Friday, June 29, 2018

Controlling the Consultation

Things can go wrong when caring for other people's pets. That's just an unfortunate fact. This is especially true of new or first time clients whose pets are unfamiliar with the caregiver. New and strange people entering the home can trigger a variety of responses from an otherwise docile and well mannered pet. Fight or flight impulses can lead to a range of undesired outcomes, from the sitter or walker being bitten to the pet fleeing the home property and becoming permanently lost or worse. These examples of extreme fear and anxiety when dealing with new client pets are worst case scenarios, and the probability of this type of situation occurring can often be avoided with a thorough consult, but even in less volatile circumstances caregiving can go south quickly.

Experienced walkers and sitters will always identify the most basic details during the initial consultation. These fundamental instructions may include learning how a particular dog walks on leash, whether the pet will dart out the door if permitted unfettered access or where food and supplies are stored in the home. Good sitters and walkers will also cover some health and safety items or medication administration if necessary. Unfortunately, these instructions are only the tip of the iceberg and all too often problems arise during service because the right questions weren't asked at the consult.

Access

Let's talk about access first, because this is the area of on-site pet care where pet professionals will most often encounter problems. It's not enough to simply receive a spare key or garage code and check the box for access instructions. Thought must be given to alternatives in the event access becomes hindered or altered.

A colleague recently described a situation where she was caring for two massive Tibetan Mastiffs in a large and expensive home. The dogs were extremely friendly and affectionate but also rather sizable and extremely rambunctious. The Mastiffs always greeted the provider excitedly at the door when she arrived for her visits. The owner hadn't trained the dogs not to jump, so they would immediately stand up for a hug and kisses. Being large and heavy dogs they could easily match the provider's height and latch onto her shoulders. These big lovers meant well, but they managed to push my smallish colleague around a little more than she would have preferred. During one of these encounters, the dogs managed to shove the provider back into the door and her upper leg inadvertently pressed the lock button on the garage entrance handle. The door was typical of many garage entry doors and still allowed for the handle to turn and open from the inside, however once closed the door became locked from the outside. Needless to say, once she exited she was locked out. To make matters worse, she had never discussed a contingency plan for this scenario at the consult. The situation was further exacerbated when the provider did what many people might do in this scenario and tried to find an alternate way into the home, and in the process ended up damaging a door. Fortunately the situation was resolved (eventually) when a family friend came over to assist with a spare key, but not before the damage was done and the caregiver's reputation took a hit.

This was obviously a unique situation and one that doesn't happen everyday, but there are a myriad of scenarios that are completely out of a pet professional's control, but could lead to a similar outcome. For instance, when using a garage code with an electronic garage door opener that is hard-wired to the home's electrical system, access can be interrupted by a power outage in the neighborhood. Many garage doors that have been fitted with electronic openers can not be manually opened from the outside. Code boxes that aren't hard-wired to the home's electrical, or that rely on battery backup, will automatically reset when the batteries die and will need to be reprogrammed. If a provider relies on a garage code as the only source of access, they are setting themselves up for a potential lockout.

Getting locked out of the home is a nightmare for any pet professional and will most assuredly cost the provider dearly. In the best case scenario the client may have a friend or family member who can unlock the home, as was the case for my colleague, however the pet owner will never be happy to have their vacation interrupted by this problem and it could damage the provider's reputation with that client. If the customer is disproportionately irritated by the snafu, they could further damage the provider's reputation with negative online reviews. In worst case scenarios the provider may have to force entry which will damage property and likely lead to an insurance claim, or potentially fail to gain entry and force the customers to cut their vacation short. In the most extreme cases, where the customer or listed emergency contacts can't be reached, a pet may be forced to go days without food and water unless a forced entry is performed. It's crucial that pet professionals cover alternative access instructions with the pet owner prior to providing services and always have a contingency plan in the event of a lockout.

Food, Water, Treats and Meds

Most pet owners will offer the basic details for feeding and watering their pets. They will show you where the bowls are placed and food is stored, they will instruct providers on how much food their pets eat and whether they can eat together or separately, and they will discuss any medication administration that occurs in conjunction with feedings, but they will often leave out other pertinent details that can cause complications for service providers.

How quickly or slowly does a pet eat? Can the food be left down if it isn't completely consumed during the visit? Is there anything a provider can add to food to get the pet to eat if he/she is having difficulty? Has the pet ever demonstrated a loss of appetite caused by separation from his human family? Is the pet allergic, or does the pet experience sensitivity to any foods, ingredients or treats? Will the pet respond with aggression if a person or another pet approaches during feedings or waterings? These are all pertinent details that a pet professional should have answers to prior to providing services.

True Story

Recently a new customer contacted our business with a last minute request for services. Our policy has always been to pass on services to new clients who request an initial consult within 24 hours of their departure date. This customer called on a Friday morning to request home visits starting that night. It's simply bad business to accommodate this kind of request for various reasons. Firstly, it sets a bad precedent for future services. Even if your business is capable of squeezing in a last minute consultation (which for most busy providers is simply not a possibility) it sends a message that this is acceptable. It's not, and it will almost definitely lead to future instances of last minute requests. Secondly, any pet owner who waits until the morning of their vacation to request services is not a client you want. Period. In this instance, the prospective customer explained that she was offered the opportunity to get away for the weekend at the last moment and would understand completely if it wasn't possible to squeeze in a consult. She was polite and apologetic for the last minute request and we did have a gap in our day that allowed for an emergency consult, so against our better judgment we made an exception. She tugged on our heartstrings and we bit. We performed the consultation and received all the pertinent information. During the feeding and watering portion of our query we were instructed that the dog did not have a separate water bowl, but instead received water in her food bowl after she was finished eating. In the haste of this last minute consultation some communication was lost in translation. The customer informed us that the dog doesn't "self water", which we took to mean she must be encouraged to drink and stay hydrated, otherwise she won't drink. We later found out that "she does not self water" actually means she can not be left with water because she "cannot self regulate and will have accidents in the house if she drinks more than a very small portion of water".

This miscommunication was the direct result of performing a hasty last minute consultation for a customer we should have passed on. Fortunately everything worked out with this particular client and they have since become a regular customer, however this is one example of how losing control of the consultation process can lead to difficulties during service which could have been avoided. This leads to my next point.

Communication is Key

The first step in conducting a proper consultation is to take control of the consultation from the moment the prospective client opens the door. It's important to remember that every person communicates differently. For many potential customers your consultation may be the first time they have done business with an independent sitter or walker. It is possible that this customer has always used a large chain kennel or family/friends to watch their pets while they were on vacation, so it is entirely reasonable to assume they have no idea how to act during this type of consultation. Many pet owners will answer the door with their pet in hand and go right into their routine, detailing their needs and showing you around their home before introductions have even been made.

Performing an organized and thorough consultation is critical to your success during service, and it is up to the provider to facilitate that experience. This can feel awkward, especially since you are in the person's home and it feels more natural to let the home owner take the lead in their own house. The problem is that you will be the one leading their pets in this same home at a later time without them present, and you will be responsible for having all the information needed to provide that care.

One way a provider can mitigate this awkwardness is to explain the consultation process to the potential customer prior to the meeting. This can be done via e-mail or over the phone when the customer schedules the consultation. A caregiver can describe how they prefer to conduct consults and set themselves up for optimal success when they arrive.

In our business model we prefer to cover our introduction before receiving any information from the client. The most productive consultations typically start with a quick introduction at the door followed by a suggestion that we sit down for a moment to look over some forms before getting into the nitty gritty of our care instructions. We have no preference on whether we meet the dog at the door with the owner, or if the dog is contained until we have completed the first portion of the consult, but if the dog is rambunctious or untrained and provides a barrier to good communication, we recommend isolating the dog for a short time while we cover the basics of care. Don't assume that the customer will have the presence of mind to isolate the dog in order to communicate more effectively at that time.

