The Case of the Stolen Clients

Sadie waved goodbye to the last customer of the day, an older woman with a perfectly groomed Pomeranian. The dog’s coat looked soft and fluffy, and bounced with every step it took. Sadie smiled to herself. Billy, her groomer had done a great good job over the last few months turning the dog’s matted coat into show material. She locked the front door, and started cashing out.

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 linda@ mybrandbuddy.com

“Sadie, do you have a minute?” Sadie looked up and saw Billy wrapped up warm and ready to leave the shop. He’d pushed his hands deep into his pockets and he looked a little sheepish, standing there like a shy kid. “Sure, Billy, what’s up?” She took her glasses off, and put them down. “Thing is”, he started, but then his voice trailed off and he looked away. “I’m leaving,” he mumbled.

“But why? I thought you liked it here? The customers love you,” Sadie replied.

“I know, but,” he hesitated again for a moment, and then sped up, “I’m starting my own business and I’ve rented some space in the new pet shop in the mall. I’m sorry Sadie, but I’ve always wanted my own salon.” Sadie knew the feeling of wanting your own business very well, and although she felt sad to lose Billy, she hugged him and wished him the best of luck on his way out.

A few weeks later Sadie ran into Janet, one of her regulars. Janet’s Yorkie, Ruby, squealed with delight when she saw Sadie, and Sadie couldn’t help but notice the dog’s tidy coat. She must have been groomed recently, she thought. I wonder who might have done it? “Nice to see you Janet. I haven’t seen you and Ruby in the shop for a while.” she said, and decided not to mention Ruby’s haircut.

“Yes it’s been a while. We went to see the lovely boy from your shop at the mall for Ruby’s haircut this time. He was as good with her at yours, so when he emailed me a coupon we decided to try out his new salon.”

“He emailed you?” Sadie asked, feeling the beginnings of suspicion stir in her stomach.

“Yes, he told me he was leaving last time I took Ruby to your shop and when he asked for my email address I didn’t think anything of it. I’m so sorry — I thought you knew?”

Sadie, didn’t reply. She rushed back to her shop and picked up her grooming calendar. After flicking through the pages it was clear that several of her regulars were late with their grooms, and none of them had made new appointments. They hadn’t all gone to Billy, had they?

She picked up her mobile phone and Googled Billy the dog barber. A flashy website popped up and she did a double-take. Was this some sort of a joke? From top to bottom, her entire shop menu with grooming treatments was copied almost word by word! Even the heart-shaped “mutt stamps” she had invented and always sprayed on all her groomed dogs was in there. Sadie couldn’t believe her eyes. Billy had seemed like such a nice kid. Had he just worked with her to steal clients and copy her business? Or did he not realize what he’d done? Sadie’s sighed and put her phone down, what was she going to do?

The Big Questions
  • What can Sadie do right now about the awkward situation with Billy?
  • How can Sadie win back her clients?
  • How can Sally protect her business from this ever happening again?

 

Real Deal Responses: Expanded Online Version

Jim R. Eau Claire, WI

For client theft prevention we have our groomers sign a no solicitation of our private client list. We put a dollar value on each client that if they wish to purchase our list they must pay us for each client’s value. Family and friends agreed upon prior to the start of providing service are exempt on a written list. This gives you leverage in a court of law, whereas a non-compete does not.

Sylvia T.Adamsville, TN

I have been grooming 55 years and have been through this sabotage repeatedly. After investing time and money to train or bring a groomer’s work up to pro standards they have left to start their own business, and without conscience have tried to take customers with them. The wages paid here are better than they could hope to clear operating on their own. The shop has all the best equipment and products available for their use. They are always treated respectfully, their taxes are legally paid, they have benefits ... and yet the desire to operate their own business prevails. The best advice I can offer is have new hires sign a no-compete contract and vigorously enforce it. Since generally they will also apply for unemployment benefits when leaving, let them know you will report they are self-employed not unemployed. And the best deterrent: Tell them you will report their status to the various governmental agencies so they can be tax-paying citizens, as are all legitimate businesses.

Pam A. Cleveland, OH

This has happened to me several times. Sometime customers have stayed with me because they thought that it wasn’t ethical what the groomer did. I think that it is just the nature of the beast.

