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How to Handle the Slow Times, an Aging Employee and the Turmoil of the Year Ahead

Learn to handle those days when business is off.

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Overall, our sales are up, but there are stretches of slow days. I’d love to learn more about cash flow in this situation. Is there a way to even it out?

Angela Pantalone of Wag Central in Stratford, CT, noticed a similar trend in her boarding, daycare and grooming business. She looked for a pattern and then offered discounted pricing on days that are historically slower, which drew in more customers. A similar strategy could apply to a retail setting. Determine your slower times by reviewing stats from your POS system and offer discounts (Treat Bar Tuesdays, anyone?) announced through social media or email blasts to customers to encourage them to visit during the lulls.

One of our employees is starting to show signs of his age. He’s losing his hearing and seems to be getting more forgetful. He wants to work to age 65 — three more years. What do we do?

This is a tough one. You want to be loyal, and don’t want to be perceived as cold-hearted, but you and your business can’t afford errors or to allow other employees see you tolerate costly mistakes. The best strategy is to stay focused on performance, not the person. Treat your older associates the same as you would your younger ones. “Deal with issues for what they are — not for the reasons behind them,” says Kate Peterson, president of Performance Concepts. For example, if your older associate hears something incorrectly and his actions lead to a customer problem, address the immediate issue — the customer problem — regardless of the underlying cause. A person can easily deny that his hearing or memory is failing, but he cannot deny the obvious outcome. If you decide it’s time to part ways, ensure every detail is handled correctly. “Clearly defined performance standards, daily coaching, and fair rewards and consequences must be applied consistently for all associates. You can’t terminate an employee for failing hearing or memory — but if necessary, you can for continued failure to deliver to the job requirements,” Peterson says.

2019 seems like it’s going to be a volatile year. What should we do to get ready?

Donald Sull, a London Business School professor, recommends “active waiting.” Contemplate alternative techniques, explore likely scenarios and focus on general readiness, he says. This is a time of threat, but also opportunity. “Keep your vision fuzzy and your priorities clear,” Sull says. “Maintain a war chest and battle-ready troops. Know when to wait — and when to strike. When you grab an opportunity or move to crush a threat, amass all your resources behind the effort.” At the same time, continue making routine operational improvements such as cutting costs, strengthening distribution and improving products and services.

My business is 4 years old, and I’ve done my own taxes, but I’d like to find a tax pro. How do I find a good one?

Online directories such as CPAdirectory.com, Accountant-Finder.com and AccountantsWorld.com are a good place to start. The National Association of Tax Professionals offers an online database of tax preparers, and the American Institute of CPAs has one for CPA firms. If you do contemplate hiring a tax preparer you found online, request referrals so you can ask about the quality of the service past clients received. A useful initial indicator is how long it takes them to reply to your first inquiry. And remember: As good as the person may be, never abdicate your responsibility to know what’s going on with your finances.

Is it legal for retailers to say they are selling at wholesale prices?

In short, no — unless they really are. Many states, including Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, California, New York and Michigan, have laws prohibiting the use of the word “wholesale” in retail ads. Some states define the wholesale price as the price the retailer paid for the item from the supplier. Other states, and the federal government, say it must be lower than the average price retailers would pay in the area. But, really, as a small fry in a tough market, why are you trying to compete on price?

Where can I find a good employee evaluation form?

There are scores you can download to use as a model. Some are really detailed and cover every possible aspect of a job, while others are basic. Our advice when it comes to employee evaluations is that you not spend too much time on the whole process. While you may want the paper trail to protect yourself against lawsuits from former employees, there’s a growing view that reviews don’t achieve much. Mary Jenkins, a co-author of Abolishing Performance Appraisals, advocates a system in which employees seek feedback from people they work with, then draw a skills-development plan with their manager — or you.

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Since launching in 2017, PETS+ has won 16 major international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact PETS+'s editors at editor@petsplusmag.com.