After we have crossed the t's and dotted the i's regarding our background and history, explanation of bonding and insurance limits, select a plan of care and present a service contract, we are prepared to meet the pets, tour the home and take notes. Lots of notes. Good notes.

Take Good Notes

I highly recommend keeping a spiral notebook or several blank pages for note taking when touring the
home. I cannot stress the importance of precise and thorough note taking strongly enough. It's also important to understand that many pet owners present information in a scattered and random manner. It is up to the pet professional to receive and organize this information in the notes in a way that makes sense later. A good pro should never be embarrassed to ask questions or request clarification on details that don't seem to make sense at first glance. Sometimes pet owners will contradict themselves without realizing it. Be certain to get the instructions for care straight at the consult so there's no need to refer back to the client with questions during service. Keeping good notes also ensures that the provider has documentation of what was communicated during the consult if the pet owner later claims to have provided important details that were never communicated. Good notes help pet professionals cover their behinds.

Test Walk

The final piece of business to conduct during the consult, for dog walking clients or vacation clients who request walks during sitting services, is a test walk. It's crucial to get the dog in a 1-on-1 environment, outside of the home and without the owner present. This is the environment that a provider will get the best idea of how the dog will behave during service. If the dog pulls on leash or exhibits aggression to other dogs or humans, this is where those behaviors will manifest. A good provider will use this time to interact with the dog and experiment with contact near the face and feet. Remember, while it may be perfectly sunny and dry on the day of the consult, you may be providing services on rainy or stormy days. You need to know if you will be able to clean feet and attach/detach leashes to the collar. The test walk is where you will determine how affectionate the dog is likely to be with you during service and in the absence of his/her human.

Housekeeping and Miscellaneous

Every pet professional offers his or her own unique service menu and each pet professional has a different threshold for extraneous duties and collateral housekeeping requests. It's important to recognize that some level of cleaning is required in any circumstance. For instance, a customer with long-haired pets that shed excessively might require some light sweeping or vacuuming. I have encountered service providers who refuse to offer any of these types of services under any circumstances, and I now service their former clients. The reality is that without some very basic housekeeping, the pets will suffer. Bowls must be washed after feeding and waterings or the pets can become sick. Hair on the floor becomes hair in their food and water bowls, which can also make them sick. Accidents in the home should always be cleaned up upon discovery, which may involve scrubbing carpet to return it to its pre-accident condition. These duties are part of the job and there should be an understanding between the client and the service provider at the consultation of exactly what housekeeping duties are reasonable to maintain a safe and sanitary environment.

With all of that said, there will always be clients with excessive expectations for the care of their home. In addition to the basic collateral duties that are rooted in the care of their pets, they will request that other more extraneous services be provided that don't fall under pet care but house cleaning. It is reasonable to request a pet sitter sweep or vacuum excessive hair every third day or every other day, in order to keep the space clean and sanitary for the pets being cared for. It is unreasonable to expect a pet sitter to perform a detailed cleaning or deep cleaning of baseboards, non-common spaces or areas where pet care is not being conducted. It is reasonable to expect a pet sitter to run a wet cloth or damp mop over a tiled or linoleum floor space that has become muddy from paw prints during rainy times. It is unreasonable to expect a pet sitter to mop every hard surface in the home. On some level, pet owners must understand that the accumulation of dirt and debris from routine traffic and common usage is their responsibility, just as it would be if they were home. There are plenty of house cleaning companies available to provide these services in their absence.

In any event, regardless of whether you are willing to perform these collateral duties or not, it is important that these issues be discussed at the consultation in order to avoid any confusion about cost or unrealistic expectations for care. This is especially true for sitters and walkers who bill based on service time. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to feed, walk and administer medication to a senior dog, while also sweeping and mopping an entire home in 30 minutes or less. If 30 minutes is the standard unit of time for a given billed service, the pet owner must be made aware of this fact and invoiced accordingly.

In Summary

There are many topics that must be covered during a proper consultation and the list may differ from pet professional to pet professional. I have listed a few basic items that should always be covered in this article, but there are certainly more topics than I could possibly focus on here. Regardless of what bullet points you choose to emphasize, what should never differ, and what should never be compromised is the thoroughness of the consultation and the completeness of information that is exchanged. The only way to guarantee that this information is exchanged properly is to take control of the consultation. Be assertive, don't settle for incomplete communication, ask questions (more than once if need be) and nail customers down on specific answers to specific queries. Take excellent notes and be above reproach in your communication. The only stupid question is the one you never asked.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Rewards, Discounts and VIP Pricing

Almost every commercial entity on the planet offers some type of perk program, referral rewards, VIP pricing menu, group discount or coupon offer. Groupon has built an entire enterprise out of the concept. As consumers, we take advantage (or get taken advantage of, as it were..) by these programs and we may not even realize it. We see it in our local grocery store as "10 for 10" deals or "gas points", or "Blue Light Specials", as long time big box department store giant Kmart once coined it, and we eat it up. Literally. There is nothing Americans like more than free stuff, even when it's not actually free, and yet so many pet professionals are resistant to offering variations of these programs in their small business.

The question of offering discount pricing or other loyalty type programs was posed on a popular pet professional web forum recently and most of the business owners who chimed in almost seemed offended by the idea. Here are a few responses:

"The price is the price! If you give in on that, your client might start to push further to see what types of additional services you'll give."
Megan M.
Lexington, KY 
"You also want to think a bit about your reputation: do you want to be known as the cheap, negotiable sitter? Like others said, cheap isn't always good. I'm a naturally thrifty person, so setting realistic rates is hard for me."
Leighann H.
Austin, TX
 
"I see a lot of people trying to sell themselves short to get the business, but we need to value our time otherwise the customers won't. Keep your price firm and people will respect that as long as you provide proper care for their pups and make them feel comfortable..."
Scott K.
Marina del Rey, CA 
"Do what feels right to you. I'm not really willing to negotiate my prices either. At the end of the day, as much as I love dogs, I'm in business because it's a source of income. Even if it's a job you love, you're still working for it..."
Laura R.
Portland, OR


Source: Rover.com forum

Those are just a few of the hundreds of similar responses you will find from pet sitters and dog walkers across the country who simply will not budge on their pricing under any circumstances. In their attempt to not be "walked on" by customers seeking savings, and preserve their self respect, they are not only losing money, but their unwillingness to budge is actually harming their reputation as legitimate professionals. After all, if Fortune 500 giants such as Wal Mart, CVS, Amazon and Kroger can offer incentive programs without losing any self respect, so can you.

As with many things in life, part of the problem is perception. The pet professionals who view these discount offers as a compromise to their standards are missing the forest for the trees. These programs are not only NOT costing them profit from their bottom line, they are actually increasing the bottom line. I will explain:

The Advent of the "Vacation Special"

In the early stages of our business we would encounter many customers who would request only two visits per day for their dog while they were on vacation. They would ask for something like a standard 30 minute servicing (walk and feeding) at 9am, and then another at 9pm. I hated these requests for multiple reasons. For starters, a dog needs more human contact than one hour per day while their owner is gone, especially over several days or weeks. Secondly, while many dogs can hold their elimination for up to 12-hours at a time, forcing them to do so is, in my opinion, inhumane and uncaring. We would always suggest that they add at least one more visit in the middle of the day to provide more appropriate care, but some owners simply wouldn't budge. In the name of saving a few bucks they would insist that this was all their beloved pet needed. In some cases, they would argue that this is all their pet gets on a normal day, even when they weren't out of town or otherwise indisposed. Other times they would claim that a neighbor or family friend would be coming over between our scheduled visits to supplement care, but many times that seemed fabricated to pacify our concerns. It became obvious that no neighbor or friend had been by when we would arrive for the final visit of the night only to find the food, water, leashes and lighting in the exact way we left them 12 hours earlier. Many times in these instances we would feel inclined to provide a third visit on our own volition because it was the right thing to do. We lost a significant amount of money on free services offered out of a sense of obligation to the pet.

