Creating a value proposition

One of the biggest questions I see online ESL teachers asking is “My parents only want to pay $10/ hour, how do I explain that I can’t go that low?!”. In this lesson, we will discuss how to best communicate your prices to parents, justify the value you are adding, and how to tackle negotiations.

Why do parents want to pay so low?

Firstly, it is important to understand where your customers are coming from. They have no doubt done their research online and discovered that most online ESL companies pay teachers around $10 – $20/ hour, AND these companies offer them extra advantages such as professional curricula, access to lesson previews, vocabulary review games, a convenient online platform/ app, access to ebook libraries, extra support from a mentoring group, etc. Companies are also more easily able to communicate with them in their native language, and provide secure online payments. They figure that you are offering them less value than they would get with a company, and if you were to work elsewhere you’d only get maximum $20 hour, so why should you charge them any more? Cutting out the middle man should save them money, plus they feel that they’re getting less value from your classes.

However, having discussed some of the extra time/ costs involved in being an independent online tutor, along with other important factors, in the previous lesson, we know that the majority of us are simply unable to go as low as $10/ hour. Before getting into arguments over pricing with parents though, let’s consider some approaches to better communicate the value you are adding to students.

Communicating your value – writing a value proposition

As much as we may wish to argue back with “I have xyz extra costs…” to help parents understand our perspective, this usually just results in a complex and potentially quite awkward negotiation process. I’ve had parents argue that I “don’t need to lesson plan” as they will just send me a (definitely pirated and not designed for online teaching anyway…) textbook to use instead, or insist that it was my choice to live in a more expensive country so not their fault… It gets awkward very quickly!

Instead, a better approach is to communicate the value you are adding to their student, which they can only get from you. Identify your customers’ pain points and end goals, then explain to them clearly how you will help them achieve these goals and tackle these pain points. No-one learns English just for the fun of it, they are learning it for a reason – this reason is what you need to tap into.

Then, keep your “sales pitch” simple – clearly state:

  • Why you are qualified
  • How you will teach them
  • To solve what pain point
  • To achieve what end goal

Example 1: High school students

Start by thinking about why they need English. Let’s pick the example of a high school student who hopes to study abroad in the future. They need to learn English in order to:

  • Write application essays/ complete application forms to get into their target university
  • Pass the IELTS exam (or similar English tests) in order to meet their admission requirements
  • Make friends and get by in everyday life abroad
  • Understand their lectures and get good grades in their assignments

Their ultimate end-goals are to get into university, enjoy their time there and get good grades.

However, they are struggling to meet these goals because:

  • Their school hasn’t taught them how to write beautiful, persuasive sentences or how to structure admissions essays (this is something even native speakers struggle with)
  • They don’t understand the structure and assessment criteria of the IELTS exam so end up with lower scores due to not showing off their higher level English skills
  • They learnt more formal, textbook-style English at school, rather than colloquial expressions and everyday language
  • They haven’t studied their chosen subject in English before, so are unfamiliar with technical vocabulary

Having understood your customer, you can then adjust your marketing message to them. For example:

  • As a graduate from XYZ (well known) university, I will teach you how to structure your admissions essay and write advanced, persuasive sentences to get accepted by top universities abroad
  • As a previous IELTS examiner, I will teach you what the IELTS examiner is actually looking for and how to ace the test to achieve the 7.5 score required by top universities
  • As a native English speaker, I will teach you the colloquial English phrases and expressions you need for everyday communications in America, helping you make local friends and settle in to life abroad
  • As a science graduate, I will teach you the technical vocabulary and subject-specific sentence structures to understand English-medium science lectures and write outstanding assignments, scientific reports and essays which get you the grades you deserve

In this way, students can see that you are offering them something customised to their needs, which specifically resolves their pain points and helps them achieve their goals. This is so much more powerful than saying “I teach subject-specific English” or “I teach IELTS preparation”.

Example 2: Kindergarten students

Ok now let’s look at a second example – kindergarten students. They want to learn English in order to:

  • Do well at school and get good grades
  • Develop a more native-sounding accent by being exposed to the language from a young age
  • Have a head-start over their classmates
  • Be in the best position for English fluency (since research shows that the earlier you start learning a language, the better)

However, they may struggle to meet these goals because:

  • Most online ESL companies have now closed, so they don’t know how to find structured, professional classes designed to boost their grades yet are still fun and engaging for younger kids
  • Chinese kindergartens usually do not hire native speaking teachers, so they pick up a “Chinglish” accent or less natural phrasing
  • There is a lot of competition in China, and they are aware that many of their future school classmates will have had 1000s of hours of private English classes already
  • If they don’t learn correct pronunciation from the start, they may actually be in a worse position later on if they need to un-learn then re-learn the foundations again

Here are some ways of phrasing your marketing message:

  • Because I use a structured, professional curriculum designed for young learners, I will guide you from a complete beginners level and provide steady progress to help you achieve the best grades in school
  • As a native speaker, I will teach you the correct pronunciation and native expressions so you have the best foundations in speaking English correctly
  • As a qualified English teacher, I will help you catch up by using a structured, progress-focused curriculum which covers the core English skills, vocabulary and grammar required to give you a head-start at school

In this way, even though the young learner niche is often seen to be quite oversaturated and less customisable, you can clearly communicate the value you uniquely provide as well as demonstrate your understanding of the challenges they face.

How can I identify my students’ pain points and goals?

