Acquiring new clients is a priority of every business. To do this, businesses will offer special deals, BOGO items, free item with minimum purchase, etc. These things definitely catch my attention, that is, when we are talking about ketchup or oil changes. When it comes to more important things, I find myself running from these advertised "deals". You see, when I really care about the quality of something, no amount of discount is going to persuade me to use a service or product. I begin to see these offers as a business "begging" me to become their client, because the quality of their work isn't enough to bring me in.
In our industry, a frequent way to gain new clients is by offering a free evaluation or test (whatever you may call it). Initially it sounds like a great idea, I mean who wouldn't want a free service for their dog? You think, once they see how amazing your place is after that first time, surely they'll come back, right? Well....maybe. Below I'll list why I feel it is important to charge for that first visit.
And the most important reason to charge.....YOUR TIME and KNOWLEDGE!
A lot goes into truly evaluating a dog's potential success in daycare. Here's just some of what goes into our evaluations.
How much to charge?
Deciding how much to charge will depend on what your evaluation consists of. Are your evaluations really just meet-and-greets with a staff member and one dog or is your evaluation several hours? Does it include any goodies for the client to take home or not? Is it more labor intensive than a regular day of daycare (it should be), then it should cost more than your basic daycare price.
The only negative I find with charging for evaluations is losing the client that is simply looking for the easiest cheapest option. To me, that's not a negative at all. That person doesn't fit my description of the ideal client and it shouldn't for you either.
(Additional Note: We do sometimes offer the occasional free evaluation if it is suitable for the situation. It's rare, but when excellent customer service calls for it, we'll do it. For example, if we have a young dog whose owners had to board him unexpectedly at last minute and, as we get to know the dog in our private room, we see that he has the perfect temperament to enjoy social play, at pick-up we may offer a free evaluation as a thank you for boarding with us and "hey, come see how much fun your dog can have." It's done in a case that we have a strong feeling if the owner saw the benefits of daycare for that particular dog, we feel confident they would continue to use our services. Again, this is very rare, but I didn't want you to think offering a free evaluation for a certain reason isn't a good idea. I'm always up for those little above-and-beyond random acts of great customer service when appropriate.)
I don't know if it's my degree in Psychology, my 5 years working as a waitress through college, or just what I've learned through owning Pawtropolis, but my main focus, and what I'm best at, is providing amazing customer service. There are ways to go above and beyond with customer service in just your day-to-day interactions that I hope you are all doing, but the real time to shine? When bad things happen.
You know what I mean by bad things; a dog boarding with you starts coughing, a dog gets sick shortly after being picked up, a dog gets a scratch from rough play, a dog gets an injury from an altercation, a reservation wasn't scheduled correctly, the client wasn't informed of an overdue vaccine, a scheduled perk got missed, a bath was forgotten...shall I go on?
The normal reaction to both staff and daycare owners is usually "oh crap" as they scramble to make the bad thing just go away. They cross their fingers that the incident won't show up later in an online review. They hope that the client comes back. It took me 15 years to let go of that reaction. Bad things caused me to get a knot in my stomach and sometimes even physically sick as I waited for the owner to return my call. I held my breath. Would this usually kind client handle this situation easily or would this show their true colors of being an un-trusting, un-loyal customer? Would they see through the incident all the way to my heart and know that I always strive to do my best, as does my staff, yet things can still happen? Would they know that I wished it hadn't happened as much as they didn't? I'd wait and hope.
My reaction now, and what I teach my staff, is much different. I now train my staff that when a bad thing happens they should ask themselves, "How can we WOW this client?" The "bad thing" becomes a challenge to all of us. What can we do that will impress the client even more than if the bad thing didn't even happen? What can we do that will actually strengthen our business-client relationship? What would turn this incident into a 5-star online review? By this simple change in perspective, it takes away that knot in my stomach. It's no longer a negative that I just try to get through. No. It's a challenge to me and my staff. We have to really use our brain. We have to put ourselves in the clients' shoes. We have to go above and beyond what they are expecting. We have to WOW them.