We very quickly realized that a policy change was in order and began placing a 3-visit minimum on vacation customers who would be away for more than 24 hours. Then an epiphany; what if we offer a "vacation special" which consisted of two standard visits and two pop-in visits for a slightly discounted price? Everything changed. Suddenly customers felt inclined to take advantage of the "savings" and actually started spending more on extended services than they would have if they had booked three visits at our regular price. We were making more money, the client's pets were getting better care and the customer was comforted by the illusion of value. This practice opened up an entire world of possibilities for our business model and the subsequent strides we made were remarkable.

VIP Membership
Another incentive that has been a boon to our bottom line has been the addition of "VIP Pricing" for loyal customers who book a month's worth of services up front. There are many ways to implement this program, from ordering professionally printed VIP Member cards and other packet materials, to simply adding it to an existing invoicing method. The gist of the program is that a customer becomes a "VIP" by selecting a monthly package of offerings (walks, sitting, transportation, boarding, daycare, etc..) at a slightly discounted price, but they pay for these services up front in the form of a monthly membership fee. The catch is that these services must be used within the allotted month, or the savings is lost.

One needs to look no further than mega gym powerhouse Planet Fitness to see the value of a "use it or lose it" membership program that rewards clients for continuing to come back. In fact, Planet Fitness has this philosophy down to a science. A $10 per month membership fee entitles gym goers to round the clock fitness equipment whether they work out five times per month or zero times. I know people who have been paying for a Planet Fitness membership for years but haven't worked out since George H.W. Bush was President... But at $10.00 per month they have no incentive to cancel. For starters, cancelling would be an admission that they have no real intention of ever working out again in the future, and nobody wants to admit that. Secondly, the cost is so low that they barely realize the tiny dent in their account every month. Planet Fitness further cements this philosophy of self preservation by offering "Pizza Monday" and "Bagel Tuesday" once a month, just in case their members were starting to make real strides in their desired weight loss. It's genius actually. Unlike Planet Fitness, we're not trying to rip anybody off, or hoping that they fall off the face of the Earth while we continue to bill their account, but we do find that customers value the idea of knowing these services are available to them even when they don't take full advantage of the package they are entitled to. Again, it's the illusion of value that means something. For other clients, membership in an "exclusive club" is all the motivation they need.

Rewarding Referrals
Any pet professional who has been in the industry for a significant amount of time will tell you that word of mouth advertising accounts for, by far and hands down, the bulk of their revenue. The ROI will always be greater from referrals than any other marketing stream because they compound over time, eventually becoming infinitely more valuable than any other single marketing strategy. Assuming the average dog walking customer who requires two walks per week is worth approximately $2288.00 per year  ($22 per walk X 104), and you offer a $50 coupon to loyal customers who refer new clients, you've just made 98% profit on that investment. It's an absurd return in the grand scheme of things. If these new clients don't become regulars, you will likely make at least what you offered your original customer back during the initial servicing. In most cases these new clients will become, at the very least, occasional vacation customers. If the worst thing you do in pursuit of new customers is break even from time to time, you're doing okay. If these new clients do become a vital part of your loyal base and subsequently provide referrals of their own, which they likely will, you have increased that return exponentially. For this reason it is crucial that you give your existing customers motivation for referring you to their friends, family and colleagues. 

I currently provide daily service to a long standing and extremely loyal customer who has been with me from the very beginning. Not only has this client provided multiple reviews and recommendations on various social media platforms over the years, but she sells our business to her friends and colleagues at every turn. She takes every opportunity possible to sing our praises and support our business. This woman works for a very large Fortune 100 company headquartered in my city with an extremely transient employee base, and she holds a high position in the human resources department, so naturally she encounters and processes many of the professionals who transfer to my service area. If I was to break down the percentage of my overall revenue that was derived, in some shape or form as the result of this customer, I would probably arrive at a figure upwards of 30% of my total revenue. That's a staggering number and one that is well worth the minuscule amount of coupons and buy backs I have offered as a reward for her loyalty. Simply stated, one good customer can make a massive difference in the success of your business. These customers deserve to be rewarded for their loyalty.

In Summary
The bottom line is that worrying about nickels and dimes will cost you dollars. It's one thing to refuse to compromise on your pricing with a new customer who is trying to haggle you down like you operate out of a street stand in Kolkata, it's quite another to be completely inflexible and unrewarding to those clients who are largely responsible for paying the bills. If you truly want to show the world you are legitimate, start thinking outside the box with your marketing strategies and offering perks, buybacks and VIP pricing. You may just find that the incentives these programs provide will more than compensate you for anything you lose in the process.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Art of Saying No

Pet care professionals are generally a caring bunch. You sort of have to be to want to do this for a living. From offering dependable advice on a myriad of pet related issues to inventing creative ways to communicate with customers who are far from their pets, we tend to wear many hats. Often times sitters and walkers are one part pet professional and one part therapist. When we don't have the answer to a pet health or behavior question, we research information. Sometimes we play amateur photographer or part time housekeeper. We even dabble in home security on occasion. We take in mail and packages, handle garbage pails, water gardens, alternate lights and blinds and even deliver food and medication when necessary. There's not much a good pet sitter or dog walker won't do in the name of satisfying a pet parent. But sometimes you have to say no. Whether it's a lonely home-bound client who just wants to talk for an hour, or an overly demanding customer with entitlement issues, there are a couple of occasions when saying "no" is the only acceptable answer. In this article I will detail a few of these scenarios.

1.) The Filthy Customer/Hoarder
If you've been in the pet service industry for any significant amount of time you have probably encountered this scenario at least once or twice. You pull up to a prospective client's home for an initial consult and you can tell, before even getting out of your car, that it's going to be a scene out of A&E's Hoarders. You approach the front door with a sense of impending doom and you can already smell what can only be described as the toilet of a 3rd world prison. You ring the doorbell and it takes 15 minutes for the owner to tunnel through the decades worth of stacked newspapers and open up. Perhaps there are human skeletal remains lining the path to poor Fluffy's crate... Okay, I'm exaggerating, but in any case it's simply not an environment you feel comfortable providing services in. There's nothing wrong with politely declining services in this situation. Not only is it a health hazard to the dog, but it's a liability to your business because risk of injury or sickness is heightened. If you get hurt, you can't work, plain and simple. And if you pass an illness from this client's dog to your other client's pets, you will most assuredly be held accountable. Not to mention, you simply don't need to be working in any environment that makes you feel that uncomfortable. If you wanted to subject yourself to those environments you could have stayed in the workforce and been at an employers mercy. Don't do it. The best way to handle this is to politely explain that you don't feel comfortable working in this home and that you will have to pass on providing services. If you're worried about offending the homeowner, you don't have to come right out and tell them they're dirty, simply blame it on a hyper-sensitivity to mold spores or dust. Tell them that you began to feel a reaction immediately upon entering  the home and that you think it would present a barrier to service. You can be assertive and professional without being offensive.