Quite simply, ask them! Before launching into your sales pitch, spend time just chatting to your potential customers to find out more about what they want to learn, why they want to learn it, what they are struggling with, what their longer term goals are, etc.

This process also helps to build rapport with potential customers and starts to warm them up to taking lessons with you. It may take some time, but by the end of it they will be better persuaded that you are the best teacher for them.

Hang on, does this mean developing niche, customised lessons for every student?

No! But also, yes… As a niche teacher, your customers can see that you will help them achieve their individual goals. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean making super customised lesson resources for each lesson.

For example, you could use a standard, well-structured curriculum (explaining to them that this is required to set the foundations in core grammar/ vocabulary) but then add in niche expansion courses more focused on their interests. Alternatively, when using more standardised materials you can adapt your teaching by bringing in examples or discussions more relevant to their goals.

Task: Think about your target market. This could be based on your existing contacts, previous teaching experience, previous professional experience, niche qualifications or interests. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your target customer (or even better, reach out to a suitable contact and ask them directly!) and note down their goals and pain points. Then, phrase a strong value proposition which sells you as their ideal teacher and communicates clearly how you will help them overcome these pain points to achieve their goals. Share your thoughts and value proposition in the comments below.

4 Comments
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Hi, Katie!

I want to start by sending a big thank you for putting together this course! I’m a Spanish teacher and it has been very useful to set my XiaoHongShu profile. I set up my profile and after two months I got my first student and at my desired rates! I wanted to ask you about the value proposition. I know I should do my own research, but I recall you mentioned you teach science English for students who want to enroll in abroad universities. Do you happen to know if there could be such market for the Spanish as well? I also have a science background and it would be really interesting to specialize in that field as well. I’m teaching general Spanish to kids and teens right now.

About the task: I know the needs of chinese families regarding to the lack of Spanish content in China, at least comparing it to the amount of English content available. If one looks for English content on Billibilli, lots of videos can be found, and circumstances are not the same for Spanish. I understand how difficult it is for parents to review the materials or homework with their kids since they don’t understand Spanish and feel insecure about the right pronunciation or answers. The amount of Spanish content available is very limited inside China. I offer them direct communication, I send them answers to the homework with explanations in Chinese so the parents also understand them, and I send them extra materials to review and practice. That way they feel more comfortable reviewing a foreign language like Spanish with their children.

Again, thank you for this great course 🙂

Katie (Administrator) November 9, 2022 at 10:31 am

Thank you for your wonderful comment – great to hear that you have found the course useful! Congratulations on finding your first student on XiaoHongShu 🙂
Sure, yes there is definitely a market for Spanish classes, although I’m not sure how many are at such an advanced level as usually Spanish is taken as a second foreign language after English. Through Abridge Academy’s own tutoring program we have some teenage students taking Spanish classes, however they are all beginners level. You’d need to research how popular studying abroad in Spanish-speaking countries is for Chinese students and their motivations / goals. However, it does sound like there is a LOT less competition in this market, so it could be a great niche to focus on!

When negotiating. Be sure to ask what platform their child was using. Some are very simple such as PalFish. Others, much more comprehensive such as VIPKID. This is why you need a preferred niche to excel at. For me: Medical English (Pharmacy for over 18 years), Business English (Pharmacy owner for over 15 years), knowing North America school curriculuums, Being IELTS Preparation certified, Science degree and having a TESL teaching preparation certificate. Pick a niche and show your stuff! 10 US an hour is for conversational chit chat, at most. By cutting out the middle platform, I feel you gain, you do not lose. My teaching actually improves! Because I measure it and expect a certain level of mistakes each hour or class. It is so important to dump these middle platforms and save the parents money (China likes this concept too) while increasing your income … to the level you have learned to teach! To me … 30 US an hour for an experienced, friendly, conscientious teacher is about right. Just over deliver and make them your friends. Now in Vietnam, the parents are in general not as wealthy so a downward rate occurs in countries such as these. Another reason I avoid beginners is they need translators in the very beginning. Once A2 plus … hand them over.

Katie (Administrator) January 3, 2022 at 2:56 pm

That’s a great point about the platform they are used to – although not necessarily an indication that you need to offer exactly the same as what that platform offered (think instead about what is actually best for that student, not just following what they are used to).

Definitely agree with you there about finding a niche that fits with your experience, qualifications, teaching style, etc. – by having a niche, you can more easily create these kind of valuable value propositions and communicate why YOU are the best teacher for that student. I earned the most money when I was targeting the “wealthy Chinese kids applying to Oxbridge” interview preparation niche – it fitted my profile (experience, qualifications, language skills) well, there is not much competition with other tutors, plus the target customer tended to be willing to pay any price if they felt you would help them get in. I started on £30/ hour with an agency, quickly got promoted up to £50/ hour before going independent, and at the peak was earning £100/ hour (before giving it all up to become a classroom teacher for a while…). So yeah, it’s about finding a niche which matches your profile, not too over-saturated with tutors, and has customers willing to pay your prices 🙂 Sounds like you have some excellent experience and qualifications for medical/ business English and IELTS preparation, and I imagine that these niches are less saturated and higher value too!

Thinking about your target market is also important – Vietnam might still work out for you due to the convenience of timezones, receiving payments, etc. but I would say in my experience I’ve found the highest paying students in China, and to a lesser extent also Korea and Japan (although demand in each country will vary depending on your niche – a friend of mine in Taiwan said apparently medical tourism is a growing sector there, might be worth you looking into…).

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