Posted: Oct. 23, 2012, 4:00 p.m. EDT
Getting associates to buy into the idea of encouraging customers to enroll in classes can charge up business.
By Steven Appelbaum
Over the past year I have written a number of articles in which I strongly endorsed the idea that retail pet stores should, whenever possible, promote and conduct dog training classes at their locations. As greater numbers of retail establishments offer these types of services, a query that continually comes up is “How do we promote these classes?” This is an important question.
The challenge many stores face is that, other than when a training class is actually being taught, it doesn’t have a physical presence in the store. This means that unlike a bag of dog food or any other physical product, classes are invisible when they aren’t in session. Overcoming this issue requires a little planning and education.
If a trainer is working in the store, it might cause the rest of the staff to assume the trainer will be the one to promote the in-store dog training classes. If there are interest sheets in the store, staff might simply assume this tool will do the work and not promote the classes. Some might also not understand the residual value of these classes.
An interest sheet is what potential students fill out. They are then contacted by the trainer or someone from the store. However, as noted above, this tool will not typically be enough to ensure maximum enrollment.
To solve this problem, let staff members with dogs take the classes at no cost to them. The only catch is they have to sign up a certain number of students in order to qualify. Or, if you prefer, simply let your staff take the classes for free.
Some stores make this a prerequisite, and associates without dogs are encouraged to borrow someone else’s dog for the class. The key is to get staff some actual experience in a class, as this will make them far more receptive to promoting it.
Another tactic is to have contests in which the sales associate with the greatest number of class sign ups is mentioned on the store’s website, a plaque is hung on the wall, or the sales associate gets to wear a blue ribbon or winner’s badge to signify the achievement. Recognition is very important to most people.
This point was illustrated to me a number of years ago when I promoted one of my staff members. Aside from the raise, I also sent her a name tag with her title on it. She was happier with the tag than she was with the raise and wore it like a badge of honor.
Incentives and Training
Money talks. Contests can be very appealing if they have a pay off. The sales associate with the most sign ups per month wins $20. The one with the most per quarter wins $50. The one who wins the most per year might win $100. This allows new associates to win on the per month basis and for associates who might have a slower learning curve to win sometimes as well.
However, it’s best to avoid pushing these kinds of programs without adequately training staff. Teach employees how to recognize a potential student. Role-play where you encourage them to engage customers and ask the right questions without being pushy.
Make sure all staff members meet the trainer. This is true regardless of whether the trainer is an in-store employee or a part-time independent contractor.
If you offer other services—for example, grooming or shot clinics—work with the groomer and veterinarian on cross promotions. Groomers should be prepared to speak at one obedience class per series (with prepared material). Possible topics include methods for brushing, how to find ticks and how to comb for fleas.
Groomers should pass out material about training classes to all their customers. Veterinarians should meet the trainers so that they can be comfortable recommending their services. Trainers and staff can be encouraged to promote the training classes to people waiting in line at the shot clinics. Trainers should remember to talk up the shot clinics in their classes. Even though everyone in class will have had their dogs inoculated, they might have other dogs or know people whose dogs haven’t.
Teach your staff about behavior. Have them learn the most common problems and simple solutions and create a test with the help of your trainer. Those that pass the test can get a ribbon or badge that says “Dog Obedience Specialist.”
This will bolster morale, sales of products and class enrollment. You can also tie this title to increased perks. For example, all Dog Obedience Specialists can have one family member who is not living with them take an obedience class at half price. Obviously, this has the potential to be misused, but some associates will really be motivated by this kind of promotion.
Many of you reading this will no doubt wonder why I haven’t mentioned the obvious need for signage. Make no mistake, signs help, but they are not a panacea and will not take the place of an engaged staff.
However, signs promoting training classes ought to be placed in strategic locations—by the cash register, near training equipment such as leashes and collars, by training products such as Bitter Apple, and around chew and play toys. Signs should be explained to sales associates as a way your store is helping to make customers aware classes exist. This in turn makes their job of selling the classes easier. However, the job is still up to them.
The point to all of this is simply this: Training classes can be very successful for your store, provided that all employees understand their roles in promoting and understanding those classes. With a bit of creative thinking and education, you can accomplish this goal.
Steven Appelbaum is the president of Animal Behavior College, a vocational institution devoted to helping animal lovers succeed in animal careers. Appelbaum has been a professional animal trainer for 30 years. He is the author of the book “The ABC Practical Guide to Dog Training,” and is a freelance writer, lecturer and consultant.
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