2.) The Personal Assistant Seeker

One of the realities of the pet service industry is that you tend to form bonds with many of your clients that other service professionals don't. There seems to be an unwritten set of boundaries that customers will observe when it comes other service professionals such as lawn care providers, painters or pest control technicians that they disregard when it comes to their pet sitter or dog walker. A customer probably wouldn't dream of asking the gentleman painting their living room to run to the grocery store for them, but they will ask their dog walker or pet sitter. I'm not sure why this dynamic exists, other than we see them more frequently and present ourselves as eager to please. Perhaps it's because we offer other a la carte services and bill in much smaller increments? Whatever the reason, customers tend to feel comfortable asking for small (or not so small) favors of their pet professional and it can become problematic.

When I was first establishing my pet business, I took on an elderly customer who reminded me of my grandmother. She was an ornery character with a ton of personality and she tended to be very pushy, but I found it endearing on some level. When I first accepted her as a client my customer base was small and she needed twice daily services, which was a boon for me. She lived in a small home in a very wealthy part of town and boasted that she was once the mayor of a nearby village. It was obvious from the start that she had lived a privileged life. It was also obvious that her health was rapidly declining and I later learned that she had been diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer's Disease. She would occasionally task me with picking up dog food, medicated toothpaste and other items for her dog, which I had no problem doing because it was listed as an available service on my menu and she paid me handsomely for it. However, over time the requests became more exhaustive and less about her dog's needs. Initially she would simply ask if I could grab some coffee k-cups while I was at the grocery store buying dog food. Over time, dog food and coffee k-cups turned into milk, cereal, eggs, bread, dog food and coffee k-cups. Eventually the grocery list had morphed into an entire household inventory and dog food was no longer on it. I wasn't grabbing a few items while I was there for dog food anymore, I was doing her grocery shopping twice a week. Moreover, she would often forget multiple items and ask me to return to the grocery for them. I wanted desperately to help this woman as much as I could, and since my days were light, I obliged most times. Many times I would pay for the items out of my own account and add them to her invoice at the end of the week, but it became very confusing to keep track of and her disease caused her to forget that she had requested these services. Needless to say the situation became a nightmare and I eventually had to part ways with this customer. It proved to be an invaluable lesson on saying no. We always want to do as much as we can for people in need, but remember, at the end of the day your business comes first. It is your livelihood.

3.) The Talker and the Non Talker
Most of us have that one friend or family member that can't say goodbye. No matter how profusely you convey that you have places to be and things to do, they just keep talking. You use basic social cues to wind down the conversation, you backpedal toward the door as you nod at their ongoing chatter, you wait for them to stop and breath so you can eventually tell them flat out that you HAVE TO GO NOW, but they don't stop. They don't take a breath. They just keep talking. And talking. And talking... It's one thing when this is a close friend or family member, it's a totally different thing when it's a customer who is costing you money and making you late for your next client. In my early days of dog walking I had such a client, and to make matters worse he was an alcoholic. I would arrive around 10am for a late morning walk with his adult male poodle only to find him in the sauce. He would quickly latch on and not let go. Many times he would tell me not to worry about the walk, and instead pour his heart out about whatever drama he was experiencing in his life at that moment. From tales of his ex-wife to drama about the neighbor, he bared all. It can be difficult to break away from clients like this, especially when you factor alcoholism into the mix, but it must be done. The sole purpose of our service is to provide for pets, if pet care isn't needed, we are not needed and it's better to walk away from a paying customer who needs professional therapy than stick around to collect a check for nothing.

For many walkers and sitters, having a customer present when providing services is a point of contention even when they aren't preventing them from doing their job. I've often wondered why a person would choose to pay a professional to spend time with their pet when they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves, but I have to remind myself that this is America, and a person is free to spend their money however they choose. Servicing a client who is present can be doubly awkward when they don't talk at all. These customers are the opposite of the non-stop talkers, they are the non-talkers. They are the socially clumsy and conversationally delayed and they present a different set of challenges.

A close friend in the industry described a regular customer who works from home at least three times per week. He arrives at the home and never knows whether he should knock or simply let himself in as he does on the days when the home is empty. The customer's office is situated in a place where he can see the front door, but never leaves it unlocked, despite knowing that the walker will be arriving at the same time every day. He knocks, but typically the client is on a conference call or conducting some other business, so he can not come to the door. My colleague eventually retrieves the key that is hidden in a nearby garden rock and lets himself in. The dog has various hiding spots around the house, and despite the fact that the customer has a fenced yard where the dog could easily be accessed, my colleague must waste precious minutes walking around calling for the dog while the customer watches him. Even when the client isn't actively working, he doesn't communicate much with my colleague, he simply leers at him moving about the home and nods and grunts at any attempts at communication. It makes for an awkward few moments every time it occurs, but my friend has chosen to grin and bear it. It's up to the individual to determine what is just too awkward to endure. Perhaps in this example it would be better to simply communicate to the customer that having to look for the dog in all corners of the home is taking valuable minutes away from the time he could be walking the dog, and that he can leave the dog outside on the days he works from home. At the end of the day it's a judgement call, but I always advise any pet professional that if they are feeling awkward or uncomfortable, it might be time for a change.

4.) Aggressive Dogs

An aggressive dog is most definitely a legitimate reason to pass on a potential client. Almost every pet sitter or dog walker I know has encountered a situation when they questioned whether a potential client's pet was safe to handle. In my experience, if you are posing the question you probably already have your answer. In many cases the customer will swear up and down that Fido is the friendliest, most loving dog they have ever known, and I have no doubt he is, TO THEM. However Fido may be a very different dog in the presence of strangers, in his own home, when his master isn't present. If signs of aggression crop up during service with a dog who was previously deemed non-aggressive during the consultation, and in the presence of his master, there are ways to finesse the situation to accomplish the servicing. Often times getting a leash on and off is the biggest challenge, and using treats or "lasso leash" techniques can facilitate that aspect of the service. Perhaps over time Fido will become more relaxed and accepting of his new service provider and the problem will work itself out. However, if aggression persists over time and the dog never seems to fully accept his new walker/sitter it might by time to move on from that client. If you've been servicing Fido for three months and he is still baring his teeth every time you try to place a leash on him, it's time to say NO.

There is nothing worse than feeling like you have lost control of your business and your life. If you have reached a point in your pet business where you feel like you are enduring more than you should be, remind yourself that you forged this path because you craved that control. Sometimes the burden of being in control requires that you be able to say NO.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

So You Want to be a Dog Trainer

So you're thinking about expanding your existing pet care business to include dog training, there's a few things you should know before delving into this specialty niche. In this article I will explore some of the common myths and misconceptions surrounding obedience training and outline some recommended practices for ensuring maximum success in your new endeavor.

1.) Dog Training is an Unregulated Industry
Dog training is currently an unregulated industry. There are multiple certification programs that exist presently which allow a pet professional to amass and document a specified amount of "hands-on" hours working in the dog training world or apprenticing with an experienced trainer, then take a test, then pay a fee to finally obtain the privilege of placing a few letters (credentials) after their title to signify a certification in the field. Here's the problem; very few potential customers will know what any of those credentials actually mean and most won't care. I will cover a few of these programs here:

There is the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) which is perhaps the best-known program for dog trainers and they offer two certification levels: CPDT-KA and CPDT-KSA. I won't go into the specific differences between the two programs, but for more information visit the CCPDT website. Next is the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) which also offers two programs;  Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (ACDBC) and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC). Another popular certification program is through The Association of Animal Behavior Professionals (AABP), which offers a Certified Dog Trainer program (AABP-CDT). Requirements include 300 hours of professional training within the last five years, 30 hours of supervised skills development, proof of insurance, a proficiency exam, and two references. A Behavior Consultant certification path is also available. There is also The Certified Behavior Adjustment Training Instructor (CBATI), The International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI) and The Karen Pryor Academy (KPR) which offers a six-month Dog Trainer Professional program leading to the KPA-CTP certification. There are several other lesser known certification programs to choose from should you decide to go that route.

