Cases that don’t solve and clients that fade away before their behavior modification plan is completed are common complaints among dog trainers. So is not knowing from week to week what your schedule will look like. A package format—in which clients agree to and pay for a number of sessions up front—can revitalize your private training business, but its success depends on a certain amount of forethought.
Packages can be a three-way win—for you, the client, and the dog. For you, it means more time doing your actual business and less time spent marketing. So if you don’t enjoy being a salesperson and dislike having to sell the next session each time you meet with a client, packaging is a terrific way to lump all the selling into a one-time or, at the very least, infrequent event. You only have to present the material and convince the potential client once, and then you can get to work. Packaging also means guaranteed income instead of possible income.
The benefit for the client is that she is more likely to get the help she needs. So many of life’s interventions can get in the way of dog training—money concerns, suddenly getting too busy at work, or getting just enough relief from a problem to decide not to continue (which any trainer will tell you is a situation likely to unravel in the long term). Your client is much more likely to meet her goals if she has committed herself to a certain number of training sessions and has paid for them in advance.
Which of course in turns provides you with a better chance of helping the dog. If you see the client (or the dog) enough times to ‘fix’ the problem, likelihood is that the dog’s quality of life is going to improve significantly. The reality is that a well-behaved dog is more popular in its home, and is generally safer in its dealings with the world and from threats of re-homing and euthanasia. Few things are harder for a trainer than knowing you could have helped a client meet her goals but for whatever reason you didn’t get the chance to do so, and now falling short of those goals could mean the dog will suffer.
Some dog pros eschew packages because the process of having to make a large sale at the outset of a client relationship is downright torturous to them. And sure, some clients outright refuse to commit a chunk of funds and time right away. Ultimately it is up to you. Can you overcome any squeamishness about salesmanship for the higher good of your business? Or is it just too far outside your comfort zone? If so, it is certainly possible to run a successful dog pro business without ever offering a package. (And I’ve heard a few dog pros say they prefer the positive reinforcement of being paid at each session.) But if you believe, as I do, that packages are the way to go, you have to decide whether or not to take clients who don’t want them. Some dog pros opt to do both, while others choose to work only with clients willing and able to make the greater commitment.
With obedience packages, program length is less of a concern and a client can happily choose whatever option she can afford. After all, it is a fairly simple matter of how many obedience cues will be learned and some guardians attain the skills quicker than others.
But where addressing a serious behavior issue such as resource guarding or stranger fear is concerned, it rarely makes sense to allow the client to choose the number of sessions herself. You, as the expert, know what needs to be done and can determine the amount of time needed. If you allow a client to choose a 3-session package for something you know will take at least 6, you are setting everyone up for failure—yourself, the client, and the dog. Needless to say this doesn’t make for good business, as your chances of building a strong referral base dwindle if you are not finishing cases.
So if behavior issues form part of your service menu, it is worth spending some time developing language that explains your package policy. Something along the lines of:
“I would be very happy to help you with Roxie’s fear of people. We should be able to make significant improvements, but stranger fear is a complex behavioral issue that takes time to address. To help you meet your goals, we will need (insert number here) sessions. Now, I require my clients to commit to the whole behavior modification program because I see too many people get partway to a result and then get pulled away by other commitments. I want to see you meet your goals for Roxie, and I know this is the time it will take. I recognize that this is a large commitment, and so will put a package together for you with a discount off my regular hourly fee. If you’d like to get started I have an opening next week…”
The idea here is that you are granting a discount (it doesn’t have to be large—even $5 off each hour is helpful and can make a client feel like he is making a saving) to offset the commitment of the package, but the clear implication is that without a package there’ll be no training. And the language centers on the client’s needs and your desire and ability to help. Some clients will choose not to pay. That is okay. As you know if you’re already in this business, you don’t get everyone. But you are more likely to make money and enjoy your business if you work with people who are truly committed. The client is more likely to reach her goals, which means you feel good and so does the client, and she might even want to tell her friends about you. It is a rare client who offers a referral to a service from which she didn’t see a result.
As for selling a package, I recommend an initial consult with a new client first. Let them meet you and gain confidence and trust in your abilities before you suggest the financial and durative commitment of a package. With a complete interview and a chance to meet the dog and the guardian you’ll also have a better idea of what package is most appropriate.
As mentioned above, dog trainers do well to treat obedience and behavior issues separately. For obedience, you might offer a number of package sizes, and I recommend spending some time finding inviting or fun names, too; it helps with the marketing later on. You might also describe the rough number of things that can be accomplished in each. For some of my clients we have designed a chart where people can choose a certain number of behaviors from one or another box depending on the size of the package.
For behavior problems, you obviously pinpoint a number of sessions based on what you learn in the initial client interview. What are the issues, how much time does the client have to work with the dog and how skilled does he or she seem, does the dog appear to be a fast learner or not? Choose a number you think will give you sufficient time to help the client reach his goal without jeopardizing safety and allowing for one or two training glitches along the way. (Don’t be afraid to be honest, though; make sure you mention that there are no guarantees and that the guardian’s success or lack thereof depends largely on his own efforts.) To keep things simple you might have two package prices in mind, both based on an hourly fee. For example, let’s say your regular hourly fee is $100. Perhaps you charge $95 an hour for behavior packages of 5 sessions and under and $90 an hour for packages of 6 or more sessions. So an 8-session package would be 8 x $90=720 (without a package discount, it would be $800). If you worry about doing math on the spot, have a little chart in your briefcase or pack that you can refer to. I don’t recommend posting these prices —simply give each client the price and discount as you explain your services.
You can advertise the availability of discount packages on your website and other materials with a general statement if you’d like, but package session and price details are best avoided. This is partly because you don’t want clients to have the impression that package size is up to them. And partly because many people who may not have called due to pricing might, once they talk with you, be happy to pay your fees. (There is a counter argument to this advice, however. If you are profoundly uncomfortable discussing money with potential clients, placing all prices on your site means that most owners who call have already decided that your fees are acceptable to them, reducing that aspect of your sales stress.)
Another terrific way to sell your services is to design specialized packages, like a New Dog package. You might, say, include time for all the things you think need to be covered with the owner of a new dog, including essential knowledge (how dogs think and learn, for example), preventative measures (such as chew training and separation anxiety), immediate needs (including house training if needed), and obedience behaviors. Figure out the number of sessions needed and price it based on a small discount from your regular hourly fee.
If you specialize in something, think about how you might dress that specialization up in a package, and be creative—what can you offer that is different from other trainers in your area? If you specialize in puppies and there are a myriad of other 6-week puppy classes around, perhaps your package could include two home visits, a four week class, and two months of socials.
The possibilities are endless once you step outside the box and begin exploring ideas.