Two strategies to foster professional relationships with private students on WhatsApp

(Para português, clique aqui)

WhatsApp is by far the #1 app I use on my phone, and a lot of people's favorite too. The dilemma is: how can we use it professionally with clients? After analyzing why students kept contacting me on WhatsApp before and after class, I have finally figured out how to offer them the best service I can efficiently, without sacrificing my free time.

The ideas I am going to present came about after a study I carried out for six months, which led me to conclude the vast majority of time students reach out to me they want to change the appointment we have for a lesson. In six months, that happened over 200 times! 

Check it out:

Why Student contacted me on WhatsApp?

Six months analyzing why students contacted me on WhatsApp

Clearly, the main reason why students contact me is to change our initial agreement. In fact, after re-reading messages I've realized  a lot of the time they got in touch because they wanted to let me know about some last minute appointment or how their future plans that would affect our class. 

Which leads me to problems and (of course) solutions. 

Problem no 1: When is it a good time to text?

Due to call/text message rates in Brazil, WhatsApp is widely used by the population, which means we, teachers, wind up doing most of our talk with prospects and students using the app. When I started working online it became even more of a thing: I started getting students all over the country. I was conformed to the fact they texted me to ask questions and organize the schedule whenever they remembered about me, which sometimes happened on Friday at 15:00 or Sunday at 17:00. The real issue began when I moved to England, which means for most of the year I am 4 hours ahead of them. Therefore, Friday at 15:00 became 7:00 pm. Sunday at 17:00 became 10:00 pm. I got texted at 1:00 am about classes, at 8:00 pm on Saturday about homework questions and at least twice a day about a student not being able to make it. Unlike what I had expected, they often didn't bear in mind the fact I lived in a different time zone, and that I had days off too. I believe this has to do with people's relationship with WhatsApp; it's the whole idea that you're able to send a message now and the receiver can choose to read and reply later. While I didn't always read and often wouldn't reply immediately, my phone would still buzz and I would, once again, know a student was getting in touch, often in my free time. I was, once again, working.

Solution: I now have two cell phones and two WhatsApp accounts

It took me years to value the importance of having different WhatsApp numbers for my students and my business. After a fair amount of beeps in the middle of the night and while I was exercising, or out with friends,  or reading a book at Costa Coffee on Sunday, I decided to use different mobiles for my work and personal life. As a matter of fact, I got an Android phone and now use WhatsApp for business, which allows me to send pre-saved messages and have a professional photo of myself. This has improved the quality of my free time greatly; as much as I might not reply to texts immediately, I was constantly stressed about how much my students' personal and professional problems wound up popping up when I was off work, and how much WhatsApp put me in a position of always being available. I have warned all my students they are supposed to text me on the new number, and their messages will get a reply when I am in the office. I did this thinking about myself, but it is also great for students: they are free to text me at, literally, any time of the day without worrying about bothering me; I'll view and reply when I can.

Problem no. 2 Reinforcing rules and limiting flexibility to a healthy level.

I have a 24-hour rescheduling policy, so a lot of people would text me because, while they knew there were less than 24 hours left until our lesson, they wanted a bit more flexibility, which meant they were going to try and do it ASAP so they had a better chance at me saying yes. I guess what they thought was that if they let me know a few hours before I’d at least not wait for them. That meant sometimes they would text me at midnight (4:00 am UK time) about a 10:00 lesson, or at 6:00 about our 6:00pm appointment. And here was I, constantly in touch with students' personal and professional problems, which is not what I had been hired to do. Here was I, again trying to explain to them I don’t reschedule anything at the eleventh hour and they had  to that.

Others, however, would text me precisely 24 hours before class, but by the time I viewed their text and found time to text back, it would been at least a day later. I would then get in touch and offer options, but a lot of the time they'd be busy, so I'd get in touch about classes several times. They didn't seem to make time to have that class they'd missed. As a consequence, some would want to keep the credit for the next contract or even get refunded (and that's when I referred to the contract. And that’s a few more messages on whatsapp again).

Some students would think a part of the service I offered them via WhatsApp was that of a secretary (which I, as a business, do not have). They would text me their schedule of upcoming business appointments and have me try and find other slots for the classes they'd miss. In a school that's feasible, as there is usually more than one teacher and at least one secretary, but I couldn't afford to do that. Nonetheless, I did love the idea of sending someone my availability and having them fit to what I could offer. 

Solution: I set up an online schedule

That's when I got an online schedule: in  acuity you can create links that show your student what slots you have available for rescheduling. You can even make it look like a webpage if you want (here's mine): 

- You can create different kinds of appointments and offer more of less flexibility depending on what you want/can offer  and limit the number of appointments per day. I, for instance, offer more options for  the initial conversation about lessons than for rescheduling.  You may even set your availability for rescheduling as the exact same times you teach, so that students can only schedule a class if another one either cancels or doesn't turn up. 

-  You can get them up to speed with your own appointment rescheduling policy without having to constantly renegotiate the contract with students and remind them what they've signed up for. I personally do not allow students to reschedule anything to more than 10 days in the future (what if I get a new student or a good deal to fly to Paris) and only take rescheduling either before or after another lesson I already have. Also, I let them know make up classes can be flimsy at peak times, because if a new student wants to book that schedule permanently or a personal appointment of mine arises, they will get an e-class. The student may bring any class forward but can only view the next 10 days. The limit to change a booking is 24 hours before it's scheduled to take place (not 23, not 19). This has greatly helped me to control my future availability and not have a student reschedule a class at a time where I might want to have a new contract.

-  You can send them a link with all days/times they hired. This means if your student has a future holiday planned you do not have to go mental trying to reschedule their classes. They can do it themselves on the slots you have available. Additionally, it sends a clear message that these are the times your student hired. 

- You can program it to send reminders/instructions to students via email. If they want, for instance, reschedule, you can forward an email letting them know you will analyze their request and confirm the change as soon as you are sure a new student won't book that slot. You can also let them know the request will be denied if this is a class they already rescheduled. 

And here's what's changed for me:

 1. Some students now bring classes forward months before they are planning something that will affect them. They view my availability times and organize their schedule accordingly to what's in there. Before, the pressure of deciding immediately would often make them often say no to the slots I offered

2. When a student doesn't meet the deadline I offer an e-class; 

3. Students can keep track of my schedule for weeks and see what I can offer and what I can't, which also shows them I am a busy person just like them;

4. In special cases, such as vacation they had planned before the start of the course, I offer a special link, which grants them a longer deadline for rebooking classes, but with less flexibility. Once that deadline comes, I block them from booking classes via this link and offer e-classes for the hours they missed

5. When students want to book the initial conversation appointment, they immediately get an automated message about how to download Zoom, which spares us of unnecessary changes of WhatsApp messages about how to do it.

6. When I'm about to start a new contract I program a booking that reminds them about the first payment. I came up with this after several situations where students who didn't sign the contract or paid the first installment would simply turn up for the first class. If a student doesn't agree to the rules and doesn't make the first payment, I won't wait for them.

And now, with all this free time, I have been spending more time preparing classes, learning about technology, brushing up on my Italian, writing on my blog and, best of all: my phone has never rung at 3:00 with a message concerning a deceased pet anymore.