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The Case of the Dead Fish

A customer wants a guarantee that fish will live, but aquatics manager Steve says it’s just not possible to guarantee life.




IT WAS ABOUT 4:30 in the afternoon when Mrs. Wainwright walked into the store. You could tell she was not happy. Maybe it was the kid in tears walking next to her. Or perhaps the bag with a dead fish inside. Something bad had happened, and Steve the aquatics manager was about to hear about it.


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.


Mike Doan and Sherry Redwine Mike has been in the pet industry for 40-plus years. From wholesale to distribution to retail, he’s seen it evolve. He and wife Sherry opened Odyssey Pets in 2006 and offer day care, grooming, boarding and aquariums in Dallas, TX. Using her B.S. in marketing and passion for retail, Sherry has helped the business win multiple awards, including being named one of PETS+ America’s Coolest in 2017.

Mrs. Wainwright walked up to Steve, handed him the bag and said, “You sold me a sick fish.” He braced for the worst because the bag water had been contaminated by the dead fish. The test would be inaccurate and not indicate cause of death, so hesitantly Steve asked if she had water from the tank. To his surprise, Mrs. Wainwright reached into her purse and retrieved an uncontaminated sample.

At this point, Steve realized he had already assumed too much. His staff had done an excellent job of telling her what to do if a death were to occur. He regrouped and began to investigate “The Case of the Dead Fish.”

Steve tested the water and asked about the temp, type of filter, lighting time frame and so on, determining that everything was well within the proper levels for healthy fish to thrive. Mrs. Wainwright said the store was her go-to place for fish and dog supplies, but she was beginning to doubt her loyalty as this wasn’t the first fish to die since she had set up the tank two months ago.


Steve told Mrs. Wainwright that he would replace the fish at no charge. She replied, “Money isn’t the issue. The problem is, you don’t seem to be able to guarantee that the fish will live.”

Steve led Mrs. Wainwright and her still upset son to the tank area and proceeded to show them fish recommended for their tank at its current state of development. She asked if Steve could “guarantee,” essentially promise, that they would live. He said no, but said that the store would replace any fish that died since the tank was in great shape and healthy fish should thrive in the environment.

Mrs. Wainwright asked, “Are these fish healthy?” Steve said, “Yes.” She countered, “Then why can’t you guarantee that they’ll live?” He said, with exasperation creeping into his voice, “Because I can’t guarantee life.”

With her son in tow, Mrs. Wainwright turned and walked out of the store. Later that day, she began posting negative reviews of the store on every social media platform she could find.

The Big Questions

  • How could Steve have better handled the conversation with Mrs. Wainwright?
  • How can the staff manage expectations of less experienced fish customers?
  • How should Steve respond to the negative reviews?

First, I would never tell someone who claims they were sold a sick fish that if the fish was healthy, it would be thriving … when they were told it was a healthy fish. That can be taken as conflicting information. Two, I always try to explain something in a way easy to undestand. Example: Sometimes people get a clean bill of health one day and then pass away the next. Some things just don’t make sense. Also, I would have asked what kind of fish she had purchased that also had died, and redirected her to a different type. Finally, Steve should have let her know they are there to help her be successful.

Ramie G.

Steve offered to replace the fish, tested the water sample and maintains a healthy stock of fish in the store. He cannot guarantee that any fish will live beyond his care; offering to replace the fish is all he can do. If she is posting online, he needs to respond and explain calmly about how he offered to replace the fish. It’s upsetting for a child when a pet dies, and I have to hope that is where the mother is coming from. Most adults understand that there are no guarantees, so she seems to be emotional in an irrational way, and there are limits to how the store can help her.

Liz H.

Steve cannot guarantee the fish will live once it leaves the shop. There are too many ways it can get stressed (the kid pinches it in the bag on the way home, pours something in the tank, a well-meaning owner makes a mistake, etc.). He could have tactfully gone over some of these scenarios to get the no-guarantee message across. The staff should be trained to prepare inexperienced customers for the worst so they can better appreciate when things go properly. Learning fishkeeping takes time and effort, and some folks struggle longer than others. The social media response needs to be professional and non-confrontational. Sympathize, briefly explain store policies and how they apply to the complaint, suggest how the customer can go forward. Fishkeeping is a hobby that can frustrate even the most experienced at times, but offers a wealth of satisfaction when endeavors succeed.

