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These days it’s hard to escape Donald Trump. Open a paper, turn on the TV and there the presidential hopeful is. But let’s not forget how he became a household name:

“You’re fired!”

THERE IS SOMETHING “succinct and very beautiful about the words … they’re so definite and final,” he once told Newsweek of the signature line of his former reality TV show, The Apprentice.

He may find those words beautiful, but there are very few others who do. For most of us, those words are almost unutterable, no matter how badly they need to be said.

Much more likely is a rambling speech that starts off something like: “Listen John, I’m not quite sure how to put this to you, but I’m afraid we’re probably going to have to let you go. I hope you can understand. Sales are down, and it, um, doesn’t look good. And then there’s my wife. She said we need our employees to show up on time, be polite to customers, make sales, you know, that sort of thing. As for me, I’d love to give you another chance, but you understand, right? My hands are tied …”

So how’d you do there? Well, you blame-shifted, told about three lies, all whoppers, and were barely coherent to boot. And this is probably after spending weeks or even months, dwelling on the issue and thinking of ways to approach it.

Let’s face it: As a species, most humans are not very good at managing difficult situations. No matter what the situation — dealing with an irate customer, a partner we don’t believe is fairly sharing the load, a longtime supplier who is no longer price-competitive, a repair man who always charges more than his quotation, or even an employee with a body-odor or chronic tardiness problem — most of us will do nearly anything to avoid these little conflicts.

But in business, such avoidance comes at great cost. It leads to what consultant and author Susan Scott calls a “culture of terminal niceness.” Everybody evades or works around difficult employees, problems don’t get tackled, and mediocrity is tolerated.

There are also personal and psychological costs for managers and staff when issues aren’t addressed effectively or honestly. Trust diminishes and misunderstandings multiply. Festering problems consume huge amounts of emotional energy and sap creativity.

In some cases, when the situation finally becomes unbearable, we do take action. But we invariably go about it the wrong way. We vent, point fingers and lay blame, leaving hurt feelings and the seeds of a new misunderstanding in our wake.

In contrast, when conflicts or difficult conversations are managed well, better decisions are made because goals are clear, teamwork and productivity increases and workplace morale surges. Conflict resolution, done effectively, also helps foster a climate of learning that allows people to learn from their mistakes and encourages managers to provide critical feedback.

But how to do it?

Dr. Tim Ursiny, author of The Coward’s Guide to Conflict, says there are seven ways of dealing with a difficult situation:

1. AVOID IT. (Bad, for the reasons stated above.)

2. GIVE IN. (Bad, because we don’t permit our- selves a chance to properly remedy the problem. We let someone else win the argument and then we feel bitter about it. Sometimes the other per- son knows we’ve surrendered, but most of the time they don’t have a clue and go about their business as always. Grrrr…)

4. BE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE. (Like when you huff and puff and scowl when someone uses a mobile phone in a movie theater. This is about as effective as giving in, even if we do make an effort to ensure the person knows our feelings.)

5. COMPROMISE. (Now we’re getting warmer! But still, compromise suggests that neither party got what they really wanted. After all, the focus of compromise negotiations is what you are pre- pared to give up.)

6. HONOR THE OTHER PERSON. (Sound sappy? You’re right, and this is a solution best saved for situations involving family and significant others. This is where you make a choice to give up something and enjoy the sacrifice — say, you decide to forego a disputed bit of parking space to help out a neighboring businessman.)

7. PROBLEM-SOLVE TOGETHER. (You’ve probably guessed; this is the best way to go.)
Now, suggesting that you “solve the problem” might seem excruciatingly obvious — but what Ursiny, who is an executive coach and psychologist by training, is really advocating is the use of a technique that invites mutual analysis of an issue, takes into account the emotions on both sides, and results in a win-win situation.
Easy to say, but surprisingly hard to achieve. And that’s because most of us are thoroughly inept at doing the basic things required to achieve such a goal, oh like listening properly, understanding the other person’s point of view, and refraining from making critical judgments.

We’re here to help you better navigate your way through difficult conversations, but first we need to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room. And its name is … fear.

