A store-owner’s vacation is ruined when a new hire makes a questionable product recommendation for a nervous dog.

Joan dug her feet into the sand and took in a deep breath of sea air. She checked her phone, and saw a message from her new employee Sarah. “Everything is going well, relax and enjoy your weekend off!” it read. She looked back up and smiled at her two Labradors romping on the beach. She finally started to feel relaxed after three days away from her pet store.

Since Ellen, her long-time employee, had moved out of state earlier that year, Joan had worked double shifts. And although she loved helping her customers, the long hours had taken their toll and she had almost no time to look for new staff to help her out. When Sarah, a friend’s daughter, asked for a job, Joan didn’t hesitate to hire her for the weekends. Even though Sarah had very little experience with pets, Joan felt confident that the weeks of training had prepared Sarah to look after the store while she finally took a long weekend off.

ABOUT REAL DEAL
Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual pet businesses and people.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
LINDA LIEBRAND is a former marketing manager for a successful doggie spa and boutique who is now helping others promote their local pet businesses. She writes about pet biz marketing at mybrandbuddy.com and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

She called for the dogs and started walking along the beach and taking in the views, when she felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. “Hey, it’s me”, her friend Becky said. “I just drove past the store this morning and it seemed like Sarah was arguing with someone. Have you heard from her?”

Joan’s heart sank. Sarah was always so good with people, what on earth could have happened? She immediately tried calling Sarah at the store but the phone kept going through to voicemail. Then an email notification popped up on her phone screen, and with trembling fingers she clicked to open an email with the angry subject line — “I want compensation”.

The email was from Carrie, a long-time customer who recently adopted a shy Yorkie called George. As she skimmed through the email the words on the screen blurred, but she quickly realized that Carrie had asked Sarah for advice on how to deal with George’s barking. Sarah had recommended a top of the range remote-control citronella spray collar, which was part of their barking solutions display at the store.

Joan cringed, and saw little George in her mind’s eye. He was a rescue dog, cute as a button, but although Carrie had done a great job with him already, he was still worried about new people and barked at all strangers who came near him. All in all, a very bad candidate for a corrective spray collar. And sure enough, the rest of Carrie’s email went on to explain how George was now barking more than ever and had become terrified of any sudden noises.

Carrie said the spray collar had ruined weeks of training overnight, and she had made an appointment to see a dog behaviourist later that week. She had already been told that George was likely to need weeks, if not months, of training to correct his new noise phobia and barking and Carrie wanted $1,000 to cover the costs, or she would be sure to leave a review online warning other customers of Joan’s store.

Joan put her phone down and felt distraught, not just about the money, but also because of the little dog’s distress. How had this happened? She had been so sure that her training with Sarah had touched on all possible scenarios to cover the store, and still it was clear that she was in a tricky situation.

The Big Questions
  • Was Sarah ready to run the store alone, or could Joan have avoided the bark collar situation with more training?
  • Should Joan stop selling corrective collars and similar training tools to stay on the safe side?
  • How should Joan respond to Carrie’s request for compensation? Is she really responsible for George’s ruined training, and should she pay up to avoid a nasty Yelp review?

  

Real Deal Responses

Craig W.
Philipsburg, PA

1.) No, Sarah wasn’t ready to run the store for a weekend all by herself after “weeks of training.” I will let new employees with a few weeks under their belt alone for a few hours, but never a whole weekend. You can never train enough to cover every possible contingency, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable going out of town for the weekend until a new employee has at least nine months to a year of handling long periods of time alone.

2.) I would apologize to the customer for her feeling like she got bad advice, but I wouldn’t admit any wrongdoing by my employee. That would create a slippery slope. As such, I also wouldn’t pay for the dog’s training. Taking on rescues can be a long and expensive process. Anyone not willing to deal with those issues when they arise shouldn’t take rescues. Yelp reviews aren’t the end of the world. She can explain her side of the story in response to the review.

3.) I would still sell corrective collars. Corrective collars can be a helpful training tool, and in many instances, are a nuisance dog’s last chance at staying in a home and out of a shelter.

Julianne W.
San Francisco, CA

This is all too familiar and the nature of owning a pet boutique. My first response would be to contact the customer directly to acknowledge and find a solution. Often simply listening to a customer’s frustration will help a situation and allow both parties to find a mutually satisfying solution. From my experience, the new rescue dog will require some training from a professional dog trainer, preferably one that specializes in rescues. Regardless of the new employee trying to make a suggestion, effective or not, the best solution is hiring a professional dog trainer. Having the business owner pay for the services is not the solution. Seeking professional help is the solution and not the pet store’s responsibility. 

