How To: Ensure You're Paid As A Tutor

Professional tutor and guest blogger Josh Sohn's suggestions on making sure you're paid on time when tutoring.

I’m not much of a gambler. But there’s a scene in a movie that I absolutely love. In it, one character (Eddy) is cheated out of an enormous sum of money at a poker table by another character (Harry) in a highly dramatic scene. Leaving aside the fact that Eddy is legitimately cheated, he does bear some responsibility in the ways things unfold. He loses perspective and “tilts” and it costs him. Tilting is a gambling term for irrational, overly aggressive behavior based on emotional confusion or frustration.

If you tutor long enough, you’ll have a tilt opportunity. A student or parent will put you in a position that will leave you extremely frustrated and you’ll contemplate doing something you shouldn’t. But you don’t have to end up like Eddy — dizzied and staggering and relieved of a substantial sum of money. If you can identify your own emotional confusion, you can walk away before you’ve done something regrettable. And if you’re smart, you can avoid the quandary altogether.

Client management is an essential ingredient in successful businesses. Put plainly, if you don’t take sufficient care of your existing clients, they will eventually walk and with them will go all potential referrals. This is particularly important in the tutoring world, in which so much of the traffic is driven by word of mouth recommendations. But the split client setup (parents who pay and kids who learn) can make it particularly hard for tutors to effectively manage clients or even know exactly who they work for. (I write about this phenomenon in a previous blog post.)

Consider the following scenario from several years ago:

I’d received a call from a woman named Diane who was calling on behalf of her 16-year-old son Alastair. She’d heard about me from a friend and wanted to know my availability and, ahem, price. I’d chatted with her for an hour on the phone, but when it came to my fee, Diane had demurred. “Jeez,” she’d said, “That’s a lot of money for a tutor. Isn’t Khan Academy free?” I’d almost offered her a lower rate right then, but instead, I’d proposed a free in-person consultation. (Check out my previous post on closing clients.) The consultation had gone so well that Diane had signed up for 90-minute tutoring sessions twice a week on the spot! When I broached the subject of payment, she’d asked if end-of-month billing was possible. Because I genuinely liked Alastair who genuinely needed immediate support and because I genuinely dislike negotiating, I’d agreed.

Eight sessions and 12 legitimately billable hours later (not including the phone call, the consultation, the prep time, the travel, the emails and texts to Alastair with last minute reminders/resources, and a slew of other contributions) it was the end of that first month of tutoring for Alastair. Actually, it was about a week into the following month. I’d invoiced Diane several times for the work I’d already done, but she wasn’t getting back to me and my next appointment with Alastair, with whom I’d really grown to enjoy working, was rapidly approaching.

There were two basic options: 1) continue the work in the hope/expectation and Diane would eventually settle up, or 2) let Diane know that tutoring would be discontinued until I’d been paid.

Every fiber of my being wanted to choose option 1. People are busy but basically good, and the strong likelihood was that Diane had just let this slip amidst lots of other responsibilities and expenses. There was some risk inherent in this plan, yes, but the second path felt even riskier. For starters, taking a hard line and discontinuing tutoring until I’d been paid would probably cost Alastair. Second, there was no guarantee that a tutoring freeze would compel Diane to come around. What if she viewed my behavior as somehow extortionary? Another thought occurred to me: Maybe it was that she and Alastair weren’t particularly satisfied with my work and that’s what had caused the situation in the first place? I could retroactively offer them a better rate? Maybe that would nudge her to pay the bill.

This is what tilting looks like for tutors.

In the end, I opted for the second option. I called her up and, as calmly and professionally as I could, I let her know that tutoring would be suspended until I’d been paid. She wasn’t happy and offered a litany of excuses, but a few days later the money situation had been resolved and tutoring had resumed. And Alastair never needed to miss a session.

Here’s my advice: don’t let it get to that point. Design and enforce a written policy in which sessions are prepaid and calmly explain to any clients who need further clarification that this is non-negotiable. If you don’t value yourself and your tutoring, why should they?
If the arrangement doesn’t work for them, stand firm and trust that if you acquiesce to them now, you will almost certainly run into billing issues with them later on.

In the end, there’s nothing you can do to completely eliminate the possibility of clients making you sweat for payment for work you’ve already done. But advanced administrative planning and a healthy sense of who you are and what you’re worth will go a long way.


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