Our behavior in times of looming confrontation is invariably driven by fear. Fear of physical harm, fear of rejection, fear of losing a relationship, fear of anger, fear of being seen as selfish, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of failing, fear of hurting someone, fear of getting what you want, fear of intimacy, fear that people will think less of us.

Sometimes these fears are rational or based on experience. You may have tried confronting someone before and it went badly. Or maybe you worry that talking will only make the situation worse.

And sometimes our fears are irrational. She’ll be crushed and kill herself if I tell her our clients hate her coffee. He will hire a Cessna and drag a 200-foot sky banner over my neighborhood telling everyone what a cheapskate I am if I don’t give him the pay rise.

Or maybe the anxiety wells up because of something that happened way back in your formative past — something at the very core of your identity. You’re afraid what the looming conflict will reveal about you as a person.

One of the things about the problems life throws at us on a daily basis is that we know deep down inside that the best way to deal with them is to put aside our worries and tackle the situation head-on. Don’t believe us? Think about your reaction the first time you saw Nike’s old “Just Do It!” ad campaign. You probably went out and did something … didn’t you? With that campaign, Nike proved that they knew the shadows that lurk deep in our hearts. Everybody wants to act forcefully, without restraint. Few do.

And “just doing it” is still one of the best ways to summon the courage. No, that doesn’t mean that you should simply jump right into your difficult conversation without preparation. But you should commit to doing it as soon as possible, and then start taking the necessary steps to make it happen. Weigh up the pros and cons and focus on the long-term benefits. Recall a case where you confronted a problem and it worked out well. Except for those cases where there is the genuine possibility of a physical harm, tell yourself that the conversation won’t destroy you, that you
can handle it, and most important, that it is the right thing to do. The relief you stand to gain will be permanent — as opposed to the temporary respite avoidance provides.

To give you that extra edge for your upcoming difficult conversation, we’ve compiled some expert advice from masters of the art of conflict resolution. Using it, you’ll find that disagreement is not only nothing to fear, it can be healthy. You’ll grow from it. Trust us.

But first, let’s examine the nuts and bolts of the conversation you are about to have.

PREPARING FOR THE MOMENT OF TRUTH


The first thing to do when preparing for a difficult conversation is to pick the right time and place. It’s pointless to start such a conversation if you don’t have the time to do it properly or are going to be constantly interrupted.

Then, ask yourself some questions:

Why are you having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish? If you think, “I just want to get something out in the open,” or “We just need to talk,” that’s not good enough. Your purpose is too vague, and vague goals almost always mean disappointing results. Your purpose needs to be forward-looking.

You also need to question your objective. You may think your motives are honorable, like educating an employee. But as soon as you start talking, you notice yourself lapsing into language that is highly critical or condescending. (And believe us, the employee does as well.) This is also a good time to think about how you contributed to the problem.

Work on yourself so that you approach the conversation with a constructive aim and see it as an opportunity to learn about the other person’s point of view. Think “I wonder why he keeps doing that?” instead of “That’s it. I’ve had it with the way he keeps doing that and I’m really going to let him know it!”

Second, investigate what assumptions you are making about this person’s intentions. You may feel intimidated, disrespected, or ignored. But you shouldn’t automatically assume that this was the other person’s intended aim.

Third, start thinking about the other person’s viewpoint. What might they be thinking about this situation? Are they even aware of the problem? If so, how do you think they perceive it? What fears and needs could they have? What solution do you think they would suggest? Stop looking at the other person as an adversary — instead, see them as your partner in solving the problem at hand.

Finally, ask yourself what reaction the other person might have that is most likely to throw you off balance. What if they accuse you of picking on them or acting unprofessionally? Identify which reactions would be the toughest for you to deal with and plan how you might respond if the other person breaks down in tears, gets angry, or withdraws. Don’t just “wing it.” If that’s your approach, you won’t be very effective.

