Most dog service businesses are one-person affairs. If you run one, you know what it’s like to juggle a multitude of tasks and wear too many hats at once: Trainer/walker/sitter/daycare or boarding operator, administrative assistant, marketing manager, bookkeeper, accountant, customer service rep, even janitor.
We find in our business consulting work and when on the road speaking at conferences and seminars that many dog pros are exhausted by the pressure of keeping up—or the stress of not being able to. When we suggest hiring some help, the reaction is often shock. “Oh, I couldn’t do that. I can’t afford it.” The question is, “Can you afford not to?”
You can afford it. Really.
You may not be in a position to bring on a full-time salaried employee, but that’s not your only option. Start small if you must. Even hiring someone for five hours a week can take a good deal of pressure off. It’s not just the five hours of work another person can get done for you—it’s also the peace of mind of having those particular tasks ticked off your list.
And don’t forget the five hours you suddenly have that didn’t exist before. Five hours a week to build your business and make more money. Say you hire an admin assistant to help five or ten hours a week with answering emails and returning phone calls. Right away you’re improving business by increasing your response time to potential clients. Or maybe you’d like assistance with your bookkeeping or other paperwork, perhaps some cleaning around your facility if you have one. Now you have five or ten hours to work on marketing or to add client screening appointment times or an extra dog walk or pet sit. Already the money you pay your assistant is paying dividends. And if you’re really over-taxed, you might grab some of that extra time for yourself, too.
What would you like help with?
Before you hire, decide what kind of assistance would be most helpful. Does the admin side of your business bog you down? Then the above example of hiring admin help would allow you more time to market or add sitting appointments. But sometimes it’s the direct service duties, like running the daycare floor or walking the boarding dogs, that keep you from other pressing tasks. If you feel you don’t have time to run the business side of your operation it might be more helpful to hire someone to care for the dogs. Hiring a daycare floor attendant, for example, allows you to spend some time in the office returning phone calls, handling paperwork, and taking care of marketing—which helps your business to grow.
Which kind of position to hire for is a personal decision, and I advise making it that way—what do you personally want to do less of? What would you like more time for? One of the reasons you went into business for yourself was to enjoy life more, to be your own boss, to be in charge of your day and how you spend your time. So hire accordingly to release yourself from tasks that make you dread your day, weigh you down, or cause you stress.
What to look for.
Once you’ve decided what you want help with, make a list of the specific tasks you want that person to accomplish for you. Then write down the skills and qualities they need to tackle these successfully. This second list is what you’re looking for in your new hire. Keep in mind when considering candidates that some skills are easier to acquire than others. For example, if the person you bring on will be interacting with existing and potential clients, prioritize customer service and language skills over dog knowledge. It’s much easier to train someone to interact with dogs than retrain how they behave with humans.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a strong personality match. You’ll have to be around this person on a regular basis. And if you have employees, they will, too. In addition to whatever skills and qualities you seek, look for a team player. Nothing sours a workplace faster than someone who is negative or unable to get along with others.
Who to hire, and where to find them.
Start by looking around you. Is there someone you know who might fit the bill? Consider acquaintances, including your clients. I’ve often seen particularly strong training class students become excellent training assistants, for example. Or maybe there’s a client you find intelligent and articulate who’s looking for some extra work. And if not, maybe they know someone who is. You won’t know if you don’t ask.
If putting the word out informally within your personal network fails, broaden your search. Put together a job announcement and post it to the places that make the most sense in your area. Online avenues like craigslist.org can be a good bet. If you live in a college town, post to the job boards there to find a responsible upper graduate or grad student. This is also a good time to use government unemployment listing resources, as so many qualified and talented people are looking for work.
Writing an effective job description.
The type of candidates you see will depend in part on your job posting. If you want serious, qualified, committed folks to apply but are only hearing from sixteen-year-olds who mumble and avoid eye contact, it’s time to rework your post. Look at job postings for serious positions and model yours on them.
Your description should include a bulleted list of the responsibilities involved, and another of the skills and qualities you are looking for in a candidate. Make some reference to higher education as well. Depending on your area you may either require a college degree or mention a preference for one. By so doing you signal that you are looking for a mature, accomplished adult. Finally, require that all interested parties apply with a cover letter and resume. Requiring a formal application helps to weed out less serious and skilled applicants, and saves you time lost to drop-ins and phone calls.
Separating the wheat from the chaff.
Interviewing potential hires is a much more complicated process than it seems. It’s all too easy to get through a lengthy interview process and learn nothing of real value to help with our decision making. For one thing, we’re very good at telegraphing to others what we want to hear. And for another, we rarely ask the kinds of questions or put people in the kinds of situations that would give us any insight into how they might be on the job.
Here are some tips for effective interviewing:
Refer back to the lists you made. You decided what you want your new employee to be able to do, and what skills they need. The interview process should be built around these lists or it won’t serve you as it should.
Don’t tell candidates what you’re looking for. If you tell me you’re looking for a team player who takes initiative, I’m going to tell you (if I’ve any smarts at all) that I’m that person. Instead, ask questions and listen to my answers, and to the questions I ask in return.
Ask application-based questions. Want to know if I’m a team player? Asking me outright will telegraph to me what you’re hoping to hear. Instead, present me with a scenario and ask me what I’d do. For example, “Let’s say you notice something that isn’t being done as well as you think it could be. What would you do?” Or if you want to know if my default response to dogs is positive or negative you might ask me, “How would you handle a dog who is barking excessively?”
Put candidates in real-life situations. If you want to see how I’d handle a difficult client and/or test my writing skills, give me a sample client email and ask me to write a response. If you want to gauge my comfort around dogs, put me on the daycare floor. Can I read body language? Ask me to watch two rambunctious players and tell you when I’d step in to ask them to take a short break. And getting back to my cooperation skills, you might also ask me to engage in a task with you or another employee to see how I handle a group project.
Keeping the good ones.
Once you have a hire you’re happy with, do everything you can to keep them happy, too. It’s worth the effort not to have to repeat the hiring process again. Engage in effective staff training and a productive evaluation process (See Staff Training That Works and Staff Reviews That Work). Take the time, regularly, to let your hire know what you appreciate about her and her work. A little praise goes a long way and, just like we do with dogs, we humans sometimes forget to let each other know when we’ve done a good job.
Be flexible where you can be about schedules, particularly if you’re unable to offer a full-time position just yet. Keep the job interesting by adding new responsibilities or projects, particularly for employees who enjoy being creative, learning new things, or being relied on. And openly welcoming suggestions and ideas from your staff keeps everyone feeling engaged and a valued part of a team.
Give yourself a break—and watch your business grow.
If you find your time so tightly squeezed that you have no way to increase your revenue and/or your downtime, it really is time to get help. You can’t market your business to make it grow if you don’t have time to put into it. You can’t serve more clients if there’s no room in your schedule or not enough people to care for the dogs. You can’t step back from the brink of burnout if you don’t get your schedule under control.
Hiring someone to take some tasks off your plate can make the difference between stagnation and growth, between a frantic existence and a balanced one. Start slow if you’re worried or short on funds. But do start. You’ll be amazed at how quick and strong an impact even a little help can have.