Richard F.

We have been in business way before the internet. We do anything in our power to satisfy the customer. If we set up the tank and maintain it, the fish have a 30-day warranty. If we do not set up the tank but they buy all of the fish from us, we go to their home at no charge to check the system and make suggestions. We sell no fish before knowing the system. A happy customer will tell one or two people, but an unhappy customer will tell many more.

Jennifer F.

In any situation, you can’t guarantee anything will survive when placed in a different situation than the one it was originally thriving in. As soon as any living being is taken from a healthy environment and then placed in a very stressful situation (ie: transport, different environment, temperature and nutrient values), you have compromised the immune system and added stress. Stress can kill any living species, especially fish and birds. I would have let the customer know this during the purchase. I have worked in aquatics and know that even adding another fish, plant or decor can stress out a fish so much it can die.

Carol W.

Steve’s response was perfect. We cannot guarantee life; no one can. I would ensure that the replacement guarantee has a short phrase stating, “As much as we’d like to guarantee a full life for all of our fish, we cannot. We will replace fish and provide guidance on how to maintain a tank with the elements for fish to live full and healthy lives.” Team members should also be versed in this language. It can be used in any negative review responses.

Lorin G.

The store did everything it could and the right way. Steve needs to reply to the negative review unemotionally and with a detailed outline of what the store does, along with the policy to replace fish that die. He also needs to include that no one can guarantee life, as much as we wish that were possible. Even Home Depot has a plant replacement policy if the one you buy dies within a year. Replacement is top-of-the-industry standard.

Adrian A.

Steve should have shown more empathy. The kid was crying, and Mrs. Wainwright was mad — not about the dead fish as much as she was for her kid. That’s why she wanted a guarantee, so she wouldn’t have to come back with a crying kid. So apologize and feel her pain and the kid’s sorrow. She may have still left, but the bad review likely wouldn’t have happened. His staff needs to start that empathic interaction during the purchase. And overcommunicate. Call the next day to check in. Show they are in it with their customers. As far as the reviews, he needs to be honest and apologize, and mention her kid. Even though she refused, state his policy of replacing dead fish for free. Then offer a discount on a future purchase and exit. This response is more for the reader that may shop at his store.

Stephanie S.

We sell live birds and rabbits. Everyone fills out a contract for live sales. We have had birds die, usually because the customer did not listen to us. It is spelled out that they need to take the animal to a vet within 72 hours; if the vet finds anything wrong, we will refund/replace. If the pet dies after 72 hours, they have the right to pay for a necropsy; if the animal is found to have an ailment, we will replace or refund. We have a checklist of known dangers that every new pet owner gets. For example, birds have sensitive respiratory systems. Do you use candles, chemical cleaners or bug spray? With a fish issue, they could be using air freshener that lands in the tank, which a regular water test would not catch. In some cases, we have gone to a customer’s house when there had been more than one animal death.

Brett F.

Steve did the right thing. He gave a confident, correct answer. He can’t guarantee life. He can, however, warranty it and guarantee replacement. I don’t sugarcoat an answer for my customers, but I will do everything in my power to provide them with replacements at no charge if they are unsatisfied. You can’t please them all, and you can’t guarantee a fish will live or how long. Nor should you try.

Paige E.

Before the situation ever escalated to her leaving, we would have said: “Unfortunately with livestock, there are a lot of variables, so it can be hard to pinpoint an exact reason for losses, but we are always here to support you and set you up for success the best we can. New tanks are tough, but we do have additional products that can help lessen ‘new tank syndrome.’ We understand you are a caring person and don’t want to have fish pass away — regardless of the money aspect. We’d love to try to help restock the tank, but possibly with some hardier fish.” A tank is most likely not full-cycled at two months, and they may be picking sensitive fish.

Michelle M.

Nothing live can be guaranteed once it leaves the store. I once had a customer try to return a bag of dead feeder crickets after driving around with them in a hot car all day in Florida in the summer.

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