GRABBING THE BULL

The best way to start is much the same way you would for a meeting: Set out an agenda. This outlines the problem to be discussed, establishes that you want to hear the other person’s perspective, that you want them to hear yours and that you would like to do some joint problem-solving. Use the opening part of a conversation to be upfront about why you’d like to talk and what your main point is. You’ll engage the interest of the other person and help them understand what follows. When describing the issue at hand, state it neutrally, the way a mediator might. For example, instead of saying, “I want to know why you insist on making the staff wear these silly Santa hats,” you can begin with, “It’s obvious we both care about the business. And we both want to do what we think is best. But you and I have different approaches to marketing. Let’s see if we can talk about that and find some middle ground.” This approach includes bits and pieces from both sides and seeks to close the gaps between your two perspectives. No one will feel attacked and you’ll be off to a smooth start.

Then, invite the other person to share their side of the story first. Don’t feel compelled to dive in with your perspective. You’ll actually be more persuasive if you let your counterpart get their side out first.

This way, you get to learn what they care about, how they see the problem, and you can respond accordingly. Also, until the other person feels heard, they don’t have the mind-space to hear you. It’s infinitely harder to persuade someone who hasn’t felt heard than someone who has.

Remember too, as Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says, “to listen to understand and not to reply.”

Often one of the things blocking our pursuit of the truth is that we think we not only understand our own point of view, but we also believe we know for sure what the other person did, said, and thought on the subject. He always does that because he knows it irritates me. She intentionally came in late to make me mad. She knows exactly what is expected of her, but doesn’t want to do it.

The problem is, such tough discussions are not about things that can be shown to be right or wrong, say Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. They involve facts, but they are not at heart about facts. They are about conflicting perceptions, feelings and values. They’re not about what a contract says, they’re about what a contract means. They’re not about which sales technique is most popular; they’re about which sales technique the store should employ. Finally, they’re not about what’s true, they’re about what is important.

If you automatically think you’re right, the conversation becomes one of trying to get the other person to admit he’s wrong. As strategies go, this is a poor one — the other person immediately becomes defensive and closes down.

The mistake of assuming we’re right leads to a second common error: We don’t ask enough questions. Studies have shown that about 90 percent of what is said during a failed conversation is advocacy, and only 10 percent inquiry. That means, the two parties find a lot of different ways to state their own views over and over again. Understanding is never reached. And too often, poor decisions result.

One of the first things you’ve got to do to get through a tough talk is to understand how the two of you see things differently. And doing that requires questions, questions and more questions.

YOUR TURN

When you sense that the other person has been able to unlock some of their energy and express the essence of what they want to say on the topic, it’s your turn.

From what they’ve told you it should be clear what they don’t understand about your position. Start by trying to clarify your view without minimizing theirs.

Be quick to identify the problem areas that remain. Be authentic too. There is something in us that responds to people who level with us, who speak from the heart.

Regularly summing up what you’ve said can boost the quality and accuracy of the dialogue — and eliminate many of the problems caused by misunderstandings.

Use words that reflect the other person’s meaning as well — “What you’re saying is that you feel that when I’m busy, I’m prone to treating people like they don’t exist. Am I understanding you right?” This way you demonstrate empathy and also get the chance to confirm that you’ve got it right.

If the conversation becomes heated or adversarial, go back to asking questions. Asking for the other person’s point of view usually neutralizes emotions. The challenge is to reframe the conversation from “whose fault is this” to “where did the misunderstandings occur, and how can we correct them so we can move forward?”

If the other person keeps saying everything is your fault, you can say, “I know I’ve contributed to this problem. Let’s talk about that, and we should also make sure to discuss ways that you’ve contributed to the problem as well.”

Be persistent in your efforts to keep the talk constructive.

FIX THE PROBLEM

Once you know what the other person wants and they know clearly what you want, then it’s time to find a solution. There is no guarantee this will be easy but at least both sides now are aware of all the factors in play.

Remember to keep asking questions. Ask your colleague what they think would work. Whatever they say, find something that you agree with and build on that.

Often such discussions get caught on the question of what’s fair. But, remember, fair is a subjective matter. What is a fair salary when the economy is doing badly? What is a reasonable vacation policy when the company is under-staffed? Your opinion and that of your counterpart are almost certain to differ. Of course, this scenario is specific to employee conflict, but the underlying principles remain the same.