A dog starts coughing while boarding
If a dog starts coughing while boarding or in daycare we immediately separate her. Most of the time that means the dog goes into a crate in an isolated room and goes for walks for potty breaks instead of group outside time. We now have to tell an owner that their dog has gone from being in fun happy playgroups to being confined in a crate in isolation. Not cool, right? What makes it better? What if the phone call went something like this?
Sounds like a lot of extra work for less money than you were getting before right? So what. Remember, your goal is to WOW the client. Your goal is to make sure the dog has a good stay. If you go above and beyond this time you'll end up with a happy client. You'll turn what could have gone bad into something good.
Playgroup injury that requires a vet visit
Ugh, you've got a happy playing group of dogs when all of a sudden an altercation breaks out. Now you have a dog to dismiss and a dog with an injury that requires a vet visit. How would you feel if you were the owner and the phone call went something like this:
So you take him to your vet only to notice the seemingly small puncture starting to swell. Oh no...infection is setting in. It gets worse as you get to the vet. They have to put in the dreaded drain. This is the worse. Not only does it make the injury look and seem like so much than it really was when it happened but it is very difficult for a client to deal with at home. Bad to worse. How's the next phone call going to go?
Is it your responsibility to pay for all of these vet expenses? If you've got a good liability waiver form it isn't. But at this point should you care what is legally your responsibility or should you care about the best way to make this client happy and help the dog? The money you'll continue to make from this client and his referrals and recommendations will far outweigh the cost of the vet visit or any free visits you give the dog. Also, the peace you'll have by interacting with a happy client instead of an angry one will be priceless.
Client shows up to drop off dog only to find out vaccinations are overdue
Your mistake, right? You should have notified the client of the overdue vaccines when they made the reservation. So either you didn't, or maybe you did, and the client is standing there with a panicked face because they are headed to the airport and have no other options. Relieve their panic as fast as you can.
Are you starting to see a pattern? We do A LOT to make our clients happy. This doesn't mean that we lose money for things that are clearly the owner's "fault" or "responsibility" but we gauge each situation to determine what is the best course of action to make this particular client and dog happy. At first this might be hard to do. "But isn't this why we have liability waivers and say that the owner's are responsible for injuries?" Yes. But again, you have to ask yourself what your main goal is. I'm not okay with even one bad review online, even one unhappy customer. I can have 200 Facebook reviews and if even one of them is negative I'm going to reach out to them personally. If it doesn't get resolved and the review removed, it's going to bug me. In this day when doggie daycares are popping up everywhere, just normal good customer service isn't going to cut it. You have to go above and beyond each and every time in order to stand out.
So the next time something bad happens what are you going to ask? "How can we WOW this client?"
I'd love to read your comments on times when you WOW'd a client when a bad thing happened. Please share below.
"It smells so great in here."
That is one of the best compliments a client can give our facilities. People expect to walk in and smell dogs. That would be okay, we're a facility full dogs and, even most times, wet dogs. But...that's not okay with me and it shouldn't be to you either.
You should often walk your facility as if you were a client. You should start in the parking lot, what will a client see, what will they hear, what will they smell? When you open your front doors ask the same things. There's much to be addressed regarding all the senses (I'll probably do so later) but right now I'm focused on the the wonderful sense of smell. What do you smell when you walk in?
There are many products on the market to mask smell. We sell wonderful smelling candles, there are companies with scent machines, motion detection devices that spray as people walk by, and so much more. I personally am not a fan of any of them. What I want to smell is "clean". Hopefully at your facility you have distinct client and dog areas. Both should be cleaned and detailed daily. Having the areas separated allows you attack the pet odors in the back and keep things fresh up front. What products we use, how we clean, what our detailing protocol is, all factors into our nice smell, I can certainly help with those areas, but the most important thing for both owners and staff to understand is that it is NOT okay to smell like a kennel and you don't want your clients thinking it is either.
