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Training Pet Store Employees The Right Way

Posted: Sept. 18, 2009

Pet Product News ArchivesMany stores neglect employee training, yet it can be crucial to business success, experts say. Here are some tips on how to run a top-notch training program.
By Martha Spizziri

When it comes to building a retail pet business, employee training is crucial, especially for independent retailers.

“People come to independent pet stores because they’re looking for information,” pointed out Barry Berman, founder of NexPet Retailer Co-op. “If the owner doesn’t have staff who are approachable and friendly and knowledgeable, they’re missing a huge opportunity. The consumers who don’t want information are going to mass market chains.” That’s why it’s so important to have employees who are well trained not only in customer service, but also in product and companion-animal knowledge.

Customer service
LuLu & Luigi, a grooming boutique chain in Minnesota, has been able to attract and retain quality employees by rewarding them when the business succeeds.
Yet training is often neglected.

“People tend to underestimate the extent of the ongoing commitment that’s necessary for a successful training program,” said Stephanie Kaplan, director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. “You have to realize that it’s an ongoing commitment. You can’t just tell people to go learn and think that’s your training program.”

Here are some tips to help you establish a solid employee-training program.

Make Time For Learning
“The most important thing is to force yourself and the people who work for you to spend time on it,” Berman emphasized. That’s what many small businesses don’t do, he said. He suggests holding an evening meeting to share information and training at a time when the store is closed. “Schedule training time on the staff schedule--don’t just say ‘spend X hours a week training.’”

Kaplan agreed. As a provider of training through its online Pet Store Pro program, PIDA has some teaching tips to offer.

“One of the things we encourage stores to do is to make time for learning at the store, and to provide a space where employees can study and take the test,” said Kaplan. “Allowing people to do that, and making sure that other employees know they’re doing that, can be motivating.”

Tom Shay, a fourth-generation business owner who developed a training program for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council Canada, recommends an hour-long lesson every other week.

“Create some materials,” he advised. “Have a schedule for your class and a plan. Each class, have a set number of topics you'll cover.”

Make Someone Responsible
“There has to be one person who’s in charge of the program--it could be the owner or manager, but doesn’t have to,” said Kaplan.

Train and Retain
If well-trained employees can give a real boost to your business, it’s also important to retain those employees.

If storeowners promote working at a pet store as a career, said Barry Berman, founder of NexPet Retailer Co-op. “They’ll be able to attract a higher quality of employee.” So how do you encourage employees to see pet retail as a career?

“You've got to treat it like a profession,” said business consultant Tom Shay of Profits Plus. “I’ve seen companies do a job review two months late.” Even if they make the pay increase retroactive, he said, a late review shows a lack of respect for the employee.

Liz Sand, co-owner of Minnesota-based retail and grooming chain LuLu & Luigi, takes the employee review process seriously.

“We have 30-, 60-, and 90-day reviews to make sure their and our needs are being met,” she said.

In addition, they make sure to reward employees for a job well done.

“Each time that someone tells us their stylist did a good job, we have a board in the back where we write that down. It makes people feel that they’re a valued member of the team. We call them ‘the accolades.’ If customers write a letter or tell us how great someone is, we’ll give them a little extra in their check,” Sand said.

They also reward employees when the business succeeds.

“Each time we win an award, we’ll go out to a dinner or lunch together,” she said.

Because of those things, Sand said, LuLu & Luigi has been able to attract and retain quality employees.

Michael Levy, president and founder of Pet Food Express, offers financial incentives.

“We have healthcare. We incentivize with different sales promotions throughout the year.”

He added that the store’s employee discount represents only a small markup over what the store pays for products.

"We do not want to make money on our employees,” he emphasized.

The discount is appreciated, he said, because many employees have multiple pets.

Levy also pointed out that a business’s overall effectiveness helps attract employees.

“We are very well known in California, so we have people that seek us out.”

Sand has found this to be true, too.

“I guess we must just make it look really fun to work here,” she said. “We have great conversations with our customers. People feel like they’re part of the community when they come in here. On a weekly basis, people are asking, ‘Do you have any openings?’...We’re knowledgeable, the staff is professional and people sense that. If you create that atmosphere, people will want to come to you.”

Barry Berman of NexPet said a recession is a good time to recruit career retail employees from other industries; you may be better able to find people who understand numbers, goals and accountability, and have management experience.

“The pet industry is fairly stable. It hasn’t had the kind of booms and downturns--especially not the downturns--that many other industries have had,” he observed.