The best, most straightforward way to approach any issue is to put on the table what both sides want and then brainstorm to see what is doable. In this instance, maybe a higher rate of commission based on achieving a new sales target would better reflect the economic conditions and the employee’s performance.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

A successful outcome will depend on two things: how you act — centered, curious, persistent — and what you say. Don’t expect to handle every difficult conversation with ease and poise. At the beginning, you may be tongue-tied, scared and inarticulate. That’s OK. Your goal is not eloquence. It is openness and honesty. As with any other skill, you will get better with practice. Keep in mind that failure is the best teacher.

It is also worth noting that there are times you should walk away from a difficult conversation. There isn’t enough time to confront your partner, boss, staff or clients every time they annoy you.

But if walking away ends up being your response most of the time, you’re on the wrong track. Yosur feelings will fesstrongr. And in the long run, if you don’t raise important issues and have those difficult conversations, you will damage the relationship you were hoping to protect.

 

TOUGH TALK TIPS

Here are some more tips and a few conversation starters to help you:

Don’t aim for perfection. Difficult conversations are tough for a reason. Aim for gradual improvement each time.

You don’t win a difficult conversation. Your goal is not to get the other person to capitu- late and admit that you were right all along. It’s to express your feelings, allow the other person to express theirs and hopefully reach an understanding you both can live with.

Need to deliver bad news or fire someone? There are no magic words that will somehow make it less upsetting. The best you can do is be honest, to the point, and sympathetic. You can’t take responsibility for the other person’s feelings. If your accountant is inept and messed up your books, you need to let him go. His feelings are immaterial to the outcome. It is only the facts relating to his poor performance that matter. The success of a conversation should not be judged by whether someone gets upset or not. (And don’t try to trick the person into accepting blame first.)

Don’t waste time and energy defending the weak parts of your argument. In any tough conversation, no one is 100 percent right or wrong. Each side has weaknesses, and it is wise to acknowledge the problems. Take responsibility for your share and focus on a solution.

Controlling your emotions is crucial to avoiding a destructive argument. You need to look forward — not try to defend a position or win an argument. If a conversation is getting heated, use silence to slow it down, says Scott.

Stay with the issue; straying will always sabotage your mission. You’ve had a great year and you would like to discuss bonus levels with your sales manager. But he notes how two years ago, he didn’t get a bonus when (he believes) one was promised and doesn’t feel he can trust you in this discussion. Suddenly you find yourself debating your role in the conversation. In such situations, refocus on the future.

Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements when discussing your thoughts and feelings. “I” clarifies for the other person what you think and feel while “you” can make them feel criticized. “I” reduces defensiveness and fosters communication. Good “I” statement: “I feel uncomfortable when you interrupt me during meetings. I feel it shows a lack of respect.” Bad “you” statement: “You always interrupt me during meetings. You have no respect for me!”

Say “and,” not “but.” The word “but” has the power to erase everything good said before it. For example, “Joe, I really liked the way you closed that sale, but next time don’t spend so much time talking about how bad insurance reimbursements are.” Far better to say, “Joe, I really liked the way you closed that sale and I think it would be better if you didn’t mention our issues with the patient’s insurance provider.” This is something improvisational actors are taught. The basic premise is not to reject what is proposed and focus instead on elaboration, to create new ideas and move forward.

Similarly, avoid negatives and absolutes as they shut down communication. Example: Negative: “Why can’t you …” Positive: “What if we …” Absolute: “We must do it this way.” Non-absolute: “Here’s a good idea to consider…”

Avoid judgmental words like “bad,” “ugly,” “wrong,” and any that imply fault like “unprofessional” and “inappropriate,” Ursiny recommends.

The same goes for you. Many misunderstandings arise from faulty assumptions. So when in doubt, say what you mean. Hinting isn’t good enough. Don’t rely on subtext.

Remember that acknowledging the other person’s feelings is not the same thing as agreeing with them. Saying “I can understand this is really important to you” indicates an effort to support the other person, but doesn’t mean you’re going to go along with the decision.

In cases where you find yourself poles apart, use the “100+1 approach.” Find the one percent of the other person’s position you can agree on and endorse it 100 percent. That suggests that you are committed to finding middle ground.

