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Employee Training Takes Many Forms

Posted: March 29, 2013, 5:30 p.m. EST

No matter how employee training is implemented, a well-educated staff can increase sales, enhance credibility and differentiate stores from the competition.
By Kathleen M. Mangan

Most pet stores have several part- and full-time employees, many of whom receive some sort of standardized training. While the type of training varies, retailers seem to agree on one thing: A well-trained, educated staff is crucial to creating and maintaining a successful business.

“You need to educate your employees in order to educate your customers about what they need, and that leads to increased, upsized and add-on sales,” said Bob Hames, owner of Animal Jungle in Virginia Beach, Va. “It's that simple.”

Retailers cited a slew of benefits to be gained from instituting a staff training program: It can help increase sales, differentiate a store from its competition, boost employee confidence, enhance staff morale and retention, and ensure consistency in how the store's live animals are cared for and customers are treated.

Employee training in groups
Training can be conducted in groups, one-on-one or in both group and individual settings.
Despite these many benefits, Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J., said he is amazed at the number of pet retailers without an employee manual or a sound training program.

“You have to grow each year to keep up with rising prices, but it's difficult to grow if you have nothing in place to train new employees,” said Donston, who lectures on the subject at industry conferences.

For storeowners who do use training programs, most make it mandatory for employees and pay them for training time. Yet they utilize different types of programs.

Retailers might prefer individual programs of self-study or one-on-one training; group training with regular store meetings; or a combination approach with additional educational opportunities. Some retailers use ready-made training programs from industry associations and manufacturers, while others write their own protocols. Program content might focus on animal knowledge, product education or selling and customer service skills.

Individual vs. Group Training
At Dave's Soda & Pet City, which has six stores in the Springfield, Mass., region and 110 employees, owner Dave Ratner believes learning is primarily an individual process. New hires read the employee manual that explains store procedures and culture, and they must read two books on selling, one of which Ratner wrote. Then they work through the animal care and customer service modules in Pet Store Pro, provided free through the Pet Industry Distributors Association. Comprehension is verified with tests.

Educated employees can differentiate independent stores from big-box competitors, said Ratner, who lectures on the topic.

“Customers expect more from independents, so we have to provide a better shopping experience,” he said. “The more knowledgeable your employees, the better they will treat customers and settle their needs.”

Industry Events with Educational Programs

July 23-25, Las Vegas, Nev.
SuperZoo University offers tracks on staff/business development, animal wellness and technology/Internet. One- to three-day conference passes: $25-$49 for members; $49-$99 nonmembers.

H.H. Backer Associates Christmas Trade Show & Educational Conference
Sept. 20-22, Rosemont (Chicago), Ill.
It offers a new, face-to-face “Ask the Expert” format for the three show days revolving around education stations on technology, finance, marketing, merchandising, aquatic, animal care and employee training. Retailers can book free, 45-minute time slots at these stations, which are staffed by two or three experts addressing the individual needs of three or four retailers per time slot. Also find Retailer Boot Camp by Bob Negen of WhizBang! Training, full-day on Sept. 19, $99.

PIJAC Canada's 2013 Regional Shows
May 5-6, Western Pet Expo, Richmond, British Columbia;
Aug. 25-26, Expo Zoo, Sherbrooke, Quebec; and
Sept. 15-16, National Pet Industry Trade Show, Mississauga, Ontario

Association seminars on animal care and business are free of charge for members at the 2013 shows to celebrate the organization's 25th anniversary.

Global Pet Expo
March 12-14, 2014, Orlando, Fla.
Business-building seminars to enhance profits, image, exposure, staff training, store display and competitive advantage. Most sessions cost $20 each.

Ratner likes to incorporate other industry learning options, too. His employees must take online training and nutrition courses provided by pet food manufacturers they carry, such as Hill's Pet Nutrition and WellPet. He invites vendors to do in-store presentations. He sends staff to the Procter & Gamble research center for tours, and to industry trade shows, distributor events and local business conferences. And he dispatches groups of employees to visit retail stores in other markets to study what they're doing right.

“We take advantage of all the opportunities we can,” he said.

Also of the mindset that learning is an individual process is Donston of Absolutely Fish. Because he is an expert on fish and fish keeping, Donston wrote his own technical manuals, created video presentations on customer service and developed tests for new employees. The tests are not graded, but used to review areas in need of one-on-one reinforcement with the employee.

“I do all the training and test reviews; it's that important,” said Donston, who leads a staff of 30 and writes a blog for Pet Product News International.

In addition, new Absolutely Fish employees have a mentor, an experienced employee who helps them understand how to apply that knowledge in the store and with customers.

