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Business Builder: Hire Success

Posted: May 21, 2012, 5:40 p.m. EDT


Considering personality as well as experience can get pet store owners the best of both worlds in new employees.
By Alison Bour

Pet store owners and managers are generally dependent on finding, hiring and retaining quality employees to succeed and grow business. But this can prove to be no easy feat. Issues employers face include attracting the right candidates, measuring experience, personality, skills and other factors that may influence performance.

Many in the pet business stated they look for personality traits before giving weight to experience or stated proclivities. Even though understanding, handling and caring for birds requires complicated knowledge and skills, Donna Garrou, owner of birdStuff in Orange, Calif., said she looks first for personality in a new hire, rather than experience in birding.

“I’d much rather hire an employee that is enthusiastic and loves to help customers than a shy, quiet employee [who thinks they] know everything about birds,” Garrou said. “In some ways it’s preferable. I don’t have to fight preconceived notions.”

Tips for hiring pet store employees
Figuring out whether a candidate has the desired traits starts at the beginning of the hiring process. During a candidate’s critical first interview, AdreAnne Tesene, co-owner of Two Bostons in Naperville, Ill., said she’s more interested in their passions in life, not their feelings about pets.

“I ask them what the last book was that they read,” Tesene said. “It tells me if they’re curious and like to learn.”

She added that hearing someone loves pets and people carries no weight with her.

“Everyone says that,” Tesene stated. “There has to be some other type of spark.”

Begin at the Beginning
Focusing only on experience may not be the best metric when it comes to finding optimal hires. Doug Fleener, president and managing partner of Dynamic Experiences Group in Lexington, Mass., said hiring based on experience versus personality is a mistake many retailers make.

“Just because they’ve worked in retail doesn’t mean they’re right for your store,” Fleener said.

Jumping into hiring before writing down a clear employee profile is another mistake, said Susan Negen, president of WhizBang! Training in Grand Haven, Mich. She noted that thinking about the job, as well as its required skill and knowledge base, represents the first step, and that a single profile can include up to 50 items.

“Do I need someone who can lift 50 pounds?” Negen said. “Do I need someone with computer savvy or graphic design [knowledge]? Does my employee need to be comfortable handling snakes? You have to create a very detailed profile.”

Key aspects of this ideal candidate include possessing skills, traits, tendencies, qualities, talent and other characteristics, Negen said, adding that the perfect candidate might not surface, so a second step is prioritizing that list.

Filtering out candidates who obviously don’t meet the requirements early on may save time and energy. Steve Shalhoob, general manager of Theresa’s Country Feed & Pet in Simi Valley, Calif., uses phone interviews to narrow his search down from as many as 40 initial candidates. From a 15-minute phone interview he can assess a potential hire’s communication skills, he said. If he doesn’t hear what he wants, he eliminates that candidate in this early stage.

Non-verbal Clues
Although pet store owners differ on the best ways to train employees, many of them look not for knowledge, but for the clues potential hires present without words.

“It’s what they don’t say I find is important,” said Mike Griffeth, owner of woofmeow Family Pet Center in Derry, N.H. “I listen to their tone of voice and if they hesitate.”

Shaking up the format may present clues about a possible hire’s skills. Dynamic Experiences Group’s Fleener said conducting part of the interview on the sales floor gives retailers important clues about how a potential employee will treat customers.

Industry Voices
Do you use formal training programs or only in-store training for new pet store employees?
“I prefer onsite training. For my boutique, it’s important to train staff [on] how our customers shop and see the store, in addition to learning everything about the products we carry [by] listening to experienced salespeople.”
Jennifer Shoonmaker, owner of  Cody & Carl’s Blvd. in Barrington, Ill.

“We use PetStore Pro to give employees the animal side of the equation—identification of species and husbandry, sexing small animals, and how to teach customers to take care [of animals].”
Mike Griffeth, owner of woofmeow  Family Pet Center in Derry, N.H.

“Historically, we have done on-the-job training. We found out it was not 100-percent effective. Last year, we implemented formal training. Every new hire does customer service training and obedience training. They attend one four-hour session. That will get longer in the future.”
Michael DiTullio, owner of Especially for Pets with seven locations in Massachusetts

“I do only in-store training. I like to train them on how I want them to talk to customers. I sometimes bring in reps to do presentations. But, we’re too small for formal training.”
Carla Pereira, owner of Piglet’s Pantry Dog Bakery in Mount Dora, Fla.

The main point is to find out what candidates are capable of, and whether they’re a good fit. Jackie Oakes, owner of Coastal K-9 Bakery, a retail business in Wilmington, N.C., said many potential new hires think baking all-natural dog treats is like baking cookies and pies at home.

Rather than a formal training program, Oakes uses a trial-and-error technique to choose new employees. She brings them into the bakery and watches how well they handle the speed, timing and multi-tasking her bakery requires.

“You have to keep moving,” Oakes said. “The dough comes out whether you’re ready or not. By the second day, I can tell if they’ll make it or not.”

Separating and identifying the strongest candidates may simply take some form of a written quiz. Mia Lebaron, owner of Too Zoo in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, said she first gives a questionnaire to potential employees. They may not know what a gecko is, but their answers tell her if applicants have a sense of humor.

Training Tests
Whether retailers prefer to implement formal training programs or use onsite training, Negen said what she calls the show-me step represents one of the most critical ways to determine an employee’s readiness.

Each retailer will likely find training needs differ based on application. Chris Watts, owner of The Petropolitan in downtown Dallas, a grooming and spa services provider, said employees must demonstrate their skills with dog-walking and other services before he considers them ready to provide in-home pet sitting, and that training usually takes a year.

Focusing on the most important aspects of preparedness may pay dividends. Mike DiTullio, owner of Especially for Pets with seven locations in Massachusetts, said watching how new hires talk to customers about puppy ownership represents one key skill he wants to test in action.

“It’s critical,” he stated. “That’s our lifeblood.”

Before deciding that an employee won’t fit in to a store’s environment and philosophy, Dynamic Experiences Group’s Fleener said, owners should first ask another employee to help train, as people have varying learning styles.

Fleener added that asking “scenario” questions during an interview also offers a way to obtain a potential hire’s ability to fit into a store’s culture. An example, he said, is: “Tell me about a time when a team you were on fell short of its goals. How did you handle it?”

Novel or singular tests were also proposed. To determine a new employee’s readiness, Theresa’s Country Feed & Pet’s Shalhoob uses a scavenger hunt test, while Two Bostons’ Tesene tapes her own YouTube videos.

Through analysis of personality, more than just experience, and by putting prospective hires to the test, retailers can hopefully find quality employees and reduce the need to seek replacements in the future.

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