Research shows that we spend a lot less time talking to people close to us than we imagine. These same studies also show that many of our more challenging dialogues could be avoided by staying in more regular contact.

Blaming the other person for not understanding you — or for you not understanding them — is pointless. Be willing to recognize when you don’t understand or need to know more. If you don’t have a clear understanding of what the other person is saying, keep trying until you do. It could be that their thoughts are unclear. Encourage them to be specific.

What if it’s someone you’re going to have to work with again — for instance, a high-performing sales associate who is suddenly suffering a five-alarm case of body odor? Same deal. Take him aside and let him know his new antiperspirant isn’t quite up to the task. Of course, he’ll be embarrassed but eventually he will thank you. Knowing that you can’t control the reaction of the other person in a conversation can be liberating, say Stone, Patton and Heen.

The best decisions are the ones that people reach themselves. So be lean on the advice, but generous with help and support.

Don’t just listen to the words, listen to the “music” as well, including body language and voice quality. Also, look for clues in what is not being said. Ask yourself and the other person, “What is it they really want, really mean?”

Being genuine is at the heart of all worthwhile communication. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings. Author Scott recalls a conversation with a friend who said: “I notice I’m becoming defensive, and I think it’s because your voice got louder and sounded angry. I just want to talk about this. I’m not trying to persuade you in either direction.” The acknowledgment helped the two to re-center, she says.

Not sure how to open the conversation? Consider some of these lines:

  • “I need your help with something. Can we talk about it?”
  • “I think we have different views about [insert topic]. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.” “I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.”
  • “I’d like to talk about the recent changes to our compensation structure with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.”
  • “I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about our store’s dress code. I really want to hear your feelings about this and share my perspective as well.”

Final tip. Realize difficult conversations are part of life. They aren’t going away, but they can become easier, less anxiety-causing and more constructive if you work on it.

Chris Burslem is the group managing editor of SmartWork Media.

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Cover Stories

One-Minute Mentors

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Each of our america’s coolest stores contest winners has a mentor at its helm. These leaders advise and inspire their employees, and they do the same for fellow pet business owners through our interviews with them.

But who are their mentors?

We asked winners to tell us about a person, company, industry or previous career that has help guide them to where they are today.

 

MIKE DOAN

ODYSSEY PETS, DALLAS, TX

When Mike Doan opened Odyssey Pets with wife Sherry Redwine, he was sure to manage differently than he had been managed in the past.

“When I was young, I worked in a pet store and recall explaining to a customer all the features and details about a specific filter. I convinced him to purchase the more expensive one for quality assurance.

“Later that day, I overheard the owner of the store telling someone that I was a really good salesman and they should keep me on the floor up front, rather than in the back cleaning cages. It always bothered me that they never told me.

“I’ve realized since then that sales environments can be competitive. Competition on the sales floor can often breed contempt among the staff. This contempt does not foster a team environment. So now, when I see someone who expresses a certain quality, I make sure to tell them they are good at it in order to let them know they are valued, instead of just capitalizing on their skill and keeping them in the dark.

“A team that supports each other achieves a much higher level of success than one that has everyone in it for themselves.”

AIMEE GILBREATH

MICHELSON FOUND ANIMALS ADOPT & SHOP, CULVER CITY, CA

“I learned the ‘15-minute rule’ in my consulting job years ago. The concept is that if you have been struggling with something for 15 minutes without making any progress and you don’t have any idea what to do next, then it is time to ask for help. Too often we feel like we should be able to handle anything in our job role independently, and we get embarrassed at the idea of asking for help. The 15-minute rule keeps me from getting stuck in a loop of frustration and reminds me that I have a network of colleagues who would be happy to support me (as I would them).”

ROBERT H. SMITH

JUNGLE BOB’S REPTILE WORLD, SELDEN, NY

Before opening Jungle Bob’s Reptile World, Robert H. Smith founded and ran a company that sold and serviced computer systems for the banking industry.

“This arena required skilled workers with impeccable credentials. Surety bonds, background checks, and clean records and driver’s licenses were mandatory. Our employees handled large amounts of cash, servicing ATMs and teller machines behind the bank line. Honesty and integrity was in their DNA.