Training itself can motivate employees to see pet retailing as a career.

“It shows the employee that you take their presence there very seriously,” said Barry Berman, founder of the NexPet Retailer Co-op.

Stephanie Kaplan, director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association said that studies show employees judge employers by their investment in them.
“They appreciate being given the opportunity to train,” she said.

In addition, training keeps the job interesting, said Pam Ore, vice president of education and research for retailer Mud Bay Inc.

“There’s so much research being done, especially in the last few years,” she said.

As a result, employees are constantly learning.

“It makes the experience of working in the store a lot richer....You really end up feeling like kind of a consumer advocate for people as they try to find the right things for their dogs and cats.”

Doug Poindexter, president of the World Wide Pet Industry Association, points out that good training can increase sales, which in turn will increase a store’s ability to compensate employees well. As a result, he said, your retention level will go up.

The work environment also makes a difference.

Poindexter said being flexible with scheduling, especially for employees who are students, can make a difference.

“Being able to bring their animals to work is key,” Sand added.” A lot of these people are part timers and have other jobs during the week, and if they can’t bring their pets in in the evening, they feel like they’re neglecting them. People who come in say ‘I wish I could bring my dog to work. Are you hiring?’”

“It's also part of the fun side of life,” Berman said. “It’s kind of like a toy store in a way. People have fun with pets.”

If the storeowner is too busy to oversee training, Berman recommends tasking a manager to take time out of the schedule to train people in groups.

“Say, ‘You have to spend five hours a week on this, and here are the tools,’” he said. Then supply them with websites, training programs, distributor phone numbers.

Use Association Resources
Industry associations can be a great source for basic training. For instance, PIDA’s Pet Store Pro program is free and available to anyone. Pet Store Pro provides training in three core areas: animal care, customer service, and sales and merchandising. (There are plans to add a module on nutrition later this year, Kaplan reported.)

“What we hoped to do when we created the really to provide a fairly basic level of training,” Kaplan said. “The stores themselves can then provide advanced training covering the exact products and services they offer.”

Pet Store Pro allows a storeowner or manager to set up a custom curriculum based on the store’s needs, Kaplan said. They pick “chapters” that they want their employees to learn about. Once the employee has completed the selected chapters, PIDA issues a certificate.

The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) offers certification in animal care. PIJAC CEO and general counsel Marshall Meyers said the program was originally offered as a series of seminars with a home-study component, but is now being updated and moved online. As with PIDA’s Pet Store Pro, the online version consists of chapter modules with quizzes at the end of each. There are also charts and forms that can be downloaded for use in store operations. The training is open to anyone, with lower rates for members, said Meyers.

“We’ve tried to keep all of our modules under $100,” he noted.

Currently, only the avian module is online; others are in the process of being updated.

PIJAC Canada also offers online training. Its Boost Your Business program covers customer service and business issues, according to PIJAC Canada’s website. As with Pet Store Pro, the trainee is tested and the results e-mailed back to the store’s training manager. The program, which includes four participant assessments, costs $550 CDN for PIJAC Canada members or $675 CDN for nonmembers, said PIJAC Canada’s member service coordinator Jacynthe Lacroix. Additional employee assessments are priced at $75 CDN for members or $100 for nonmembers. It’s an English-language program, but Lacroix said PIJAC Canada expects to eventually offer a French-language version.

In addition, PIJAC Canada offers a Certified Companion Animal Specialist Program, available online or via CD, in both French and English. The website lists the cost of the program as $120 CDN for PIJAC Canada members and $140 CDN for nonmembers. Like its American counterpart, the PIJAC Canada program started as a two-part program, consisting of seminars and home study and is transitioning to an all-electronic program.

The NexPet Retailer Co-op offers its members a program called FlexQuiz that provides training on pet products and selling skills. FlexQuiz is free for members--they get a quantity of workbooks when they join, and they get free access to the online version of the training, too.

Call On Manufacturers and Distributors
Distributors can be a valuable resource training on specific products, Kaplan reported.

“They’re very knowledgeable about the brands they sell,” she said.

Even a small business can get training from distributors, and from manufacturers. It’s just a matter of speaking up, said Susan Southwick, who owns the Cambridge, Mass-based shop Animal Spirit.

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she said. “If you ask, they'll find a way.” In fact, being a small shop can be an advantage. “We only carry a few brands and we know (the manufacturers and distributors) really well. They know we're the mouthpiece for their product, so they want to keep us happy.”