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Decision-Making, Pop-Ups and More Answers to Your Questions

How do you decide between 2 job candidates?

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HIRINGI have two good candidates for the position of sales associate, but I can’t decide between them. Can you suggest a tie-breaker?

Toss a coin and let fate be your arbiter. If they’re equally appealing candidates, and you can’t reduce the uncertainty by doing further research, interviews or trial runs, then your decision doesn’t much matter. That likely sounds like rash advice, but this paralysis you’re experiencing has a name: Fredkin’s Paradox. The computer scientist Edward Fredkin summed it up as, “The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them — no matter that, to the same degree, the choice can only matter less.” To be sure, it will probably turn out to have mattered in hindsight, but by then it’ll be too late. Given that you’re unable to know how things will turn out, overthinking this one — or any similar tough choice — is futile.

MARKETINGI’m thinking about doing a pop-up at a seasonal shopping fair about 20 miles away this spring. It’s not cheap, but I figure it’s an easy way to meet new customers, raise brand awareness and maybe make some money. Am I being too optimistic?

Perhaps only about the work involved. That’s the first thing to understand about pop-ups. They seem like an almost spur-of-the-moment thing — throw up a tent or park a container, and have some fun under the spring sun — but they can involve some serious work, both in the preparation and the staffing. There are also lots of extra costs aside from the rent — such as advertising, promotional giveaways and possibly extra employee costs. If the fair is in the common area of a mall, don’t expect the competition to welcome you with open arms. Still, at PETS+, we never like to discourage anyone looking to get out of the store and out of their comfort zone. So, if you do your marketing correctly and you get the product and the demographics right, pop-ups can reap nice rewards. They are also a particularly effective way to test the local market if you’re thinking of expanding or have started as a primarily online business. That was the case for Ben Prakobkit, co-owner of Modern Paws, a pet business in Tampa, FL, who called setting up pop-up events in local markets and at animal-related events their “best marketing strategy,” allowing them to connect with customers face-to-face, he said, adding that he’d used pet-related social media influencers to help spread awareness of the events.

OPERATIONSHow do you share the chores among staff fairly and in a way that is easy to enforce?

Store consultant David Geller feels he knows well the issues you’re facing. “Typically, we as store owners, when something isn’t done, pick our favorite person who is always willing to help to do what others should have done,” he says. “It’s not fair.” To create a system that IS fair, he suggests breaking your staff into groups and rotating the responsibilities. “Put some easy chores with some bad ones like vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom,” he says. The people whose names are under the different groups of chores (see table) do them for only one week, and then they move on to the next group of tasks. This shares the heavy and light chores, and also makes it easy for the store owner to raise the issue when a job needs doing. “After doing this, I no longer need to complain to a person. I complain to a group,” Geller says. “If I go out and see the front window is dirty, I don’t expect everyone to clean it, just Group 2. ‘Hey, who is Group 2 this week? The front window is dirty. Please take care of that now.’”

PROPERTYI’m looking to relocate but am in the midst of a long-term contract that I foolishly signed a few years ago. What are some tips for breaking my lease?

You can lessen or even eliminate the consequences of breaking your lease through aggressive preparation. According to Janet Portman, attorney and author of Negotiate the Best Lease for Your Business from Nolo Press, follow these three steps for a smooth transition:

1) Scrutinize the lease. See if there’s any clause that deals with your right to terminate. Sometimes leases will anticipate this need and provide a mechanism in advance.

2) Understand the consequences. The lease is a contract, so you will be responsible for the balance of the rent for the remainder of your lease agreement, minus the new tenant’s rent payment once the landlord finds someone to lease the space. Most states require that the landlord do this within a reasonable amount of time.

3) Find a new tenant. Ideally, this is someone you find on your own who can come in right away and reduce the time you are responsible for rent. You may be able to sub-let or assign the lease, but in either case you are liable for the rent if the new tenant doesn’t pay. The best option is to simply get the landlord to terminate your lease and start over with your new tenant, if possible.