Dawn T. Vero Beach, FL

Sadie should approach Billy on a professional level to see why he did it. Also, to let him know it was unethical of him, but maybe they could work something out so maybe they both can be happy. She could run an awesome special for returning clients. To protect her business, she should have her business trademarked and sole proprietorship with legal documentation to protect it from anyone from stealing her designs/website and such from competitors and employees. Have the employees sign confidentiality agreements.

Clayton B.Simsbury, CT

I would sue him. That is disgusting.

Patricia B.Charlottesville, VA

I actually had this happen to me, and I found out when five new grooming tables were delivered to my store instead of hers. She lied and said they were for “home use.” (She had one Boxer.) I took her to court for defamation of character and theft of corporate identity and property. And won. Now, I have the most lock-tight, non-compete contract that includes my clients, a 5-mile radius and all my corporate marketing materials and website are legally protected from copying. Even nice people put themselves first when it comes to a business that takes time and money to develop.

Paul L. 
Webster, NY

Legally, I’m not sure Sadie can do anything about Billy taking her customers. Billy saw the opportunity and ran with it. I had an employee who offered to board a regular customer’s bird for him, a bird that regularly boarded with us. He did it one time felt bad about it, told me what she had done and I treated it as if she had stolen product from me. She was terminated.

Ramie G. 
Evanston, IL

I always want to assume the best in people, but be prepared for the worst: Did he realize this was wrong or not? The results are the same: There is damage to Sadie’s business. There are legal means to stop the use of the website that Billy copied, the use of the stamp Sadie invented and a simple cease-and-desist letter might get the job done. Some states allow non-compete clauses for employees to prevent stealing trade secrets and client lists, so she should consult an attorney to prevent this from happening again. But to maintain her clients, she needs to remember that she trained Billy, she is the original groomer they liked, and by offering superior service and contacting them directly, she can salvage the relationship by offering bounce-back coupons and referral bonuses if the client refers a friend. Price is not the only thing she can offer; quality service and products and appreciation for their business go a long way.

Raymond P.Alamogordo, NM

Just recently I have found myself in a similar situation. I have an aquarium maintenance service. Recently, I fired an employee and who was doing 75 of my accounts. He ended up taking five of my accounts (mostly just family and friends) and is now also starting his own business. When he started he knew nothing about the business. I am curious to see how Sadie handles this.

Christine D.Harrisburg, NC

Sadie can meet with Billy or even set an appointment to drop by his shop to say “hello” and broach the conversation after seeing for herself. She can attempt to win back her customers by emailing them personally and offering welcome-back specials. Another option is to be honest and open about the situation and let clients just choose for themselves. She should require all employees sign a non-compete form as a part of her hiring packet and keep it on file. This will allow her to protect herself. It won’t stop someone from doing this, but it allows her recourse against the offender.

Kristina R.Falls Church, VA

Ouch! Sadie, you earned your stripes in reality with this fellow. It happens, and it happens a lot. I own a grooming spa and a dog-walking company. For the last 27 years, I have had my folks sign non-compete agreements, tried the lawyer act (where I would say if you do end up breaking the contract, I will have my lawyer contact you), and I even sent an email out to all my clients letting them know that should their groomer or pet sitter contact them about leaving, please let me know. But none of the attempts to stop someone from starting their own company worked. Here is the thing, (I believe) if a client loves the groomer who loves their dog and the dog loves them back ... I don’t care if you offer free grooms for life (well, that may work), they will follow that groomer. It is about the bond.

Pennye J. 
Washington, DC

She needs to have her attorney contact him and let him know they will file suit for copyright infringement on her website. She should then contact all of her customers and offer them a special coupon to return to her salon.

Bonnie B. Chicago IL

This happened to me. Thankfully my loyal clients stayed with me. The employee who left sent out letters to my clients that he opened up his own place and that he had worked for me. I had my lawyer send a letter to the former employee telling him if he didn’t stop recruiting my clients that we would sue. As for winning back her clients, Sadie can send them notices for discount washes, grooming, etc. If they are loyal they will come back.

Jan G. Cary, IL

Never give your groomers your clients’ phone numbers or addresses — only first names. And be sure you always call your clients when their dog is ready to pick up. Make all your appointments yourself also. Maintain a relationship with your clients.


This article originally appeared in the February 2018 edition of PETS+. 

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