Let's not pretend that my front areas smell like roses all day everyday. That's just not true. But I, and my staff, take notice. If we recently had a dog poop in the boutique and the smell is lingering, we apologize to the next client that walks in and explain why it smells. You never want them assuming that's the normal smell. Same is true if we've had 50 baths in one day, it's going to smell like wet dogs. Again, we point that out to the clients with an apology. By addressing the smell it lets your clients know that you too smell the offensive odor and aren't okay with it; it's not the norm. They'll be friendly and say, "oh, it's not bad, I understand," because, you see, that's what they expect from a kennel. Then the next time they walk in to the fresh clean smell of your front area, they'll notice that too.
Is it really a "temperament test"?
For 15 years we called our first day evaluation a "Temperament Test". It was catchy. Both words started with a "T"; it rolled off your tongue easily. All was fine with this terminology until one day my sister questioned it. We were opening a second location and were saying that dogs that attended daycare at our current location would have to do another temperament test at the new facility.
It made perfect sense to me, the dogs had never been to that facility before, never met the staff, never met that particular set of dogs. Yep, total sense. My sister however didn't agree. "If I were a client I'd get mad having to do another temperament test. I mean you already know my dogs temperament from the other location. He's not going to change just because he's in a different building." I responded, "Yes, but, he needs to get used to the new place. I don't want to just throw him into a completely different environment and expect him to be fine right off the bat. I want to do the introduction slowly and make sure that he is comfortable with all the dogs there and gets used to the new layout."
"Well," she said, "I get that, but you don't need to test his temperament again."
Hmm....did my sister have a point? What we were actually doing had nothing to do with his temperament at all. We wanted to see how he responded to our particular environment. Doesn't matter how his temperament is at home, at the park, on a walk, at another doggie daycare. It only matters how he reacts in our playgroups. When I explained it to her, and to many clients previously, I'd say that we were really seeing "if he is compatible with daycare". When we would dismiss a dog we would never say, "His temperament is just horrible. He's aggressive and shouldn't be around other dogs." No. We would say, "He's just not compatible with our daycare environment." What a big difference. If that's really what we were doing then why not call it the correct name? So after 15 years of calling our first day evaluations "Temperament Tests", we changed the name to "Playgroup Compatibility Evaluations". Doesn't roll off the tongue quite as nice but it definitely reflects what we are really doing.
You can actually purchase the forms we use for our passed evaluations, failed evaluations and dismissals on our products page. They are wonderful tools for staff to assess dogs and to communicate behaviors to clients.
The mystery injury
I hate when we have to notify an owner that they dog was injured while in our care. What makes it worse? Not knowing how the injury happened.
Yes, I know that there are going to be the occasional bumps, bruises, and scratches. I don't like it when it happens but I understand. We are an amazing facility, with extensive training, non-stop supervision, so when an injury happens we can quickly assess what happened, make changes to our groups, dismiss dogs, or even change procedures to prevent it from happening again. BUT when you don't know what happened...you can't do that.
Example Situation: Staff member was doing health checks before letting the dogs out to play for the day. They had been out only once that morning for a quick potty break as a group, then put back into their rooms. She found an injury. Not a small one, a good size tear (about 1/2" long) on the side of a large short haired dog. What?! He's a laid back dog, hadn't been involved in any altercations, hadn't shown signs of being injured, what in the world happened?
Our only answer was that he somehow got injured on a piece of equipment. The staff searched every inch of the playroom. A few bolts in the chain link stuck out a bit far. Did he hit the fence in such a way that a bolt tore his skin? We took him to the vet, no stitches, just antibiotics, and covered the bill due to the mysteriousness of the injury. When his dad arrived a few hours later we still didn't have an answer. I assured dad that we wouldn't stop investigating until we found an answer. He could tell by our concern for his dog and our concern about not knowing, that we really cared about what had happened. No excuses, no comments like, "well, you know there are risks associated with letting dogs play together." No. Just simple truth and genuine concern for both the dog and a strong desire to figure out what happened.