“I have applied these same principles to all who work here. Although we don’t require staff to be bonded and insured, we certainly aim high when hiring and demand that no one ever lies to a customer or even guesses! When asked a question they may not know the answer to, they are instructed to ask management. Animals’ lives are at stake, and a healthy animal is the goal to ensure a happy customer and a great pet experience.

“For me this is every bit as important as a pile of cash was back then. So the lessons learned years ago are applicable at Jungle Bob’s. Even in a business that sells snakes, tarantulas and cockroaches, you have to maintain your integrity to succeed in the long term.”

FRANK FRATTINI

THE HUNGRY PUPPY, FARMINGDALE, NJ

Frank Frattini credits his father, a former Marine, with instilling in him the importance of perseverance.

“As you can imagine, quitting or giving up is not part of our DNA. This proved especially valuable when we first went into the business back in the ’80s, when there were virtually no models of pet stores that did not sell pets. At the time, more than a few friends and family members thought I was more than a little ‘off’ for leaving a prestigious position as a bank official for a major money center bank to sell dog food.”

The trait also helped him develop the store’s popular delivery program.

“In addition, back in the ’80s, the concept of delivering dog food and supplies to people’s homes was, to say the least, a bit ahead of its time. It took a lot of perseverance to get people to embrace the concept. I like to think that we were Chewy before Chewy, the primary difference being that our model makes money.”

PATTIE BODEN

ANIMAL CONNECTION, CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA

Pattie Boden points to friend and mentor Shayne Jackson as the source of a most helpful bit of business advice. The owner of a successful masonry company, Jackson also has a working cattle ranch where he teaches horsemanship.

He told her to “Do less sooner … then do less than less.” She explains:

“Many people don’t give their business associates the opportunity to ‘try.’ We give them direction or a list of things to do, and then never allow them to fulfill those obligations without nagging or micromanaging.

“Make sure your directions are clear and consistent every single time, so there is no question about what is expected. If they need redirection, that’s fine, but get in and get out and go on with it.

“I have found that when I set people up to succeed and recognize a ‘try,’ that things fall into place almost seamlessly. Rewarding the slightest try isn’t like giving everyone a blue ribbon or saying good job just for showing up. It’s knowing that your people understand what you are asking and respect you enough to follow through to the best of their ability.”

ELLYN SUGA

SHOP DOG BOUTIQUE, SIOUX FALLS, SD

Ellyn Suga finds inspiration and guidance from Donald Miller, owner of StoryBrand, which helps businesses clarify their message.

“I attended a workshop with Miller in Nashville. He shows business owners how we’re simply here to help solve our customers’ problems. We must be able to empathize with them, but use our command and knowledge of the industry to show our authority.”

KEITH MILLER

BUBBLY PAWS, MINNEAPOLIS, MN

Before opening Bubbly Paws, Keith Miller worked in the radio industry for 10 years. It taught him to pay attention to the little details in order to provide great customer service.

“While working at a station in Minneapolis, Bob Guiney from THE BACHELOR was in town a few times. The first time, he made the effort to go around the room to get to know everyone and what they did. Three weeks later, he was back in town and came to the station, and started talking to me like he personally knew me!

“I work hard to get to know each customer who comes in, and really try to remember them the next time. Anyone can build a dog wash, but the one thing that really makes Bubbly Paws unique is the customer experience and how we try to treat everyone like an extended member of our family!”

TANIA ISENSTEIN

CAMP CANINE, NEW YORK, NY

Tania Isenstein spent 17 years as a lawyer for Goldman Sachs before switching gears to buy Camp Canine.

“The company focused heavily on its business principles,” she says. “The first one states: ‘Our clients’ interests always come first. Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.’ That principle expressed what I already believed going into the firm, but it also became a way of life for me. The leadership team here at Camp Canine and I ingrain this into every new employee and live it daily. As at Goldman Sachs, it has proven successful.”

LEEL MICHELLE

BOW WOW BEAUTY SHOPPE, SAN DIEGO, CA

Her many years in corporate fashion retail taught Leel Michelle to place a high value on her employees.