In addition, some vendors offer training to groups of area stores. Chip Sammons, owner of Clackamas, Ore.-based retail shop Holistic Pet Center, told how a distributor in his area put together a symposium with several different raw food manufacturers for stores in the Portland Metro area.

“It was spectacular,” he said. “A rep from each of the big vendors came in. It was very enlightening.”

Check On Progress and Provide Encouragement
“There’s got to be accountability,” Berman of NexPet advised. “(The employees) have got to get back to someone, saying what they’ve learned. That’s why we’ve structured our program with quizzes.”

The Pet Store Pro system automatically sends an e-mail to the training manager whenever an employee completes a test, Stephanie Kaplan noted.

“We want (managers) to check in with people,” she said.

If the employee scores well on a test, the manager might say “You did great. Are there any questions you had or things you didn’t agree about?” If they didn’t do so well, the manager might approach the employee with: “Let’s talk about what went wrong,” Kaplan suggested.

“Stores that are doing well with the program are making that feedback part of the system,” she said. “They discuss results at a weekly store meeting. It’s also an opportunity for the store manager to talk about how their store does things differently than the way Pet Store Pro recommends, and why. Doing that really helps employees understand how what they’re learning applies to their job.”

The need to check in with employees can isn’t limited to the initial training phase.

“Every morning we have an informal meeting where (employees) share what might have happened in the last day or since I last saw them,” Sammons said.

Provide Different Points Of View
Ira Goldfarb, CEO and president of retail chain Doggie Style, likes to do training in a few different ways.

“We bring in industry professionals to help train in all aspects (of animal care)--nutrition, supplements, behavior,” he said. “We try to have at least three to four training seminars a month, and we use different people for each seminar.”

The seminars are led not only by manufacturers and distributors, but also by professionals in the industry--for instance, dog trainers or nutritionists who aren’t affiliated with a manufacturer.

“We have many different people coming in (to teach) so the employees get more than one idea,” Goldfarb said. “It’s like going to college. They’re exposed to different ways of thinking. We try not to put our opinion in there about what trainer said is wrong or right, but we do discuss it afterwards.”

Giving the employees different points of view helps them get a feel for themselves about what works, he added.

Share Information
If there is money in the budget to attend pet-industry trade shows, retailers should make those dollars go as far as possible by sharing what is learned there with employees.

Doug Poindexter, president of the World Wide Pet Industry Association (WWPIA), said that when he owned a store, he would take his employees with him to the trade show.

“Half would go on one day and half on the other, and the third day would be my day for buying,” he said. “I’d take each half out to dinner that night and ask them what they liked and what they learned. If they liked something and came back thinking it was a great product, they were much more likely to sell it on the store floor. It’s amazing how much faster that stuff went off the shelf than if you just brought it in an said ‘Sell this,’” he added.

If distance or finances don’t allow this approach, there are other ways to share information. Sammons reported he sometimes attends training programs at distributor shows.

“I’ll bring the information back and write everyone’s name on it, and have everyone check their name off to show they read it, and then we’ll talk about it,” he said.

Reinforce Learning
Another good practice is to reinforce learning through discussion, questions and role-play. Leo Holguin, supervisor for California Pets, a retail store in Orange, Calif., said role-play is a good way to help employees learn to think on their feet.

“Even when they’ve read about a topic, sometimes you don’t remember it as well if it’s just on paper,” he said. “If you see and hear, you retain it more.”

Tom Shay of Profits Plus likes to give a short written test with open-ended questions after each training session. The reason: When students write an answer of two or three sentences, they have to think more about what they’ve learned. In addition, it’s a good idea to include a trick question--something not covered in class, he noted.

“The purpose isn’t to trip up employees; students should be told in advance about the ‘trick’ question,” he said. The question is designed to spark learning and further questions.”

For instance, if you ask, "What ingredient does Brand Y cat food have that no one else has,” students will look at the different brands’ labels to see which had a unique ingredient, and ask why that ingredient is important, he noted. Not only that, almost consistently, there will be a further questions.

Pam Ore, vice president of education and research at Washington state retail chain Mud Bay Inc., said their employee training includes putting the information into practice with the customer. Once a new employee has studied a particular issue, the next time someone comes into the store with that issue, the manager lets the employee handle it. The new staffer then fills out a form about how it went and talks about it with the manager, Ore said. Besides helping the employee build expertise this technique lets the people in the office know whether the information they’re delivering is on target.

Make the Training Ongoing
“There’s a tendency not to offer training to long-time employees, because the owner or manager assumes those employees know everything they need to know,” said Kaplan. “We encourage stores to make training available to everyone.”