Unlike doctors, lawyers or even accountants, who display well recognized credentials such as PhD, J.D. or CPA, dog trainer credentials are virtually unrecognizable to anybody not in the industry. Furthermore, because these credentials are not regulated by any central governing body, the quality and legitimacy of these credentials can not be quantified. Additionally, acquiring these credentials can often be expensive, costing upwards of $5000 dollars, as is the case with the Karen Pryor Academy.

It's important to understand two very sobering realities when it comes to the pursuit of credentials with one of these certifying bodies; 1.) Every single one of them was started by a person or persons who either held no prior certification in the field, or they were certified by a program that was started by another person or persons who held no prior certifications. 2.) Any pet professional can start a credentialing body and start "certifying" other professional dog trainers in that program. You could literally call your Program "The Quality Dog Training Academy for Wayward Pet Professionals Who Love Dogs" and charge $10,000 dollars to offer a (QDTAWPPWLD-CDT) credential for graduates to place after their title and nobody would know the difference.

I won't advise aspiring dog trainers on whether to pursue these credentials or not, that is a personal decision and one every trainer must decide for themselves. I will only say that I have chosen not to hand over $5000 dollars of my hard earned money to one of these programs. Indeed, there is some redeeming value in acquiring knowledge and being able to provide proof to potential customers that you have amassed the requisite number of hours working in the field and put forth the effort to become as legitimate as you can in an otherwise unregulated profession. I won't begrudge any aspiring trainer that preference, but know that it is not a requirement and having these credentials may not make any significant impact on your business or your effectiveness as a trainer. I have spent over ten years in the pet industry and have spent thousands of hours successfully training many, many dogs. There is nothing that I can gain by giving Victoria Stilwell (a former actress turned dog walker) $5000 dollars to certify me in my profession.

2.) How to Get Started
It's important to be completely honest with yourself (and your customers) on exactly how well versed you are when it comes to this profession. Obviously, if you are reading this, you are a pet professional who probably cares very deeply for dogs and other animals. It goes without saying that there's a lot at stake when a person entrusts their dog's life to a trainer. You are doing yourself, the dogs you would be servicing and their loving owners a huge disservice if you didn't approach the task with a realistic view of your experience and capabilities. For someone who has owned and operated a dog walking, pet sitting or boarding and daycare business for several years, and who has vast experience teaching basic obedience over that time, but simply hasn't officially offered training on their menu of services, this might be a seamless transition. However for a dog walker who is fairly new to the pet industry (3 years or less), and who has been fortunate enough to service mainly well behaved dogs, there is much more to being qualified as a trainer than being able to teach Fido to "come", "sit" and "stay". It is simply not enough to call yourself a dog trainer. People are going to solicit your services for complex and challenging behavior dilemmas and you will be expected to know how to effectively train these behaviors.

There will be additional administrative duties required to effectively demonstrate proficiency as a trainer in the field. You will need to develop a method for tracking progress and communicating that progress to customers who have entrusted you with the care of their beloved pets. Spreadsheets and progress notes can be developed to track this data. Some trainers create proprietary forms for this purpose but you can also find sample documents online to make the development of your system easier. You will also need to decide how to bill for services. Some trainers offer a program that spans several weeks and requires them to take custody of an untrained pet on their own property. The fully trained pet is returned at the end of the training period (weeks later) and the owner is virtually absent from the process. Other systems involve only short (3 hours or less) training periods and intermittent instruction with the dog owners on how to continue training on their time. It's important to understand that communication with pet owners will be crucial to success, and that not every pet owner will do their "homework" or continue the training protocol that their trainer has advised.

First and foremost you will have to decide what type of trainer you want to be and which services you want to offer. You will have to understand the difference between a dog trainer and a behaviorist. True Applied Animal Behaviorists earn their title through formal education and have achieved, at the very least, a Masters level degree or possess a PhD in animal behavior. These are essentially psychologists who are highly trained to shape behaviors in animals and recognize abnormal behavior. They are experts in behavior modification and possess a deep understanding of how normal behavior should present itself and deal with the subtleties and nuances of deep-seated behavioral issues. If you don't fit that description don't even think about calling yourself a behaviorist, no matter which "Academy" you gave $5000 dollars to for your credentials.

Even as a basic obedience trainer, there is much to know about the many philosophies and methodologies being utilized in the profession and where on the spectrum your approach fits. Alpha Dog Or Dominance, Positive Reinforcement, Scientific Training, Clicker Training, Electronic Training, Model-Rival Or Mirror Training.... each of these methods have pros and cons, limitations and each method has proponents and detractors. There are massive amounts of information online and in book format detailing each philosophy. I highly recommend reading until your eyes bleed before delving into providing services in any of these techniques. No matter how much you think you know, you'll never know what you don't know.

3.) Understanding the Schism
There is currently a deep divide in dog training philosophy and methodology, and this will undoubtedly be the first reality you encounter when you begin gathering information on the topic. Aggression theory, positive vs. negative reinforcement and the pros and cons of "force free" training methods will quickly rise to the forefront of your research. Whether you conduct your study with the help of social media platforms, watching instructional videos or simply making a trip to your local library, you will immediately come to understand that there's a massive schism in the dog training world and you'll likely be forced to choose a side. It's important to remember throughout this process that when any assumption is made or any assertion is stated that sounds logical, many times people fail to check the facts. If it’s easy to believe, it must be true. The longer that assumption exists unchallenged, the deeper it will be woven into the fabric of our culture. This is most definitely the case with much of the information that exists on both ends of the dog training spectrum.

As with most subjects in life, such as philosophy, religion and politics (among many others) people love to choose a side. In most cases those sides exist in extremely polarized vacuums and rarely is a middle ground acceptable to those playing for team red or team blue. Because the average person can't or won't accept the fact that many issues are not simply black and white, anyone who doesn't concede complete and total validity to a given ideology is deemed incorrect. Most things in life are not black and white however, and in my experiences they are almost always very grey. The truth is often in the middle. This is no different in the world of dog training philosophy and methodology.

4.) Force Free vs. Dominance/Submission vs. Balanced Training

The current dissension in dog training is whether or not to include pain and fear as means of motivation. In the last few decades the pendulum has swung hard toward "force free" methods that use minimal pain, fear or intimidation, or none at all, instead opting for positive reinforcement and the rewarding of good behavior. I will tell you from personal experience that this is most definitely a preferred method for basic obedience training and one that all trainers should at least try first. I will also tell you that one trainer's definition of "force free" will not be every trainer's definition, and that the spectrum is as broad in regards to what constitutes "force" as it is for what constitutes "political correctness". Simply stated, everybody gets offended at a seemingly different frequency and proportion, and I guarantee that some training professional somewhere over the course of your research will make you feel like Hitler for raising your voice at a dog. This is where that grey area comes in.

Positive reinforcement in dog training typically goes by many names, and if you spend any amount of time in dog training groups on Facebook (please don't) you've probably encountered some of these. Reward-based training, science-based training, force-free or my personal favorite; "R+". Regardless of what you call it, the general theory behind this philosophy is the same; dogs will repeat good behavior when it is followed by a reward. Bad behavior should never be rewarded or even acknowledged. If punishment happens, it comes in the form of removal of rewards, like a toy or treat being taken away. Harsh reprimands and physical punishments are never needed. Here are some useful operant conditioning terms:

Positive reinforcement (R+): The addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. A dog sits, he/she is rewarded with a treat, the behavior of sitting is reinforced.

