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Business Builder: Dealing with Dissatisfied Pet Store Customers

Posted: Nov. 2, 2012, 3:15 p.m. EDT


Learning to recognize and address potential issues before they bloom into business killers can mean the difference between success and future struggles.

Pet store owners aren’t just small business operators. More often than not, they serve as care providers for customers’ most precious animal companions. Therefore, it’s only natural to have customers who are heavily invested emotionally and more apt to speak out or get upset if a product or service isn’t meeting their standards.

Accommodating customer expectations and staying ahead of the curve have proved to be effective strategies for many involved in the pet industry. Karin Lui, premium content director for trendwatching.com, a London-based trend reporting service, said her firm has come up with the term “flawsome,” which describes how companies should engage with customers.

“Inevitably, at some point businesses will encounter a dissatisfied customer,” Lui said. “So, when dealing with them, the key is to be willing to listen, to embrace their feedback, and to be generous and flexible in your response. We call this being ‘flawsome’; that is, being willing to be embrace your flaws and show empathy, generosity, humility, flexibility, maturity and humor.”

Handle customer complaints right away.
If a customer starts complaining, try to handle the issue right away. Norah Levine/Courtesy of Tomlinson's.
When it comes to customer service, it’s important to have clear policies and procedures in place so staff knows how to answer questions and quickly deal with any complaints. Also, having a clear path to resolution in terms of who should get involved and what the next steps should be can prevent issues up front.

“We will do whatever it takes to make the customer happy, even if it means we take a hit in sales or profit,” said Greg Phillips, manager of Gone to the Dogs Boutique in St. Pete Beach, Fla. “You could end up losing more than one customer if it isn’t handled correctly. Above all, be honest and don’t promise things you can’t deliver.”

When it comes to a small business, owners often can’t afford to upset the customers, as one disgruntled patron can spread the word and hurt business.

A spokesperson at the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation  said that even if store owners believe they are in the right, often it pays to admit fault and confess to being wrong.

The old adage that the customer is always right seems to hold some truth to it.

“We want to make the customer happy, first and foremost,” said Rob Gaudio, co-owner of Pussy and Pooch, a pet boutique with locations in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. “Our team remains professional and always takes the customer seriously in their complaint, regardless of how big or small it might be.

“We offer a good return policy on product as well as a satisfaction guarantee on grooming, and our managers are always available to speak with customers in a timely manner to handle any issues,” he added.

Promote Positive Outcomes
If a customer starts complaining and it seems as though the situation may spin out of control, it can be best to deal with it up front so it doesn’t come back to bite the business at a later date.

“Once they know you are available to take care of the issue, they tend to calm down,” Phillips said. “That helps take the emotion out of the problem so it can be dealt with quickly.”

Timing is incredibly important, business owners reported. Customers generally want their complaints to be heard immediately, and when retailers let time pass, it reflects badly on the store and can further heighten the bad experience for the customer. By acting quickly, shop owners can potentially preserve the relationship and have a chance to fix the issue.

Industry Voices
What are the best means of approaching customer service?

“It’s important to understand where your biggest weak spot might be so you can be prepared, and act preventatively in terms of where issues may arise.”
Rob Gaudio, co-owner of Pussy and Pooch, with locations in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif.

“Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and ask ‘How would you feel in their position?’”
Greg Phillips, owner of Gone to the Dogs Boutique in St. Pete Beach, Fla.

“Redefine customer service and make it the ‘customer experience.’ When a customer walks through the doors of your store, what are the impressions? The layout, the colors, music and cleanliness all come together to define your brand.”
Zack Grey, owner of The Urban Pet in Los Angeles and Silver Lake, Calif.

Always ask customers to describe their problem in detail, said Barry Berman, founder of NexPet Retailer Co-op headquartered in New York City, with a membership of 570 independent pet stores.

“Listen to them sympathetically and when they are finished, ask, ‘What would you like us to do?’” he said. “You may be surprised and the request is likely reasonable. You want the customer to leave the store happy, feeling as if he or she has a friend in the store.”

Businesses need to earn customers for life, noted Andrew Kim, owner of Healthy Spot, with three locations in Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Marina Del Rey, Calif.

“We have engrained in the culture that building a long-term relationship is our path for success and ultimately, a more rewarding relationship for us as a retailer,” Kim said. “Do what it takes to attract, earn and retain customers, even if it means bending policy or giving in.

“We are in the business of building customers, not enforcing policies,” he added.

The emphasis should be on the business relationship, retailers reported, noting that staff should avoid becoming emotionally involved in the situation and instead listen to what the customer is saying or asking for.

“A recent customer was upset because I didn’t have a wire crate that opened from the top,” said Zack Grey, owner of The Urban Pet with two locations, Los Angeles and Silver Lake, Calif. “Her dog had and injury and had to be lifted out of the crate. I suggested using her existing crate and simply laying it on its side so the door was facing up. This is an example of listening to the customer and offering a creative solution. Instead of being irritated, she left happy.”

Role of the Staff
Most pet retailers said that the best way to deal with customer service issues involves implementing preventative staff training

“A trained and confident staff can identify a problem and address it before it has an opportunity to develop into something more serious,” Grey said. “A knowledgeable and friendly staff is an essential part of the customer experience.”

Even if a problem does arise without the ability to prepare beforehand, with a well-trained staff, customers will come to expect a positive experience.
“If the customer has confidence in your staff, then if an issue does arise it can usually be quickly resolved,” Grey continued, adding that the biggest deficit some pet supply stores have is a blatant lack of employee knowledge and training.

“It is important your staff understands the importance of being fluent in the products you carry,” he said. “Your customers have to have faith in the staff and confidence that they are communicating factual information. This is especially true when it comes to the foods.”

Grooming Issues
When it comes to grooming, sometimes customers feel their dog doesn’t end up looking how they imagined, or perhaps that their requests weren’t met. Occasionally, things don’t go the way pet owners want, even if it’s not in the control of the store performing the service.

“Their first reaction is normally to blame the groomer for going too short, instead of knowing or understanding how bad a condition the dog’s coat was in, as you can’t see what’s underneath until the cut happens,” Pussy and Pooch’s Gaudio said. “So after shave-down, there can be sores or redness and they think it was the groomer that caused it, when in reality the hair was in bad shape.”

To help manage potential scenarios like this one, the boutique/salon provides a special form for customers to sign stating they understand the process and acknowledge what to expect afterwards. But even so, many groomers will provide discounts on customers’ next visit if they are unhappy with the look.

In another example, Gaudio said a client brought her dog in and mentioned that she thought it had some cuts.

“However, after we trimmed the animal, we could see these were sores under the fur not previously visible and that the dog had been licking them,” Gaudio said. “The customer’s first instinct was to blame us. We asked her to come in so we could [have] further access and provide feedback.

“Our lead groomer took another look and advised again that these were sores,” he continued. “The customer went to the vet and he confirmed what we said. The customer apologized and appreciated that we were concerned for the health of the dog and took her seriously.”

No matter what the issue, store owners should keep in mind that customers have the option to shop at many places, retailers advised. It is in retailers’ best interests to work with them to solve issues.

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