The Boundaries of Customer Service

We’re guessing since hanging up your dog pro shingle you’ve had occasion to question the “customer is always right” adage. Yet we’ve worked with enough dog pros to know that too many take good customer service a little too far—often bending over backwards for clients to the breaking point. Customer service boundaries

We understand the desire to grow your business. Making compromises on your services and policies—or letting clients dictate them—may seem like a good way to get work and cultivate client loyalty, but making too many concessions means putting the leash in your clients’ hands, and Muffy’s rhinestone collar around your own neck.

Three common ways dog pros give too much:

Do you let your clients dictate your hours? Doing so likely means scheduling inefficiencies that make your work more difficult and time consuming than need be.

Dog trainers’ work days can easily stretch on too long when planning appointments around every client’s ideal schedule. The wasted time between car treks all over town could be better spent marketing your business, finding new clients, or spending quality time with loved ones.

Without set pick-up and drop-off times, daycare and boarding facilities face constant distractions, giving dogs plenty to bark about and staff little time to get their work done. And walkers and sitters find that every client, given the chance, chooses a noon pick-up time. So unless you’ve found a way to be multiple places at once, asking clients when they’d like their dog visited quickly creates a scheduling dilemma.

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day tasks of working in your business. Controlling your business’ scheduling through carefully thought-through policies protects the time you need to work on the business, too—the only way to get ahead.

Letting clients cancel at will is not customer service; it’s a lack of good business policy. And if you can’t stay in business because you’re losing tens of thousands of dollars a year to cancellations (do the math—the numbers will likely shock you), your good customer service won’t mean anything, certainly not to the dogs you’ve worked so hard to help.

Most dog pros use some version of asking for a certain number of hours’ or days’ notice. But for dog pros, time equals money, and most dog services aren’t set up to easily fill vacancies. Those last-minute cancellations can be nearly impossible to fill. If you offer one-off or occasional services, such as training, sitting, or boarding, be sure to choose an amount of time for your policy that actually allows you to fill the slot.

If you offer ongoing services such as walking or daycare, you’re better off not allowing cancellations at all. Your clients should be paying for one of a finite number of spaces in your daycare or your walking schedule, not for services rendered. Just as in child daycare or a private school, they are paying for their dog’s spot. Instead of a cancellation policy, you might offer a vacation policy—each client gets a certain number of “excused absences” per year, after which they pay for their dog’s space whether they use it or not. We particularly recommend this approach for small businesses offering clients the advantage of personalized attention, small groups, and high staff-to-dog ratios.

Letting clients dictate your services—how many training sessions they need, or that they’ll use your daycare on a drop-in basis—is also not customer service. It’s a lack of service definition, a lack of confidence in deciding what’s best for dogs and insisting on it.

For example, offering various sized training packages to choose from hands clients a decision they are not qualified to make. It’s up to you to set yourself, your clients, and their dogs up for success by selling them the amount of training that will give them the best chance of meeting their goals.

Allowing dogs to use daycare and walking services on a drop-in basis without set weekly minimums gives clients great scheduling flexibility, but also makes life for dogs and staff much harder. Dogs who use these services infrequently tend to bring chaotic pent-up energy with them, riling up other dogs, causing stress for calmer dogs and extra work for attendants and walkers. And as you get busy, clients will eventually be turned away on busy days—there’s no client convenience there. In the meantime, you may go out of business as you struggle to predict your income and accurately staff your daycare.

Though it reduces some flexibility, you, your clients, and the dogs are all better served by strong policies designed to keep you in business for the long haul.

Cultivating Respect
Respect is contagious. Cultivate respect for your own business, your time, and your policies, and clients will respond favorably. During initial meetings, communicate your scheduling and cancellation policies clearly, and without apology. This shows clients that you respect yourself enough to charge for the time they are missing and that your time is valuable. Use psychology to your advantage; for example, offering set appointment hours implies to the client that you are busy, and that others value your time and expertise.

For some of us, of course, this is easier said than done. You might have an easier time using a firm tone with a dog than with her owner. If self-assurance isn’t your forte, we suggest a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude. Imagine that confident peer you’ve always respected, and model yourself accordingly. A few repetitions later, you might be surprised at the results.

When faced with difficult clients who continually question your policies or demand special treatment, we suggest an honest appraisal of their worth to your business. Bending over backwards to please them means giving abrasive clients an unfair advantage. And dealing with challenging clients often effects how we feel about our work. Time spent catering to the whims of difficult clients might be better spent looking for clients who respect you and appreciate the service you provide.

What is customer service?
We don’t want to be misunderstood. Good customer service matters—a lot. But rather than handing over the keys or bending until you break, simply take good care of people. Return phone calls and emails in a timely manner. Greet your clients with genuine warmth and enthusiasm. Make an effort to remember their names and ask them questions about their lives. In short, strive to build relationships with your clients.

Be reliable. Do what you say you’ll do, and do it on time. Do what you do better than anyone else; exceed your clients’ expectations. In short, work hard to improve your clients’ lives with their dogs, and each dog’s welfare – the reason you hung up your shingle in the first place.