Negative reinforcement (R-): A response or behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus. A trainer pulls up on the leash and pushes the dog's rear down into a sitting position, the dog sits. When the trainer removes the pressure on the leash and rear, the dog remains sitting or the pressure is re-applied until the behavior of sitting is strengthened.

Negative punishment (P-): Removing something good or desirable to reduce the occurrence of a particular behavior. A dog eats his owner's tennis shoes. The owner removes a desirable toy or treat (usually in conjunction with verbal cues), the behavior is reduced.

Positive punishment (P+): Presenting a negative consequence after an undesired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior less likely to happen in the future. A dog barks, the owner performs any action that may be undesirable to the dog, up to and including physical consequences, the undesired behavior stops or lessens.

Unfortunately the "force free" crowd or "R+ Only" contingent have a hard time accepting any other form of training philosophy and sometimes logic gets lost in the shuffle. As I mentioned earlier, while I do consider myself a balanced trainer, I am a big proponent of force free, positive reinforcement training techniques and I highly recommend utilizing these methods first and foremost, however positive punishment techniques sometimes get a bad wrap from the new wave of trainers and aspiring pet professionals who like to scream "science!!!!!" at everything they think is Hitler, which brings me to my next point;

5.) Cesar Millan is NOT Hitler!
Type "Cesar Millan is __________" into Google search and before you can complete the sentence, the auto suggestion will treat you to a plethora of superfluously brutal attacks that will make your head spin. I'm not talking some choice name-calling, I'm talking a cornucopia of vicious ad hominem assaults that would have you believe the man beats the elderly with pit bull puppies... Now, I'm not saying I agree with everything Millan espouses, but this is a guy who has probably accomplished more in the field of dog training and brought more exposure to the industry than every member of Victoria Stilwel's faculty combined.

To understand why some of Millan's techniques are considered ineffective and outdated, one must understand where these practices originated. I am speaking specifically to the "alpha dog" or "dominance-based" theories and methodologies. The truth of the matter is that Cesar Millan employs a wide variety of techniques and not all of them are rooted in dominance theory, but those are the methods he receives the bulk of his ridicule for, so those are the practices I am addressing specifically here. The approach to canine social behavior known as dominance theory is rooted in a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 30's and 40's by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, in which the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

Schenkel’s examination of wolf behavior was then applied to domestic canines and it was hypothesized that canines, just as with wolves, were in constant competition for higher rank in the natural hierarchy. It was postulated that only the aggressive actions of the "alpha" held rivals in check. Subsequent behaviorists took Schenkel’s lead in studying captive wolves and confirmed these findings. The problem with these theories, in part, stemmed from the fact that canines are not wolves and while there is some evidence to support dominance theory in canines, the variables were too great to draw meaningful conclusions.

In the years since, dominance theory has been refuted to the point which many opponents of these practices will cite "science" as proof that these theories have officially been "debunked". The truth of the matter is that alpha behavior does exist in canines regardless of the faulty parallels drawn from the original study of wolves. Dogs are not wolves, but that fact alone doesn't preclude canines from engaging in any behavior wolves engage in, it only proves that those behaviors can't be assumed.

Dominance theory has not been debunked and it will never be debunked because we will never know what a dog is thinking. We will never get inside the mind of a dog, but basic observation does confirm that dominant behavior most definitely exists in canines. Period. Anybody who tells you alpha behavior simply doesn't exist and "science" has proven this, is either wrong or they are lying. They are lying to you because they are likely lying to themselves. Because nobody wants to believe that helicoptering a dog into submission is an appropriate technique for training. It's not an appropriate form of training and I would disavow those methods to any aspiring dog trainer who asked. Every time Cesar Millan "alpha rolls" or "helicopters" or "simulates neck biting", he sets the entire industry back colossally, but that does not mean dominance doesn't exist. It goes back to the notion that everything is either black or white. "We hate Cesar Millan's methods, so they are wrong and science supports that, and if you approve of any one thing Cesar Millan does, then you must support drowning dogs because Millan is synonymous with murdering dogs for fun..." This is how the schism starts.

The truth is that much of what Cesar Millan does is remarkable and worthy of our respect. His observations on energy and the effect of energy on pack leader dynamics is not bunk. He has not forged a highly successful career in the dog training industry by chance. His success rate is extraordinary. He's not perfect. He espouses some misguided theories, there is no doubt, but he is not Hitler. Regardless of what the most progressive contingent of the dog behavior industry would have you believe.


In Summary
Now you know some of the basic challenges and road blocks you will face as you forge a path in the dog training industry. You will be tested by consumers and peers alike. You will have to make choices on the types of credentialing you choose to pursue, or whether you will obtain them at all. You will need to understand your level of experience and limitations, and you'll have to engage your customers honestly. You will have to decide what type of trainer you want to be and have a deep understanding of the philosophies and methodologies you employ to achieve your goals. You will need to do an incredible amount of research on the culture and history of dog training and be prepared to make a commitment to a dedicated approach. Your approach should ideally develop organically from the experience you have accumulated in your business up to this point. Most importantly, if you can not point to an organic approach that has developed over your career in the pet service industry, you should consider what certification programs might help you identify those preferred methodologies and pursue them. At the end of the day you may find that you are not completely ready to dive into this area of practice at the present, but at least you will know where you stand and what you need to do to get to that point. Adding dog training to your menu of services will open you up to an entirely new world of possibilities, but it will be challenging. It's worth doing, but it's worth doing right.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Changing the Pet Professional Paradigm

Crafting a career in the pet services industry can be highly rewarding and exceedingly lucrative, however the path is paved with some unique obstacles and distinctive challenges. Aspiring pet professionals should approach these challenges with a realistic mindset and prepare accordingly. The purpose of this article is to highlight some of these obstacles and share some of the lessons I have learned, mainly the hard way, over my 10+ years in the industry. Hopefully the observations enumerated here will save you time, resources and anguish in your pursuit of success in the pet service industry.

1. Service NOT Servant
Walking the line between providing good customer service in the hospitality industry and allowing yourself to be walked on is incredibly difficult, and you will no doubt encounter customers who don't fully understand the nature of your business. Whether you are the owner of a 5-star resort in the tropics or a professional house cleaner with a client roster of five customers, it's important to remember that consumers have an expectation of personal care and individual attention when it comes to the hospitality industry. Make no mistake, the pet business is really a people business. You may have started to pursue a career working with cats and dogs, Guinea pigs and rabbits, because you prefer animals to humans. I did. But at the end of the day, it is the pet owner who will be booking the appointments and paying the invoice. It is a human who will be communicating (or at times failing to communicate) their expectations and needs, and a human who will be receiving your instructions and guidelines for care. You need to keep this in mind when dealing with the pitfalls and obstacles that arise in the daily operation of your business.

As business owners and independent pet professionals we are fortunate to be able to forge our own path, make our own rules and work our own hours. For those of us who have transformed a small business into a larger one, perhaps one with multiple employees or independent contractors, there is some insulation from the perception of "unskilled labor" that the public has toward the services we provide. On some level though, almost all pet industry professionals still wear many hats and still accomplish many of the daily duties themselves. Whether you answer the phones, keep the books, control the marketing and advertising or even perform the walking and sitting yourself, or you employ a team to handle these duties while you simply reap the monetary rewards, the perception will often be that you are an unskilled laborer, shuckin' and jivin' to earn your pittance. You can't allow this mentality to affect your self worth or self esteem, and you most certainly cannot allow it to influence how you conduct business. This is a topic that many pet industry professionals struggle with and ultimately it can make or break your bottom line. This struggle can be exacerbated by the logistics of how and where you decide to set up shop.

