Should I Offer Free Sessions to Attract Tutoring Customers?


Everyone starts at the beginning. No professional tutoring experience. No references. No track record. How do you compete with the scores of established tutors and tutoring agencies who got there before you? How do you even get your foot in the door?

Lowering your rate isn’t answer, and is, in fact, a terrible idea. Start with free.

No parent wants to be the first to risk their cash on an inexperienced tutor. A free session gives parents the opportunity to try you out without no financial commitment, no friction, and almost no risk. The worst that will happen – in their mind – is that their child will get some benefit (but perhaps less than with a different tutor), for free.

Free changes the question from “Why should I try this tutor?” to “Why shouldn’t I try this tutor??”.

Meeting people, honing your skills, growing your network, and learning about who you do (and don’t!) like working with should be a new tutor’s first priority. Offering your service on a free trial basis gives you access to countless opportunities not available to you otherwise.

Avoid discounts.

You might be wondering if you could achieve the same result by offering a substantial discount to entice prospective clients.  Many fledgling tutors are tempted to offer the first session at 20%, 30% or even %50 off.

Don’t do it.

Have you ever ordered phone, internet, or some other service with a similarly irritating promotion? My internet service was $60 a month for the first year. After that, it suddenly jumped to $80 a month. I was pissed – even though I was originally told that it was a “limited time discount”.

Nobody likes having the price raised. In my mind, that service should only cost $60/month. If you offer your service at a temporary discount, say $50 for the first session instead of $100, it’ll only be worth $50 in the minds of your customers. I called my internet provider to complain and asked them to lower my rate. They didn’t, since they know I have no other options in my area. Your customers will feel resentful, and as ask for an ongoing discount as well. If you don’t, they have many other options.

If you are going to offer a discount, make it permanent, and make sure you have a good reason to do so. Good reasons include:

  1. A customer who wants to pay for a large number of sessions at once. Consider offering them a 10-20% discount on the per/session fee when they buy 8 or more sessions in a package.
  2. A customer who lives very close to you, or is willing to otherwise minimize or completely eliminate your travel time. Consider a 20% – 40% discount.
  3. A customer who knows everyone in the area, and is going to refer you. But offering them a “referral bonus” would be much better.
  4. A customer who is a special situation (is a family friend, is broke, etc), but you really want to help them out of the goodness of your heart. This one is up to you.

Lowering your price, for even a single session, devalues your service to that customer. Offering a trial session for free does not.

You might be worried that many people will abuse your offer and use your service once without any intention of signing up long term. My own experience was very different – of the people who took me up on my offer of a free trial, about 90% became paying customers. A significant percentage even insisted on paying me for that first free session. Why did this happen?

FREE Creates Reciprocity

The simple answer is that people tend to be reasonable. This is doubly so if you’ve screened them for reasonableness on the phone. People who are reasonable don’t like to take advantage of others.

The more in-depth answer is that human social structures are built on reciprocity and reciprocity is deeply ingrained in our psychology. Doing something good for someone creates a desire in them to do something good for you in return.

To illustrate, suppose your friend asked you to help him move. If you did, you could reasonably expect your friend to help you in return when you needed it. You wouldn’t have to make this contract explicitly – it would be understood. If your friend had instead paid you the going rate for your help – say $100 for a few hours of your time – you wouldn’t expect him to help you move for free.

What if, instead, your friend was a cheapskate, and had offered to pay you just $10 to help him move? By asking for a “discount” your friend would be showing you that he didn’t value your time. By accepting you would be agreeing with his assessment. Finally, when it came time for you to move, even though you feel like you did him a favor, you’d find that he would not help you for free. After all, you accepted the cash, and therefore, there’s no obligation.

If you want to grow your client base and create goodwill as quickly as possible without having your customers to devalue you and your service, do it for free.

Another way to create reciprocity (and, in general, offer a good service to your customers) is to be generous with your time when speaking with customers over the phone. Some people only spend only a few minutes with me on the phone, but others will talk to me for 20-40 minutes. I do my best to hear them out, learn about their kids, and try to offer helpful feedback and suggestions. Over time I’ve noticed that the longer people spend with me on the phone the more likely they are to convert to paying customers. Almost everyone I talk to for an extended time ends up using our service – if it’s in their budget.

Talking to parents in depth also weeds out (some) potential problems down the line.

FREE Helps Avoid Problems

Just as accepting a session for free creates an obligation on the part of the customer, accepting money for your service (no matter how small the amount) creates an expectation of you.

When starting out, you won’t be good at screening and avoiding difficult customers, and you’ll often show up to a students house only to find that the situation is unworkable. Maybe the student doesn’t want the help and is going to fight you tooth and nail every step of the way. Maybe the parents have unrealistic expectations that can’t reasonably be fulfilled. Maybe they insist on hovering over you for the entire hour, trying to tag-team their overwhelmed child into submission. Maybe the house smells like cheese, and you’re lactose-intolerant. Maybe it’s just too far to travel, and you didn’t realize until you got there. Probably – most likely – the whole family needs a therapist and a not tutor.

Whatever the reason, sometimes it’s “just not going to work out”, but if you were paid for the session, you might feel obligated to continue working with the student. Communities are small and word travels quickly, so the last thing you want to do, especially with potentially volatile clients, is to bill them for the session, not help their child, and tell them you can’t work with them anymore.

Offering the first session as a free trial spares you the awkwardness when you inevitably have to turn down the client. “I’m sorry, it’s just too far for me to travel” you can tell them, or “I realize I’m not really the best person for this subject”. You came, you saw, you helped (maybe a little, or maybe even a lot), and since you didn’t accept their money, they will be grateful for whatever help you did offer. No harm, no foul.

For extra bonus points, refer this client to somewhere who can help them, or at least is willing to deal with them. Ideally, to your competitors.

When do I *stop* offering free sessions?

Free sessions are a tool to get you off the ground, so once you’ve achieved “take-off” you’ll no longer need to offer them. As your roster becomes full and your time becomes more valuable, you’ll find your attitude slowly changing from “I really need the business” to “Free session?? Are you nuts?!”

I stopped offering free sessions years ago, but after writing this article I realized that my business could benefit from a type of “free trial session” as well.  My business has built a lot of credibility, but there are still many competitors, some of whom are lower priced, and others who are more established. Getting your foot in the door and lowering (potential) customer’s risk is always important, so from today forward I’ll be offering a risk-reducing guarantee – “Your first session will be awesome, or it’s free.”

More on that later.