Gaynor Jackson
London, UK

1. If Joan felt Sarah was ready to run the store and had adequate training, then she made the right decision. You can only hold a staff member’s hand for so long — then you have to let them be free to make mistakes (everyone makes mistakes). Sarah will now learn from this mistake and Joan can use this scenario for further customer service training.

2. I don’t think Joan should just pay compensation, but she can use the situation to show the store really cares about the welfare of the pup rather than bad reviews. She must know some trainers, and she could offer to pay for a session (or however many she can afford) with one of them to help George get his confidence back. She could also send Carrie a voucher for the shop to encourage her to return and give Sarah the opportunity to rescue this relationship.

3. If Joan believes the product is good and works for some dogs, she should continue selling it. This may be a good time to review all her products and stop selling anything she feels may be detrimental to animal welfare.

Suzanne
Canada

I don’t believe Sarah was ready to run the store alone after a few weeks of training. There is too much to learn. If I had to leave a new employee like that alone, it would be with instructions that I would rather they lose a sale then sell something they weren’t equipped to deal with, and to offer the client a personal call back from me on my return to address any questions and to help them decide if it was the appropriate product for them.

As Carrie is a long-term client, I would meet her at a neutral environment to discuss her request. There are multiple factors here — yes, Sarah made a recommendation and as her employer that is now my responsibility. However, George’s issues — while exacerbated by the collar purchase (and that makes me so sad) — existed before the collar purchase, otherwise Carrie wouldn’t have been in the store to purchase the collar in the first place. I think we could come to an acceptable arrangement where I helped pay for some of George’s training but not all. I would also discuss with Carrie that perhaps the better source of equipment recommendation should come from her veterinarian, behaviourist, or trainer who is trained to make those recommendations.

No, I don’t think Joan should stop selling corrective collars, but I
believe Joan needs to establish store protocols for their sale. An example would be a signed consent form from all purchasers saying they understand what they are purchasing and that no training advice is being offered and that we recommend discussion with a veterinarian, behaviourist etc before using the product to ensure it is the correct product for your pet. With that, she is covering her store from liability, but also as the customer is signing it, you know that those very important topics have come up.

Sarah F.
London, uk

1. Joan should accept full responsibility for Sarah being ready to work in the shop and should have made it clear that training devices should be used in conjunction with a behaviorist. One weekend of training is not enough to learn to sell training solutions, so Sarah was ready to cover the shop, but not to give advice and should have been told to recommend that customers come back on Monday to speak to Joan.

2. I think it would be a goodwill gesture for Joan to pay for the first few sessions of training, but not all. As even the use of a citronella collar should be conditioned to an animal to avoid any negative associations. Joan should be aware of this. However, the dog did have a previous behavior problem and the owner should understand that people in pet stores are not necessarily behaviorists and should research the pros and cons of using training devices before she used them herself.

3. I would personally take the collars off my shelf. At the very least, I would make a big sign for the shop explaining that training devices should only be used in conjunction with an animal behaviorist.

Anonymous
San Francisco, CA

It is highly unlikely that someone would be prepared to run a store on their own after “weeks” of training. I would think it would take six months minimum. If you leave your store in someone’s hands, it is essential that they know their limitations and do not make recommendations when they don’t feel they possess the proper knowledge. In this situation, recommending the citronella collar should have come with the caveat that the customer speak with their dog trainer before making the purchase.

I would not offer to pay for training classes, as I do not think it is a reasonable expectation that a pet-store employee would possess the knowledge of how to deal with a dog with such severe behavior issues. This is best handled by a professional trainer. I would offer a sincere apology that things didn’t work out with the product, refund the money, and give the customer a gift certificate of $100-$250 dependent on how good a customer she is.

I would not stop selling citronella collars. They have proven to be a very effective product for people who would have otherwise lost their dogs due to incessant barking and complaints from neighbors. To be honest, I’ve been selling them for many, many years and have never had a circumstance close to what is described in the story. I have heard some horror stories around the shock collars and these too should only be purchased after consulting a dog trainer if the problem is so severe.

Robyn B.
UK

I would not have left the young girl alone to run the store. She probably thought she was doing the right thing but with training products you do need a training background — so, although in her mind, this collar should have worked, those with behavioral knowledge know it’s never that straightforward. What we used to do was to refund the customers, then pay any bills or contribute to them as a goodwill gesture. Turn a negative into a positive and keep the customer and pet happy. There’s no need to stop selling these training aids, but ensure only trained staff sell them and maybe put up a poster nearby saying that professional behavioral advice should be sought before using such products.