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How to Lay Off Someone and How to Nab a Shoplifter: Your Questions Answered

You would not want to be winging shoplifting.

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Tell me, how do I lift my store out of the rut of mediocrity?

Joseph Grenny, a social scientist and author of Crucial Accountability, gives four leadership practices that can help:

  1. Show the consequences of mediocrity, to connect people with the impact of bad performance. Keep the issue alive by telling stories that illustrate work well done and the real human — or animal — cost of shoddy work.
  2. Set clear goals and explain why they are important.
  3. Establish peer accountability so that people feel comfortable challenging one another when they see mediocrity. It’s key that your store becomes an environment where everyone feels entitled to challenge anyone if it is in the best interest of the business.
  4. Be quick to defend the high standards. A chronic poor performer is a clear impediment to the goals you’ve set. How you handle this situation will let your team know whether your highest value is keeping the peace or pursuing performance.
I’d like to hire a staff trainer, but I’m worried about the return on investment. How can I be sure it will be worth it?

Our reason for existing at PETS+ is to make pet pros better pet pros, and we believe trainers can help you enormously. To really get your money’s worth you need to focus on two things:

  1. Hard skills — Overinvest in training that helps to increase ability versus motivation. Yes, it’s nice to have your staff leave a training session all fired up, but for lasting results that will give you that return on your investment, focus on small but vital aspects of your staff’s sales skills — it could be when to pause in a presentation, how many features of a product to stress, phone manner tips. Break tasks into discrete actions, practice within a low-risk environment and build in recovery strategies.
  2. Follow-up — Bring in a trainer, but only if you yourself are willing to buy into his lessons and do ongoing training and reviews.
We want to lay off a salesperson, but we’ve never done it before. If we are to give them a month’s pay, does that mean their base pay, or do we factor in their average commission earnings as well?”

Suzanne Devries of Diamond Staffing Solutions says that legally you’re required to give them only the vacation, sick and personal days they have accrued, although she recommends that you base your decision on how valuable an asset this person has been to your organization, and how long they have been with you. “If it’s a long time and they have been loyal, you should definitely consider a certain amount of days per year. Second, make sure you have documentation that states why you are having layoffs.” She also advises you do an exit interview and have the person sign documentation stating that they understand why “they are part of a force reduction.” An important thing to keep in mind is how other staff will view this. They will want to know that they will be treated fairly even when times are tough.

How do you suggest handling someone who is shoplifting in my store?

This is definitely an area where you do not want to be winging it, says Elie Ribacoff, president of Worldwide Security. Your policy on handling a suspected shoplifter should be part of your store manual and developed in consultation with a qualified attorney, or local police to ensure laws are followed and that prosecution is effective. State laws vary, but as a general rule suspicion is never enough — you need to observe the crime take place. As for confronting the person, there are obvious risks in confronting shoplifters. They may be violent, armed or working as part of a gang. And then there are the legal risks of trying to detain someone. As a general rule, it is nearly always better to be a good witness than to botch an arrest, says Ribacoff. Usually, the best approach is to have someone with a cellphone discreetly follow the shoplifter after he or she exits the store, and lead police to them. If possible, let the police search and make any arrests. This will provide better evidence in court, and it won’t be a matter of “his word versus your word,” he says.

I recently took over as a manager of a struggling store. Morale is bad, and moaning seems to be part of the culture. Any ideas on how to turn it around?

This one starts with you. Lead by example. Bring an upbeat attitude to the store every morning and make it clear you expect the same positivity from your charges. In this new era under new management, it’s expected your employees will take responsibility for their own happiness and effectiveness. Sales may be down, and the retail environment is more challenging, but your staff are either part of the solution … or they are part of the problem. For truly disgruntled staff, there’s not much a manager can do except to make it known they are on the wrong bus. A pet business is no place for people who throw their hands up in the air and declare “This place sucks!” at every setback.

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Foster Competition, Give the Right Gifts, Find a Mentor and Other Answers to Burning Questions

Here are the answers to these questions.