2.) Marketing to the Wealthy - A Luxury Service

One example of how pet professionals are forced to grapple with competing interests is the concept that this is a luxury service. In order to become a successful business owner in the pet service industry it's important to realize that your average client will not be a middle income consumer. Most middle class consumers don't have an extra $300-$700 dollars (or more) per month just burning a hole in their pocket. It stands to reason that a customer requiring even just one walk per day for the family dog is going to spend no less than $345 per month (23 x $15) on pet services. Depending on the competitive price point in your area of the country, and any additional services that customer may require (transportation, boarding, daycare, obedience training, etc.) the bill can double or even triple. For this reason it is important to establish a service area in an affluent part of town. Unfortunately, this can create a difficult paradox. While it's never productive to stereotype or classify entire groups of people, and while there will most certainly be customers who refrain from passing judgement on others in any profession, the sad fact is that you will likely encounter your fair share of condescension as a dog walker who services doctors, lawyers and CEO's. It's just a fact. How you cope with that fact however, will determine the rate at which your business grows and the ease with which you dispel the instances of condescension you encounter.

The pet service industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the country, reaching an estimated $69.36 billion in 2017 and projected to hit almost $100 billion by the end of this decade. There are pet sitters and dog walkers currently making more money than the average doctor or lawyer, but it is still often viewed as menial labor, even by those who utilize these services and have a full understanding of what it earns, because they are paying for it. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at the invoice and do the simple math. It stands to reason that a dog walker earning $25.00 for a 30-minute walk (or $50.00 per hour), assuming that provider works a 40-hour week, is making over $100K per year. Yet, for some inexplicable reason these same clients who are paying the tab fail to understand (or fail to accept) that their dog walker is not only earning more money than they are, but doing it on his or her own terms. Never feel compelled to change this mindset or prove your worth, it will only be time wasted from taking their money. Instead, set clear and distinct guidelines for how you conduct business with your clientele.

3.) Communication is KEY
Just as it is crucial for every pet industry professional to receive pertinent communication from clients in regards to the expectations of care for their pets, it is equally important to communicate your expectations to the client. Set clear and concise guidelines as it pertains to bookings and cancellations, invoicing, payments and other policies and practices that you observe in your business. Develop a system that works for your lifestyle and don't compromise or negotiate the fundamentals of that system. Think about how you want customers to communicate.

One of the inherent obstacles to success and happiness in this industry is the compartmentalization of vital communication from non-vital communication. Availability to your clients is crucial, especially those clients who are currently scheduled for service, but it is equally critical to have a method for filtering unscheduled clients so as not to essentially be "on-call" for every customer on the roster at all times. This can be a daunting balancing act. As a moving service provider who travels to the customer's location it is necessary to have a mobile phone for communication, however using this device for all communication creates problems. On one hand you may wish to provide a courtesy text message upon completion of scheduled services, however this practice will undoubtedly send a mixed-message that texting is an appropriate form of communication in every circumstance. It is not. If a client texts their booking request while you are with another client's pets, you likely won't be in a position to type a reply or answer scheduling questions. You won't have a calendar in front of you and you may very well have multiple dogs on leash in a high traffic area. It is the last place you would want to try juggling a cell phone and two rambunctious Chocolate Labs. Even if you are in a position to respond to such a message, there is a precedent to set. A consumer would never send a text message to their local cable television provider to schedule installation of a cable box, or text an HVAC repair professional when their air conditioning unit needs servicing, yet many clients will think nothing of text messaging their dog walker when they decide to go on an impromptu weekend vacation. If you aspire to be available for your currently scheduled clients but still desire a healthy work/life balance, it is crucial to develop a system that allows you to limit access to only those customers who need it in the present. There are several practices you can adopt to insure the compartmentalization of these communications:

  • Use a separate, dedicated mobile phone for communication with currently scheduled clients. Never give clients your personal cell phone number.
  • Power off the business phone when not in use for currently scheduled clients, and let your customers know that text messages will not be received. Phone calls and emails received outside of normal business hours will be returned the following business day.
  • Disable text/sms messaging altogether and instead use an SMS app for texting post-service messages to currently scheduled clients. TextNow is an excellent application for this method.
  • Use an auto-reply application to instantly respond to any customer who sends text/sms messages to your mobile business line with an automated message detailing your texting policy.
  • Inform new customers at the consultation that you do not use text messaging as normal method of communication and that calls and e-mails are the appropriate form of communication for customers not currently scheduled for services.
  • Set "office hours" that are more restrictive than "working hours". Insist that new and existing clients contact you via phone or e-mail during normal business hours (M-F 8am to 5pm) for all inquiries other than those directly associated with after hours services currently being provided.
It may be tempting to offer total access and 24-hour availability to your clients, especially early on in the development of your business, after all you want to accept every client and make every dollar you can, but remember this sets a precedent that will be difficult to scale back later. If you make yourself available at all times and via all forms of communication, you will find yourself immersed in your business at every moment. If Mrs. Jones is awake at 2:00am on a Tuesday night thinking about Fluffy's upcoming dog walking needs, guess what; you'll be thinking about them too. Indeed, this is an industry that, by its very nature, is designed to accommodate any and all of life's emergencies. Every family emergency, business emergency or natural disaster that a client on your roster faces will become your emergency and your disaster. If you have 50 customers on your roster, that can be extremely taxing. Remember, you didn't start your own small business to become a slave to to other people's problems, you started your business to be free from the grind.

4.) Payment Up Front
Another area that some customers seem to think is negotiable or flexible is how and when they pay for services. As pet industry professionals we operate in a unique market. We don't provide material goods, but instead provide services, however those services are not performed on tangible goods that can be held as collateral until payment is received. Unlike an auto repair shop that can keep a vehicle until the repairs are paid for, our services are conducted in the absence of the client and there is no tangible good that can be held as collateral until payment is received. Additionally, because we provide services in the absence of the client there is little recourse in the event a client fails to make a scheduled payment at the time of servicing. Unlike a professional landscaper or repair technician there is often no client present to collect a payment from in the moment, and whereas those professionals could simply cancel the scheduled services until payment is received, we face a crisis of conscience if we choose to cancel services to a pet whose owner is scheduled for a prolonged absence. For this reason it is important to set clear and concise guidelines for how and when we accept payments.

One of the methods for diffusing this dilemma is to offer clients the option of putting a credit card on file that can be billed before, during or after the completion of scheduled services. This method can be expensive and confusing however, and many pet professionals choose (wisely) not to accept credit card payments, instead opting for payments in the form of cash or personal check only. 

The first step in accepting credit card and debit card payments is to familiarize yourself with the various forms of credit card processing solutions available to small business owners, and this can be daunting. If you want to be able to bill customers remotely (i.e not in person) you will need to identify an e-commerce solution such as PayPal, Square or by setting up an e-commerce solution through your banking institution of choice (Chase, Huntington Bank, Bank of America, etc.) which will typically integrate with a client such as Authorize.net. The former will typically be the fastest and easiest way to get your online business to accept credit cards. However, doing so will require you to send customers to a third-party website and still does not afford you the opportunity to set up a recurring billing cycle. The latter does allow for manual processing without customer initiation, but requires you to use a processor’s API to build a custom checkout which will significantly increase your monthly and overhead costs. These types of services are never free. In fact, they can account for massive overhead fees that cripple your bottom line and prove unworthy of the cost. Additionally, credit processing solutions almost always favor the consumer in any situation where a dispute of charges is initiated by the customer, making it very easy for a client to defraud the merchant. It's nearly impossible to dispute a personal check that has been signed by the client, and it is literally impossible to dispute a cash sale. My advice is to abandon the idea of credit card processing until your business has grown to a massive scale and only accept cash and personal checks. There are millions of successful business around the world that still adhere to this model, and if your services are of a high quality, customers won't mind finding an ATM or pulling out the check book when the time comes.