Pet store staff training
Another good practice is to reinforce learning through discussion, questions and role-play. Here an employee at Orange, Calif,-based California Pets explains product offerings to a co-worker.
She pointed out that managers often find there are gaps in employees’ knowledge.

At California Pets, Holguin runs weekly meetings.

“We try to focus on a theme or a department--dog, cat, reptiles,” he said. “We might do a role-playing scenario, and if there are any questions that came up during the week, they go into that, too. And if we get a product or a new line of food in, we have a rep come in train the employees.”

“If the employee’s not motivated, they’re not going to retain the information,” Holguin said.

Stephanie Kaplan of PIDA agreed.

You have to set it up so there is ongoing support, so that you are motivating people all along. Incentives are critical,” she said. “People tend to get very narrow and they think of incentives incentives in terms of money. If you are in a position to offer an additional 50 cents per hour, that’s a good motivator. But a $15 gift card for a coffee store or local movie chain can work. Free things work, too,” she added.
Kaplan said competition could be a good motivator, if done in a positive way.

“We encourage people to post the [Pet Store Pro] certificates at the store as a way of recognizing the employees,” she said.. “Posting test results, as long as they’re passing scores, can be motivating. Announcing at a store meeting that so-and-so has passed a chapter test or got a really good score--that can be very productive.”

“What you ultimately want to do is find out what people are motivated by and then try to deliver it,” Kaplan said. A good way to get at what motivates people is your own observation, she advised. If employees fight over who gets to do a certain job each week, that job could be a reward.

It’s also worth asking employees what they want. Often they’ll mention monetary rewards, but sometimes you’re surprised by what people say, Kaplan noted. Some examples she gave: Employees have asked for more time to play with the puppies, to be able to rework the display or to be able to meet with distributor or manufacturer reps.

“Then it’s up to the manager to decide if what they’re asking for is reasonable. Maybe they don’t have authority to make decisions, but can sit in on meetings with distributors,” said Kaplan.

Another Motivator Is Fun
“We try to make it a fun atmosphere,” Goldfarb said. “We have coffee and bagels during training sessions.”

Holguin noted that when vendors come in to do training, they usually bring prizes--cash or gift cards--or food.

Training can be its own motivator. Pam Ore of Mud Bay said that as employees finish training modules, they get a sense of confidence that improves their experience of working in the store.

“Most of the people love the education,” Goldfarb said. “It helps them, and it helps them with their own pets.”

Tie Training to Pay
Berman reported that many NexPet members tie compensation or bonuses to success in a training program.

“Either if you pass you get a bonus, or if you don’t pass (certain units) you can’t get a raise,” he said.

Ore said that when Mud Bay employees complete their training, they get a certificate and extra benefits. While in the past some of the training was optional and bonuses weren’t guaranteed,

“We realize it’s more and more how we want to do business,” she said. “When we made that decision (to make training mandatory), we also increased the pay and benefits.”

Be Accessible and Share Information
A final best practice is to create a culture of learning by sharing knowledge and being accessible to employees who have questions.

Pet store employee training
California Pets also holds weekly meetings, focusing in on particular merchandise areas, such as bird products in this case.
“Whether it’s a part-timer who’s still in high school or a senior person, (employees) can reach me or my partner Mark at any time, “ said Michael Levy, president and founder of retail chain Pet Food Express. “We’re constantly reaching out and touching our employees and our customers, and that does a whole lot for both those relationships.”

Ira Goldfarb at Doggie Style said that all his employees have e-mail addresses.

“We send out emails continually on things we find interesting,” he said.

Sammons said that he does research every day, and makes sure to tell employees about it.

“If I do the research, I want to share that with all my employees so they can share with as may people as possible,” he said.

Training Pays Dividends
One thing many of the experts interviewed for this story agreed on: Good training can improve a store’s bottom line.

“It is such an easy, relatively inexpensive way for stores to distinguish themselves,” observed Bob Vetere, president of American Pet Products Association Inc.

He said well-educated employees can help make a store the pet store of choice for the pet-owning public in their area.

“We’ve heard that employees are more confident, and that that really comes across when they are talking to customers,” Kaplan added.
Shay said that an employee training program is almost guaranteed to improve store operations.

“I've never heard anybody tell me that it's a waste of time,” he said. “I've heard people saying it's tough to do it, but on the other side of it, I've heard some really great results.” <HOME>

Martha Spizziri is a writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience with business-to-business media. Her articles have appeared in national publications and on websites.

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