Some retailers prefer a mix of individual and group training.

For example, Animal Jungle's Hames combines individual training with group training in short, daily staff meetings at his 50-employee, 30,000-square-foot Virginia store. New hires must read the custom-written employee manual and sign a statement that they understand the procedures. They also are required to shadow an experienced staff member for 30 days wearing a red shirt before graduating to staff green-shirt status. Because employees are assigned to specific departments, new product training is handled directly within each department.

Daily 10- to 15-minute meetings held prior to the first shift and after close of the second shift are designed to address topics related to customer relations or sales that all employees can relate to, Hames explained.

“We keep the meetings short and sweet,” he said.

House of Fins president Robert Bray also combines individual and group training at his Greenwich, Conn., store, but the staff meetings follow a longer format. New retail staff read Bray's protocols for various tank types, as well as the House of Fins Experience outlining how to interact with clients. They then must pass a verbal review and mirror veteran co-workers for 90 days. Hour-long monthly meetings after hours cover new animals, products and protocol changes.

“We're in a high-end market, and our customers have high expectations of us,” said Bray, who has a staff of 22 employees. “It's critical that our information and advice is consistent so customers always have the same experience.”

At West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., the 2013 Global Pet Expo Retailer of the Year, co-owner Curt Jacques has had more success with group training when it comes to his 26 employees.

“The staff interacts more and new employees feel more confident knowing the experienced staff members they can turn to for help on technical questions,” he said. “Our store is diversified, and we cross-train employees on all product categories because customers come in with a variety of needs.”

Staff meetings are held every Thursday morning prior to opening to introduce new products, discuss challenges and share ideas, Jacques said. Follow-up on the new products is first on the agenda the following week.

“We know it might take a full year for new employees to learn about all the seasonal products,” he added.

Individual training is conducted through online courses from the store's insurance company. Topics include safety and forklift training.

To enhance team cohesiveness, Jacques asks an employee to research a topic or product category and present findings to the group, and then encourages others to chime in so employees can learn from each other. Manufacturers or distributor reps also conduct in-store product training at staff meetings—Jacques requires this for all new products.

Act the Part
To enhance the concepts taught to employees—whether in group sessions or on individual basis—some retailers use role-playing.

“Individual training programs such as Pet Store Pro make sense, but employees still have to practice what they've learned,” said Tom Shay, owner of Profits Plus, a retail consulting firm in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Employee Training Resources
Need help devising a training program for your store?
Click here to read about available staff training programs.

At Preuss Pets, a 22,000-square-foot store with a staff of 70 in Lansing, Mich., co-owner Rick Preuss has one employee portray a customer with a problem, and another employee attempt to resolve it in front of the staff.

“Sometimes their eyes are opened to better ways to say the same thing,” he said.

Susan Briggs, owner of Crystal Canine consulting in Houston, found that role-playing enhanced learning for the 25 employees at Urban Tails, formerly her multi-service pet center. Monthly lunchtime meetings highlighted store situations for role-playing.

“Everyone loved to play the nutty customer,” said Briggs, co-author of the “Knowing Dogs” training program. “Owners have to lead by example and get silly, and then the staff will jump in. We found it to be the best way to reinforce training.”

For example, to talk about how to break up a dog fight in the daycare area, Briggs and another employee got on the floor with two stuffed dogs pretending to fight, and the staff had to present ways to break it up using methods like dropping a stainless-steel bucket to startle the dogs.

“We looked silly doing it, but it was memorable,” she said.

Having fun with training is a philosophy Shay can get behind. He suggested dreaming up team and individual contests with small prizes, such as a longer lunch or a gift card. For instance, in a variation of the Hot Potato game, a single product is passed around the room, and employees have to say something about the product before they can pass it, and if it's not fast enough, they're out of the game.

Continuing Education
Some stores offer continuing education for senior staff to further enhance employee expertise, pride and long-term retention.

“Understand that your employees can't get enough training…they love it,” Ratner said. “It makes them feel important. They like to get recognition, and they appreciate that their boss is willing to invest in them. It has a definite impact on staff retention.”

At Preuss Pet, veteran staff are encouraged to contribute to online hobby chat rooms and blogs, attend fish club meetings representing the store, meet with manufacturer reps and attend industry trade shows and conferences, Preuss said.

At Absolutely Fish, Donston developed an advanced aquatics certification program that he said is like a college-level course. He gives a raise to employees who score over 80 on the exams. Once a year he asks his top expert in a category, such as cichlids, to pull the current research and put together a review/update session with a test for group review.

“My goal is to have the most educated staff in the country,” he said, “and I take it seriously.”


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