.

Important Partner of your success

Unless you are going to out-source your entire front office, any successful martial arts business almost necessitates the hiring of a Program Director type position. In fact, even if you do automate most of your administrative processes, you still need a strong front office person if you wish to create a true community minded business.

In other words, when a new prospect enters your premises, does the atmosphere you have created provide for a welcoming environment? A place where people can feel included and comfortable. With most full time Instructors having to focus on the class being taught, there is little time to spend with parents and/or prospective students. This again is where the Program Director shines.

Program Directors should also be knowledgeable about the Martial Art being taught as they may have to provide coverage (back-up) of any class where the normal instructor is suddenly unavailable. The level of knowledge need not be at a Black Belt level (although preferable) but should be at least at a level where they could determine which senior student could teach the class in question to ensure consistency in the student training program.

School Owners:

“A black belt who had been training several years prior to becoming PD.”

“Our Program Director has no training until they worked here allowing them to learn our styles and knowledge unbiasedly.”

“Our PD started as a white belt when hired. We asked our PD to train and are paying for that instruction because we felt that a little bit of knowledge of our training was important.”

“Our PD was previously an instructor on the floor (3rd Dan).”

“Our Program Director is 2nd degree black belt in an integrated style of martial arts, training for going on 11 years.”

In addition, modern curriculums must be reviewed and updated regularly. The multi-talented Program Director can provide a substantial amount of useful input based on regular conversations with the students and parents. Program Directors know what is popular within the industry and where the trends are heading.

There are occasions where a student or parent can take up a considerable amount of “non-class communications” which could completely disrupt an instructor’s class. These inter-actions are the responsibility of the Program Director, relieving the instructors of these administrative type issues (e.g.: monthly payment clarifications) and the stress related thereto.

School Owners:

“Our PD makes sure that all students are taken care of and new trials are given the best experience possible.”

“Upgrades are made with the PD meeting with parents. The Program Director is the parent liaison for most activities.”

“Our Program Directors are the real anchor of our studios and game changing so instructor can instruct.”

“Our Program Director checks on students regularly, and engages with parents.”

“The PD is very involved with parent and student communications.”

“The PD is primarily responsible for the school, staff and parent relations.”

One of the most important roles a Program Director has responsibility for (and one of the least appreciated) is that of an Arbitrator. When a student or more likely a parent has an issue with something that happened in class, emotions on both sides of the issue, namely the student/parent on one side and instructor(s) on the other, can sometimes get out of hand.

Having a calm, experienced professional arbitrating the situation is a skill set of the Program Director which will ensures that all parties get proper representation and hopefully a satisfactory resolution. The Program Director will make certain that all issues are aired and resolved in an unbiased process.

The Program Director can show the proper empathy required, ensuring that both the safety of the student and the health of the business are taken into consideration when resolving the complaint.

So how best to start your process of hiring a qualified Program Director? Whether you decide to hire internally from your existing membership or externally after a proper evaluation process, one of the best places to determine what you need in your front office is to attend the MAIA Martial Arts SuperShow in Las Vegas.

Even if you have already hired a Program Director, bring them to the Martial Arts SuperShow as well seeing that there are so many opportunities for a Front Office staff member to learn new Sales and Marketing strategies from experienced and knowledgeable school owners and business professionals.

The administrative side of any successful business can be glamourless at times, nevertheless it is what makes or breaks a business these days, especially when considering how dramatic the business climate has been these past couple of years. With the advent of online classes and remote learning, the Program Director can be invaluable in trying to maintain a cohesive community atmosphere while satisfying both governmental and societal restrictions. Do not take for granted these modern Front Office Black Belts.

Spend some time in your evaluation of the people you put into this responsible position, you’ll be glad you did, both for your personal development as well as for the success of the business.

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