Business Essentials: It isn't just about tears before bedtime

A firm offering parenting courses says they aren't only for families with problem children. But this is a hard message to communicate, as Kate Hilpern discovers
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The Independent Online

For Ali McCloskey, who has just launched a new business offering parenting classes, this is bad news. "People see these images in the media and they think that any help is only for families with problem children or problem parents," she explains.

"But surely improving our parenting skills is something we should all be doing. That's why my classes are aimed at anyone who wants to explore ways of improving the communication channels between themselves and their children.

"My problem," she adds, "lies in how to get this message over. "

Her pockets aren't deep, she admits. "I don't have several thousand pounds to take out an advert in a national newspaper, so I've been advertising in the local press so far. A set of six small adverts in a magazine with 42,000 readers cost me £1,000. For that, I got enough space to advertise the company but no room to explain the concept of my courses."

Mrs McCloskey's classes - lasting 16 hours in total, and held as either a two-day, full-time or a four-week, part-time course - are run from Hertfordshire and central London. They came about as an extension of her current life-coaching work and are provided by her company, AM2PM Lifeskills.

"In addition, they come from my studies on children over the past 10 years and the work I've done in neuro-linguistic programming," she says.

A huge array of parenting courses is already available across the UK, but she believes her business will fill a gap in the market. "Existing classes focus on dealing with specific problems, whereas mine are about understanding how and why we communicate with each other the way we do. Ultimately, we want to create solid, loving relationships within families in the long term."

The behaviour of most parents, explains Mrs McCloskey, is a direct consequence of the way in which they were brought up themselves. "My classes are about shaking all that up and asking what our children really want and need from us, and why each of our children needs to be treated differently."

The courses are priced at £275. But Mrs McCloskey insists that she is prepared to offer concessions if necessary. "I am totally into giving something back and want to make the course available to people who may not be able to afford it.

"That said, I want to do that without devaluing it for the people who are paying for it - something else I need to think about."

Mrs McCloskey is also finding it particularly hard to attract the interest of men, which has added to her marketing dilemma. "I've had quite a few calls from women so far, and have offered a second place for fathers at half-price, but that doesn't seem to be enough to convince them to come. A lot of women tell me, 'My husband just isn't into that sort of thing.' "

www.am2pmlifeskills.com (currently under construction). Email ali@am2pmlifeskills.com or call 01923 779106.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Christine Cryne, chief executive, the Chartered Institute of Marketing

"A PR campaign would allow Ali McCloskey to deliver more complex messages than she has been able to in her adverts. The real-life story of how her courses have enabled families to strengthen their bonds would interest her local press. This in turn would boost credibility.

"Another route is using schools. A few calls to headteachers might give her some ideas - talks at school fêtes or parents' evenings, for example.

"Advertising depends on the instant communication of reasons why a product cannot be ignored. So she needs to distil her concept into one or two clear, concise messages.

"Discounting could devalue her service. She must make a distinction between lowering her price for those who can't afford it, which will help build her brand, and slashing charges to boost sales, which will not."

Charles Wells, chartered counselling psychologist

"I agree that people can be reluctant to enrol for parenting classes when their children's behaviour is not a concern. But the success of programmes such as Supernanny shows that there is a broad interest in changing parent-child interactions.

"I would suggest that this course be marketed as offering tools for effective parenting and communication. This will also broaden its appeal to fathers.

"It is likely Mrs McCloskey's classes will attract parents who have problem children and also those who do not; this should be borne in mind in the marketing."

Mary Crowley MBE, chief executive, the Parenting Education & Support Forum

"TV coverage has made the idea of help for parents more familiar, but there is a shortage of provision across the country. Where we know of no specialist services in their area, we suggest to parents that they try GP surgeries, libraries, and community and faith venues, so Ali could explore advertising in these - it's free. Many of the courses advertised on our website are charging less than £275, though.

"Our members have sometimes found it useful to offer fathers-only groups, to provide food, and to use titles such as 'Dealing with stress'.

"As the national regulatory body, we are impressed by an approach that emphasises relationships, rather than 'behaviour management', which is disrespectful to children. Mrs McCloskey can contact us about how to register her work as meeting the new National Occupational Standards for Work with Parents, to be launched throughout the UK in October."

www.parenting-forum.org.uk

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