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What is proper etiquette for gift-giving in the workplace?

Your three watchwords should be considerate, fair and inclusive. Aim for gifts that can be shared and enjoyed by everyone, such as food. Keep staff dietary restrictions in mind when choosing the edible gifts. If you do decide to give individual gifts to every staff member, steer clear of knick-knacks. Most people have enough clutter in their lives. Keep it clean. Do not consider gag gifts that rely on sexual innuendo or ethnic stereotypes to be funny. Do not give anything that could remotely be considered intimate. And be generous down the chain. Give the lowest rung on your company ladder as nice a gift as the one you give your manager.

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How can I promote competition among staff without it turning my store into the setting for Lord of the Flies?

The key to fostering healthy competition, according to research done by a team at Harvard Business School, lies in how you communicate the competition. When employees feel excited, they’re more likely to come up with creative solutions and new ways to better serve customers. When they feel anxious or worried they might lose their jobs or be publicly humiliated in some way, they’re more likely to cut corners or sabotage one another. Leaders can generate excitement by highlighting the potential positive consequences of competition (such as the recognition and rewards that await outstanding performers), rather than creating anxiety by singling out and highlighting low performers (think of the steak knives scene in Glengarry Glen Ross).

What should you look for in a mentor?

The most important thing is that you and your mentor click on a personal level. Such a relationship should be undertaken with a long-term view, and you need to want to spend time together. As for more specific things to look for, Daniel Coyle’s excellent book The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, suggests the following:

  • Avoid someone who reminds you of a courteous waiter; you want someone who is pushing you to take risks.
  • Seek someone who scares you a little.
  • Seek someone who gives short, clear directions.
  • Seek someone who loves teaching fundamentals.
  • Other things being equal, pick the older person.

And when it comes to asking for help, don’t be reticent. Advice-seeking is a powerful way to make a connection with someone. Most people love to help and to know they’ve made a difference in someone else’s life.

Every time we introduce a new project or way of doing things, or even when we propose a solution to a problem, there are members of staff who will find a reason to reject it. How do I deal with such people?

Amy Gallo, author of the “HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict,” suggests these phrases to help you deal with such situations:

  • “You’ve made a good point, but if we x, then y.”
  • “When you keep pointing out the negative, we lose the enthusiasm we need to be really creative and productive. But you’ve shown me x, and I believe that you can y.”
  • “May I explain why I disagree with you?”
  • “Can you rephrase that in a positive way?”
  • “Perhaps so, but here’s the good/alternative I see.”
  • “You’ve identified a valid problem. Let’s brainstorm on how to fix it.”
  • “I’d appreciate it if you could give me some alternatives.”
  • “Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Now let’s …”
  • “Can we get a second opinion on that from …?”
  •  “What would you do instead?”
  • “What do you need to fix it/move forward?”
  • “I can see why you’d think that/feel that way. What’s your next step?”
  • “You sound upset/pessimistic. Is that what you were trying to convey?”
  • “Can we approach this from a different angle?”

Gallo says it’s important to remember that a pessimist usually isn’t out to hurt you on purpose. “They might not even realize how much they come across as a downer,” she says. “Aim to truly listen and empathize rather than passing judgment, and over time, they’ll trust you and learn not to stay in the pits.”

How do I tease out a prospective hire’s innate strengths during the interview process?

Marcus Buckingham, a leader of the strengths-based school of business management, suggests asking this question: What was the best day at work you’ve had in the past three months? “Find out what the person was doing and why he or she enjoyed it so much,” he says, adding that it’s key to keep in mind that a strength is not merely something someone is good at. “It might be something they aren’t good at yet. It might be just a predilection, something they find so intrinsically satisfying that they look forward to doing it again and again and getting better at it over time.” The theory is that the best businesses are those that fully leverage the strengths (unbridled upside) of their employees as opposed to trying to fix up their weaknesses (never more than incremental gains).

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