When accepting cash or personal checks, it is always a good idea to ask for payment up front at the time of booking. If you conduct consultations prior to accepting new clients (which you should) ask for the payment at that time. Some customers may challenge this practice and question why they should pay for services that have not yet been rendered, but this is no different than booking a hotel or airline reservation. Services may not have been rendered yet, but the time slots are being reserved, thereby eliminating the opportunity for another client to book that slot. It is completely within your rights to receive compensation for the promise of future service.

For existing clients and regulars, this practice can be relaxed, after all nobody wants to hand deliver a check or cash to a service provider prior for each and every servicing, and you definitely won't want to travel to pick one up each time. Instead, have customers leave cash or a personal check in the home to be collected on the day of service. However, be cautious with clients who frequently fail to leave a payment as promised. Just as is the case with the communication policy, there will be customers who take advantage of a relaxed provider and the invoices will begin to pile up. You may find that in your effort to be accommodating to your loyal customers you are going broke in unattended overhead and past due invoices. Indeed, it is human nature to take as much or as little as others will give. In these instances it is never a bad idea to develop a prepayment plan that guides the client into paying for several weeks or months worth of services in advance. Think of it as a retainer.

Finally, don't be afraid to cut loose a customer who frequently disregards their obligation to pay for services. It is a direct insult to your professionalism and an egregious disregard for courtesy to assume that your business is so dependent on their patronage that you will endure any amount of abuse in order to not lose it. It goes back to the earlier point; that some customers will always view pet professionals as menial laborers unworthy of professional treatment. Remember, you call the shots in your business. That's the benefit of not working to line somebody else's pockets. Line your own pockets and do it on your own payment schedule.

Get Insured and File Articles of Organization

Nothing screams "side job" or "hobby" like an unlicensed, uninsured and unbonded service professional. While our industry has no licensing requirements as of yet, there are actions you can take to become bonded and insured, and these measures will go a long way toward presenting yourself as an industry professional. In addition to demonstrating that you have taken the necessary steps, and paid the required fees to operate your business in a professional manner, becoming bonded and insured will give potential customers peace of mind in knowing that they are covered for any losses they incur during the rendering of services. Pet sitter's insurance can be obtained through the Pet Sitter's Associates website and costs around $190.00 per year to carry the base-level plan.

It is also an excellent idea to form a limited liability company, or LLC. The exact rules for forming an LLC vary by state, but all new LLCs must file what's called articles of organization with their secretary of state’s office. This is usually just a short form that asks for the names of the LLC and its members as well as their contact information. The filing fee can range from $30 to $200. A few states also have additional registration requirements. You can find the rules and fees involved at your secretary of state’s Web site.

While acquiring insurance and officially forming an LLC are both tremendously beneficial for all the protections they provide small business owners as well as their customers, the single most significant benefit of these actions are that they force consumers to draw a clear distinction between pet professionals and hobby caregivers.

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the way consumers view our industry will be defined by how we conduct our business and how we view ourselves. If you present your business like "Little Jimmy down the block" who walks dogs after school for $5 bucks, clients will treat you as such. Sometimes they will treat you like that anyway, but you don't have to let them. At the end of the day we are business owners, fully bonded and insured professionals who have forged a path in the world of small business. We are doing what we love to do on our own terms. Our office is the dog park or the bike path, and we have no boss. I always chuckle a little bit when I'm out and about during rush hour, travelling to one of my many canine companions who is happier to see me arrive than any coworker or human client I have ever known. There is no sense of urgency, no impending doom. I'm surrounded by the rat race, by people rushing to get to their cubicle... cutting off other drivers and road raging because they woke up ten minutes late and now have to scarf down their bagel in the car while also putting on their makeup. I can't imagine going back to that life. When I consider that I also earn more than most of these daily grinders and enjoy more free time to boot, well it's a mystery why more people don't do what I do for a living. It's an even bigger mystery how they can view my lifestyle with anything less than envy.



Friday, May 25, 2018

Professional Pet Sitters and Dog Walkers vs Tech Companies

Most pet professionals who follow the industry closely have probably already heard the news that Rover.com has acquired the DogVacay Brand as they eye an initial public offering. Indeed, for pet professionals who offer competing services, this is another blow to profits and a potential a cause for concern. It has always been difficult competing with "Jimmy down the block" and his $5 per hour service charge, now there appears to be an industry mega giant backing little Jimmy in his entrepreneurial pursuits between the end of school bell and 9pm bedtime curfew. There are a few things pet pros would be well advised to consider however.

For starters, competing with independent sitters and walkers who use these Uber-like call on services isn't necessary. Don't do it. They don't do what you do. They don't typically provide the same menu of services, and they certainly don't provide these services on the same scale or with the same scope. If they did, they wouldn't need a tech company to provide their listing. Savvy pet owners who are looking for a more detailed level of care for their furry kids prefer to know that a stand-alone provider, with years of experience and enough revenue generation to support a private website and an exhaustive inventory of supplies, is dedicated to the care of their four legged family member. Simply stated, comparing a Rover.com or DogVacay provider to an independently bonded and insured pet professional is like comparing apples to oranges.

Secondly, you don't want a customer who would even consider using what is essentially a directory listing service for the care of their pet. In my experience, the type of customers who would even entertain turning over their pet's care to an untrained, uninsured non-professional for $10 bucks (or less) are also the type of customers who expect their plants to be watered, windows cleaned, dishes washed, tires rotated and carpet vacuumed while you're there. In short, they view pet sitting and dog walking as a low-level side hobby performed by teenagers and destitutes. For pet professionals who have crafted a career in this industry, these are not welcome customers. For those of us who have toiled long and hard to build a successful business, acquired the proper credentials, secured the fundamental insurance and built a healthy roster of clients, these types of customers amount to high maintenance and low profit. Avoid them like the plague.

So what can you do to combat this growing industry trend and the emerging market? Inform customers and potential customers of the inherent risks of using companies fueled by the gig economy. Point out that entities such as Uber and Airbnb are built upon a contract of mutual trust among strangers. This system may work for rideshares and housing rentals, but it has severe faults when it comes to turning over the care of a loved family member. A cursory news search for examples of these faults quickly uncovers a number of horror stories, such as the tale of what happened when a sitter found on Rover.com lost an Oakland woman's dog. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of these types of horror stories on the web and potential customers should be aware of the risks involved with using these companies. It's your job as a pet professional and as the primary marketing force behind your small business to make them aware, so that they may then make informed decisions about their pet's care.

Every pet professional who manages an independent website and enjoys a social networking presence should detail the many reasons why a bonded and insured pet professional is not just the best option, but the only option on their pages. Make it the first thing potential customers see when they view your online presence. Offering this information in the form of material literature as a handout or pamphlet is also highly recommended.

In summary, Rover, DogVacay and Wag are not pet sitting and dog walking companies, they are self proclaimed tech companies. I don’t consider these tech companies to be competition and neither should you, so don't try to compete with them. Instead, come to terms with the fact that there will always be highly misinformed pet owners the world over who would rather handle the care of their pets in the cheapest and most time efficient manner possible. There will always be a "Little Jimmy down the block" willing to offer these services at a rate commensurate with their experience and abilities, and there will always be customers willing to choose them. The minute you accept that fact, the sooner you can turn your focus toward the task of identifying the right kinds of customers who are seeking an experience that can only be offered by a bonded, insured and experienced pet professional who has built their business the right way.