“They can make or break your day and your brand. Treat employees like family and be respectful of them and their time, and you’ll always have their respect. Working in corporate retail, we learn the importance of continuing education on how to be good managers, store merchandising, branding and customer service. These are all key ingredients to business success.”

TRACE MENCHACA

FLYING M FEED CO., HOUSTON, TX

Years at The Container Store taught Trace Menchaca that “in retail, everything matters. Your warehouse must be as perfect as the sales floor. Everything is done with intent and purpose. Everything is done a specific way. Creating an outstanding customer experience is critical. And creating an amazing culture for employees is crucial.”

DEBBIE BROOKHAM

FURRY FRIENDS INC., COLORADO SPRINGS, CO

Bob and Susan Negan of Whizbang Retailers help guide Debbie Brookham. They have taught her many lessons over the years.

“I think one of the most important was not to put a rule in place because of one bad customer. When you get burned in retail, and it happens to all of us, our defenses go up to make up store rules. The lesson is to stop and think how customer-friendly that might be for the rest of your good clients? Take a breath and re-think that strategy.”

PATRICK DONSTON

ABSOLUTELY FISH, CLIFTON, NJ

Patrick Donston subscribes to business author Jim Collins’ concept of Level 5 Leadership.

“I attended a conference and was profoundly inspired to become a Level 5 Leader. Ardent managers who instill passion in the workforce are the fuel for every good business. When you walk into a store that has this kind of passion, it’s palpable. As a customer, you definitely notice a difference. I learned the key to igniting our message is to communicate throughout the organization a clear understanding of what we are ultimately fighting for.

“Level 5 Leaders are built to make a difference. They are leaders of great purpose who act as stewards of the purpose. They bring their vision to life in meaningful ways to the marketplace. People follow them because of who they are and what they stand for.

“I’ve learned that simple concepts are better than convoluted solutions and ‘that people are not necessarily your most important asset, the right people are.’ I knew right then what I needed to work on in hopes of being a better leader and build a more meaningful organization.”

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Cover Stories

Lab Work

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You indies are all about experimentation. After all, no corporate overlord exists to dictate which products you sell or how you merchandise them. Or which processes you put in place. Or how you manage staff or market your brand. You have the freedom to be bold, to see for yourself what works and what does not. With that in mind, we asked the PETS+ Brain Squad to share experiments that have proven successful for their businesses. Try one, two or even all 20!

EXPERIMENT

Provide free 10-minute training session to daycare dog.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Lisa Cane, Wags Doggie Day Care and Training, Wenham, MA

HOW-TO: Choose team member to customize mini-training session for the dog. Work on sit or come, or address unwanted behavior. Repeat daily with different pups.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Helps new dogs integrate more quickly into pack. Impresses pet parents and encourages future visits. Gives staff opportunity to grow. “Hands-on practice is the best way for them to improve their dog handling and training skills,” Cane says. “We are professionals, and I want us to stand out from the increasingly crowded daycare market by offering added value to our customers.”

EXPERIMENT

Create a Facebook Live series.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Jeff Jensen and Matt Braselton, Four Muddy Paws, St. Louis, MO

HOW-TO: Decide on topic and repeat weekly or monthly. The co-owners do “In the Kitchen With Four Muddy Paws,” which features interviews with brand partners about their food and general pet nutrition.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: The setting, their home kitchen, personalizes the business. Facebook Live videos have better organic reach than regular. Series promotes higher-quality products. Jensen says, “Our ‘In the Kitchen’ videos have helped to share more about why moving toward a more natural diet is important and various ways [customers] can incorporate products for a nutritional boost, even if they’re not quite ready to change their diet.”

EXPERIMENT

Thank employees and customers for their support.

