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Train to Excel

Posted: March 27, 2014, 11:05 a.m. EDT

Pet retailers and business experts reinforce the importance of ongoing education to every store’s continued success.

By Anthony Stoeckert

Picture two customers in two different stores asking questions about an identical pet product.

The first customer asks an employee if he knows anything about the item, and the employee replies with a simple "No.” Further, the employee doesn’t commit to finding out if someone else in the store can help, and even displays somewhat unwelcoming body language, indicating he doesn’t have time for customer queries.

Now picture a customer whose questions are answered by a knowledgeable and personable employee. Imagine that employee engaging the customer, answering questions and asking the customer some of her own, going the extra mile if necessary and giving the customer a sense of confidence in the purchase.

Clearly, the latter employee is the one who will enhance and support business. But employees who conduct themselves this way day in and day out don’t just "happen.”

"Training is the most important thing that a store must do,” said Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. "The No. 1 priority—it’s not purchasing, it’s not marketing, it’s not advertising, it’s not good fish, it’s not husbandry, it’s not any of that. It’s training.”

Business Builder
When employees regularly undergo training to learn about products and discuss features and sales strategies, it’s a win-win-win situation for store owners, staff and customers. West Lebanon Feed & Supply

Training helps develop self-confidence in employees and ensure that customers are doing business with professionals who know their stuff, said Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply in Lebanon, N.H.

"At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. "We’re trying to build confidence for the customers so that when they make buying decisions, they are going to someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

Guidelines and Resources
There are several resources that offer training methods. One of these is PetStorePro, which provides training in customer service, merchandising, animal care and nutrition, as well as manager training.

The program is free to qualified retailers, said Stephanie A. Kaplan, director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association in Abingdon, Md., which helps provide these courses to retailers. The programs are brand neutral and advertising free, she added.

"PetStorePro’s associate curriculum is designed to teach essential skills to succeed in a pet store, including customer service and sales skills, merchandising and animal nutrition,” Kaplan said. "Separate chapters cover in-store care for birds, dogs, cats, small animals, freshwater fish, saltwater fish, lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises.”

At Global Pet Expo 2014, PetStorePro was scheduled to debut a new course aimed toward new hires, including those taking on their first job, Kaplan added.

"Pet Retail Basics Part 1 focuses on how to look and act professional,” she said. "Students will learn how what they wear and personal grooming affect customers’ impressions, as well as why store policies, such as showing up on time for shifts, matter to customers and co-workers.”

She said that Pet Retail Basics Part 2 will cover services in-store and over the phone, and will explain how pet stores make money, the difference between sales and profits, and how employees can protect their stores’ profitability.

DIY Training
Many stores develop their own training methods.

Donston was the manager of Absolutely Fish before he bought it 13 years ago. He then started developing training materials and, today, has four different training manuals, each of which is divided into sections.

Employees he hired at the beginning of the year are working with the beginner manual, which includes eight sections. After trainees read the section and answer the review questions, the group meets for discussion.

"That gives me the opportunity to elaborate on things or to physically show them how I would like customers to be helped,” Donston said. "The problem with training is when you write it in text only.

Sometimes you have to show people the right way to approach your customers or clients.”

A large part of training for Absolutely Fish’s 33 employees involves learning how to set up and maintain aquariums and various other equipment. While there are videos that teach those things, Donston does it himself, on his own floor space.

Jusak Yang Bernhard, co-owner of TailsSpin, with three locations in Georgia, said his store’s training involves teaching employees in-depth information on food and nutrition, and how to greet and work with customers. Employees need to be helpful without being too helpful, he added.

"Our employees know ingredient lists and basic data from a food’s guaranteed analysis, such as which foods contain no poultry products and which foods contain greater protein levels or ash content,” he said. "This helps employees make faster, more accurate recommendations to customers who might have pets that require certain specifications due to health or allergy issues. We often bring in local dog trainers to show the staff how to properly fit and use training tools. It is vital that employees know how to correctly use training devices, as their proper implementation is crucial to their success.”

Training in a Tough Economy
Training budgets often take a hit in a bad economy, but "well-trained employees are essential to the success of your business,” said Caron Beesley, a business owner and marketing communications consultant who works with the U.S. Small Business Administration in Washington, D.C.

There are ways to save money on training, she added, including joining associations and trade groups, conducting your own training, holding regular sessions inviting employees to talk about ways they contribute to your business, and using online courses and mentorship programs.

"Be specific about what you and your employees want to achieve,” she said. "Use annual performance reviews to gauge competency gaps as well as your employees’ desired areas of improvement. Then put specific training goals in place for each employee. Let your employees know that you will assess the impact the training has had on their overall job skills and performance on a six-month and annual basis.”

Continuing Training
Employees can’t coast on initial training they received as new employees; training and staff education must continue to evolve.

TailsSpin’s managers and marketing staff always are learning new things through classes, said Bernhard.

"The marketing team might take a Constant Contact course or digital-based marketing class through the Small Business Development Center,” he said. "And managers benefit from attending seminars that share information about our point-of-sale system and tracking sales trends or financials.”

West Lebanon Feed & Supply requires employees to arrive at work at least half an hour early on Thursday mornings for training sessions.

Those training sessions might break down into departments—warehouse, grooming, retail, etc.—where staff discuss issues and procedures specific to each department, Jacques added.

Post-session, a staff member or "coach,” as the store calls that individual, will share information regarding a specific product. For example, in mid-February, one coach talked about baby chicks, because ordering for that particular livestock was coming up. The coach talked to the rest of the staff about food and care details, such as keeping chicks in a draft-free, heated enclosure.

No matter the department, working in retail means working with people.

At West Lebanon, all employees undergo training in nonverbal communication, which can involve role playing—acting out scenarios regarding customer dissatisfaction with a product or service or some other in-store experience, Jacques said.

"If you have arms folded in front of you, you might just as well have your fists clinched at your side,” Jacques said. "That’s really the message that you’re giving. People are upset, and it’s a fight.

Employees are taught to take the submissive approach, leave their arms at their sides, and avoid expressions that indicate anger or frustration, and they also are taught to listen, Jacques said.

Jacques said that training, and applying those lessons, demonstrates to employees that they are stakeholders in West Lebanon Feed & Supply, Jacques said. They are part of a community, along with the owners, management, customers and vendors, he added.

Training should be an ongoing process; not a one-time thing, said Kaplan.

"Training works best when it’s accompanied by an incentive program,” she said. "Recognize employee accomplishments with announcements at staff meetings or posting names on a bulletin board in the store. Consider offering a modest hourly wage increase to employees who complete the training or a cash bonus for straight As. Low- or no-cost incentives could include gift cards for movies, a choice shift or a scheduled day off, or a pizza party for the entire team.”



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