Doing Well, Thank You Very Much

A school that teaches the social graces to kids is a huge hit with Boston-area parents. One reason: Astute marketing by the academy's founder

By Karen E. Klein

When it comes to marketing, Corporate America bandies about big words and backs them up with bigger bucks. Meanwhile, small-business owners implement major marketing efforts on minute budgets. In this occasional look at marketing strategies, Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein details a small outfit's marketing strategy and runs those efforts by Chicago marketing executive Meg Goodman.

The Company: The Etiquette School of New England

The Service: Teaching social skills, proper table manners, and protocol to children in the Boston area.

The Entrepreneur: Millie Downing

Background: Downing founded her company two years ago, after going out to eat with her husband and two young boys. When she saw an elderly woman on her husband's arm make her way across a crowded restaurant to compliment the children's impeccable table manners, Downing knew she had found her calling. She had many years' experience as a corporate trainer and a degree in marketing, but she enrolled in the American School of Protocol in Atlanta to receive her formal certificate in etiquette. "While this was important to establish my credibility," commented Downing, "I believe that it is my hands-on experience as a mother that really tells people I know what I'm doing. My own two sons are examples of what I can do."

The Challenge: Downing needed to establish the school as being credible, delivering on its promise, and worth the tuition fee. Her problems: She didn't want to make parents feel that enrolling their children to be taught etiquette by a stranger was an indication that their own efforts had failed at home. And, how could she get children to feel happy about participating?

The Solution: She started out by putting her vision for the school on paper and doing informal surveys of parents, neighbors, teachers, and children. In order to minimize the parental guilt factor, her communication with moms and dads emphasized the fact that parents these days tend to work long hours and don't have the time to teach proper etiquette which, in many cases, they weren't taught themselves. Once a child is enrolled, she writes a weekly letter to the student's parents each week to detail the classes and each child's individual progress. To get students involved, she makes a point to kneel and talk to them at their level, also serving meals in class so that they get hands-on training. One class might be about eating with a spoon, while the next focuses on eating with a fork.

To get the word out to the marketplace, Millie has leveraged word of mouth, established a Web site, and engages in partnerships with local clothing retailers to offer onsite classes. She also reaches out to local schools and Girl Scout troops, and has been featured on public radio's Parents Report on WBEZ.

The Result: The school has grown consistently over the past two years, with classes now being booked months in advance. Downing receives invitations to speak at local organizations on a regular basis.

The Expert's Verdict: "I can see nothing that Millie hasn't leveraged well to date," says Meg Goodman, who specializes in strategic marketing services and new-business development. "However, like every thriving, service-based entrepreneur, she could fall victim to her own successes. It is obvious that she loves what she does, but the time to choose between doing the work and getting the work will soon arrive. She needs to be ready to decide how to handle this.

Whether she decides to remain local or branch out to other regions of the country, anticipating and planning for the future will help avert any overpromises or lack of awareness in the marketplace, Goodman says. "Millie is the school. If anything happens to her, then what?" she asks. "This reality can be handled with a little thought and planning. In the long run, there will always be more than enough room in this world for children who are taught to be kind, gentle, and courteous."

Editor's note: If your marketing drive has put some runs on the board, here's your chance let us know all about send an e-mail to Karen E. Klein and tell us what you're doing. We will choose the most interesting submissions, interview the business owners, and have marketing expert Meg Goodman comment.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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