I dove into the footage. I watched the night before until I was convinced that it didn't happen then. I could see where the injury was and could tell that nothing was there yet. Moved on to footage from the morning. As I watched, I saw that sweet dog. A laid back hound that loved sitting around watching everyone and following the staff around for a little affection. He wasn't rowdy in the least. I was watching during the first morning group let-out. They were outside for only about 15-minutes for a quick potty break. Their group supervisor standing with them the whole time. A golden and a lab start playing a little too rough for the supervisor's liking so he stepped in to moderate. They were noisy and rowdy causing the other dogs in the group to take notice and run to the scene. Our sweet hound was just standing near the action not thinking much about it. Next thing I see is a black dog charge at him and bite his side. It appears as though the black dog had heard the commotion and ran to see what was happening with guns blazing. His first point of contact in this heightened state was our poor hound's side. It happened in a quick second.
Had I witnessed only that I wouldn't have thought any injury was possible. It was the sweet hound walking to the side, sitting down and licking his side that gave me the clue and had me zero in on the few seconds before. The group supervisor was literally 2-feet away, actively supervising, but was none the wiser. It drew no attention compared to the rowdy play of the golden and lab. No one but the spitfire black dog was at fault.
The solving of the mystery was bittersweet. We knew the answer to what happened while having to dismiss another daycare member. I was happy to call dad and tell him what happened. I explained all that I did to investigate, exactly what I saw, invited him to come watch it with me so that he could see how quick it had happened (he didn't take me up on it), told him the action we were going to take with the other dog. Though no fault of our own, I made it clear how bad I felt about the situation. Dad would say, "We know these kind of things can happen." To which I'd reply, "Yes, but I never want you to have to come back from vacation and deal with this. He is such a sweet laid back guy I feel horrible for him." I told him to keep in touch with me if the injury worsened and that I'd be in touch with him regardless to check up. He was kind and understanding. I will make sure to follow up and will continue to cover any vet bills associated with the incident. This is simply goodwill.
What if I didn't see what happened? What about those times when you never find an answer? Things to keep in mind with mystery injuries:
It's hard to say, but I feel mystery injuries are always the fault of the facility. No, I don't mean that the facility did anything wrong. Like in this case, we weren't negligent in any way. BUT to owners, it is your fault and they are correct to assume that. If you can't give them an answer as to what happened you have to question your policies, procedures, supervising rules, etc. Cover any vet bills and make sure you nor your staff ever have the attitude of "oh well, can't figure it out." Any injury you can't figure out will happen again.
Like I say with all "bad things", the second this injury happens begin your work to "WOW" the client. This is my challenge to you.
I don't know about you guys, but I had an amazing time at the Pet Boarding and Daycare Expo West in Burbank, CA. It was such an honor being the keynote speaker. I was so excited by the large turnout and even more excited that my content really resonated with you all. I never would have thought we'd have a crowd of 27 follow us into the lobby so that we could share more information and just simply talk and answer questions. I loved meeting the many kennel and daycare owners, being reminded, yet again, that we all share the same struggles, and passing on some helpful tips. I was joined by my Manager of Hiring and Staff Development Sara Beth Pinson. She was an integral part of the presentation and hope she'll be on-hand to join me for future talks and expos.
Our talk focus first on how different it is to own a pet care business compared to other businesses and the moved into the key areas you need to excel at in order to take your business from good to great. After moving to the lobby we discussed how to handle some of the "bad things" that might happen at your facility. If you didn't request my "Complaint Policy" to be emailed to you, please feel free to email me and request it now.
I look forward to seeing everyone at the Pet Boarding and Daycare Expo East! -Amanda
Insights and Tips for Dog Daycare Owners