Karate Customer Service

As a martial arts instructor, I was always taught to “give them what they need, not what they want.”  Think about it.  Karate is hard.  It is physically and mentally challenging.  We try to help students become more disciplined, focused, and respectful.  This is especially true for the kids we teach.  If we let them do what they want, I doubt they would do pushups or hold a horse stance for five minutes.

Business owners in the service industry are always taught “the customer is always right.”  You can easily see how this statement is in stark contrast to the first statement.  The balance between these two concepts has been the biggest struggle throughout my entire professional martial arts career.

When I was a volunteer instructor, teaching a couple of nights a week at a YMCA, I would always be envious of the studio owners I knew.  How cool would it be to make a living doing karate?  After several years of being a professional studio owner, I would sometimes be envious of the people who were still volunteer instructors like I used to be, teaching only for the love of it.

Let it be known that when I find myself in a situation where I must make a choice between giving a student what they want over doing what I feel is proper for them, the studio, other students, or the art, I always choose the latter.  Over the years, this has caused a lot of conflict and lost students.  Despite my best efforts to communicate calmly and compassionately, when someone wants what they want, it is difficult to convince them otherwise.

We unfortunately live in a time where people feel entitled to always get what they want.  This is not unique to martial arts studios; this is across the board in the service industries.  To illustrate this, let me give an example.  A man gets a table at a nice Italian restaurant for lunch.  The server comes by to take his order and the man says he would like a cheeseburger.  Being an Italian restaurant, they don’t have cheeseburgers on the menu.  However, they have all the ingredients to make it and could make it if they wanted to.  

Should the restaurant fulfill the man’s request?  There are arguments on both sides.  If they make it, they will have great customer service and likely get a great review making business better.  If they don’t make it, the customer may get upset and leave a bad review, potentially hurting business, but the restaurant would keep its integrity.

In my opinion, if you want a burger, you go somewhere that serves burgers.  As a customer, you go somewhere that offers the service or product you need.  The people in the service industry are not the world’s personal butlers, catering to their every need.

Now, let’s look at how this applies to the karate industry.

How many studios do karate birthday parties?  How many studios do parent nights out?  What about glow chuk or light saber parties?  I am not knocking those studios that do these.  I used to do a lot of these as well, many moons ago.

In my opinion, if you want to teach a serious martial arts program, you can’t be doing birthday parties, after school day care, etc.  If you do these things, you are not viewed by the public as a martial art professional.  You are viewed as a babysitter or entertainer like a magician or clown.

Another factor that contributes to the karate customer service conundrum is how the world generally sees us.  We are generally viewed as lesser people.  We are serving peoples needs, much like a barista at a coffee shop.  Karate teachers, personal trainers, day care workers, chefs, etc., are not viewed on the same level as “professionals” like doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.

Again, I am not knocking those who do parties and other activities at their studios.  I understand why they need to do them.  It makes people happy and that makes money.  When people are happy, they tell other people, and your business grows.

The point I am trying to make is, what if you took all that time and energy from doing parties and focus on your core martial art?  A jack of all trades is a master of none.  I would argue that you could be just as successful teaching only martial arts and not doing daycare and babysitting activities.  Perhaps you enjoy doing parties and daycare and if that is the case, more power to you.  For me, I felt like I was selling my soul and hated every minute of it.

Some instructors and studio owners may be saying, you’re right!  I only teach martial arts and don’t do all those other things.  However, some of these instructors may still be guilty of succumbing to karate customer service.  Let me give some examples.  You teach a traditional karate program.  A potential student walks in or calls with the following questions and you give the following responses:

Student: “I am interested in learning grappling; do you teach that?”

Instructor: “Absolutely, we have grappling in our program.”

Reality: Grappling is less than 5% of your curriculum.


Student: “I need to lose weight and get into shape; will your program help with that?”

Instructor: “Absolutely, we train hard and will get you into shape.”

Reality: Your program is two 45-minute classes per week.


Student: “My child is being bullied, will your class help?”

Instructor: “Of course, our program is guaranteed to build your child’s confidence.”

Reality: Your program is one 30-minute class for that age group, and you mostly play games.


Student: “I really want to do a lot of sparring; do spar a lot in class?”

Instructor: “Sparring is an intricate part of our curriculum.”

Reality: You spar once a month, for 10 minutes at the end of class.


My point with all of this is to be true to what you do.  You can’t make everybody.  You can’t give everybody everything they want.  It is ok to say no.  You won’t go broke.  

Are you going to make a cheeseburger in an Italian restaurant, or will you refer the customer to a place that can better meet their needs?

Published by masterelmore

I have been involved in martial arts for over 30 years. I own and operate a studio in Seattle. I am also a father to an awesome kid. My websites provide information, tips, and videos on parenting and martial arts.

One thought on “Karate Customer Service

  1. I hear what you are saying. And if you are a martial arts teacher who does birthday parties, after school day care, and things like that, I suppose you can’t lament that the good fighters seem to have disappeared. Additionally, there is the whole thing about black belt contracts, which is a form of Karate customer service. I don’t like these and IMO, schools that do this are playing with fire. Moreover, it puts the school owner in a position where his interest is actually opposed to the student’s interest, or can be. Because the teacher’s interest is to quickly promote students to black belt so they can collect more fees and tuition from the student. The student, if he or she thinks about it, should take advantage of the pay up front until black belt to take as long and he or she can to get to black belt. But this leads to resentment by the teacher who may feel taken advantage of. In a nutshell, the student should be paying for the instruction, not the belt.

    As for the other stuff, well, I suppose it is buyer beware. Of the examples you gave, I would say maybe it would be best to answer like this.

    Grappling – We do some grappling techniques, but we are primarily a striking style. If your primary interest is in grappling, may I suggest the Jiu Jitsu school down the road.

    RE: Getting in shape. Yes, we train hard, so if you commit yourself to training 2 to 4 times a week, spend your off days doing some other kind of cardio like running, cycling, swimming or aerobics AND do some strength training in there, AND commit yourself to a healthy diet, you will get in shape.
    If you show up once a week or less, or take frequent breaks in your training, and/or don’t make changes in your diet, you will still be in better shape, but you progress will be slower.

    RE: bullying. Training martial arts will help to build your child’s confidence. It isn’t just physical, but also mental, and martial arts will help your child to become more fit, and will help him, or her change his mindset.

    RE: sparring. We are a traditional martial arts program, and we build up to sparring progressively. First we teach basics, then forms, then sparring drills, and then free sparring. If you just want sparring, may I suggest the boxing gym down the road.

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