LEAD SCIENTIST: James Henline, Asheville Pet Supply, Asheville, NC
HOW-TO: Hand out gift cards and praise during staff meeting. Thank customers via video on social media.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Higher employee morale. “I gave each staff member a $10 gift card to a local coffee shop. I emphasized their importance to the success of our business, as they are the ones who handle our customers every day. After the meeting, I actually had employees in tears because I said that I cared about them. I’ve had some volunteer to come in when the store was extra-busy or ask if I needed them to stay late to help out. They were just really happy to know that someone recognized the work that they were putting in and appreciated them.” Increased sales. “I posted [the video] on Thanksgiving day, and we had our biggest Black Friday and Small Business Saturday ever. Since then, our daily sales have increased and the store is noticeably busier. I still have people coming in and telling me how much they appreciated what I said and for us being here for them.”

EXPERIMENT

Group chat with staff.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Missie Mattei, Miss Doolittles Pet Spa & Boutique, Pottsville, PA

HOW-TO: Send need-to-knows and praise. Encourage the same from employees, as well as messages just for fun.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Improved communication and employee morale. Mattei says of their Facebook group chats, “At work, we are often too busy, or work different schedules, to share important or uplifting messages. This is an easy way to pass info. We’ve had a couple of people who came from difficult work environments, and this has helped us be inclusive, admit our faults, congratulate our achievements, share ideas, and find humor in each other. Everyone seems to like the easy interchanges, but if they don’t want to take part, that’s OK too.”

EXPERIMENT

Discount daycare rate for grooming clients.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Marcia E. Cram, Just Fur Pets, Springfield, VA
HOW-TO: Offer as add-on or part of package.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Increases revenue and client satisfaction. “Pet parents like that their dogs get to romp with their fur friends,” Cram says.

EXPERIMENT

Create to-do list and script for grooming check-in procedure.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Nanci Sien, Pampered Paws, Owings, MD

HOW-TO: Document every step taken during check-in, from greeting client and getting pet information to providing a pick-up estimate and asking if there are any questions. Write talking points for groomers that cover the steps.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Improved client satisfaction and retention, and increased add-on sales. “Clients have told us they felt more comfortable leaving their pets with us after getting to know the groomer at check-in and having their concerns addressed,” Sien says. “Talking to the client about their pet in-depth allows our groomers to upsell add-on services by telling the client how these services can solve specific issues. Being specific about everything that will be done during the groom as well as giving projected pick-up times have prevented misunderstandings and increased customer satisfaction.”

EXPERIMENT

Designate a sports jersey day of the week.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Diane Marcin, Benny’s Pet Depot, Mechanicsburg, PA

HOW-TO: Pick day and encourage employees to wear sports jerseys.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Boosts employee morale and creates fun atmosphere for staff and customers alike. Marcin says, “The customers love it! When a customer walks in wearing the same team as you are, the conversations begin about the game last week or the upcoming one. Every now and then you get a high-five.”

EXPERIMENT

Get a liquor license.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Carol Will, Lola & Penelope’s, Clayton, MO

HOW-TO: Contact state alcohol beverage control agency. Licenses vary by whether selling, serving or both, and whether wine and beer or also hard liquor. Will advises, “If you go for it, call and talk to the leadership in your city before you submit your application. Explain your vision, and ask about any concerns. I had to present to the board of aldermen for approval. It went well since they knew the city supported our plan.”

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Further differentiates your store from other retailers. Supports pet-related breweries and wineries. Among others, Lola & Penelope’s carries local craft beers Urban Chestnut Brewing Company’s Underdog and 2nd Shift Brewing’s Cat Spit Stout.

EXPERIMENT

Promote big events with a radio ad campaign.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Keefer Dickerson, Nashville Pet Products, Nashville, TN

HOW-TO: Poll your staff and customers on which stations they listen to. Tune into top three, noting personalities, music and commercials. If your business would be a good fit, and you would play them in your store, contact each station. Ask about audience to determine if demographics match your customer base. Learn their ad creation process. “The radio station will take care of writing the ad copy, and producing the spot to your satisfaction,” Dickerson says. Negotiate, he adds. “Radio rates can be flexible. Don’t be afraid to ask for discounts or add-ons.” Choose the best offer.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Boosts visibility and sales. Nashville Pet Products ran two radio campaigns in 2018. Ads for Customer Appreciation Day helped increase sales by 52 percent over previous year’s event. Ads for the annual holiday sale brought in 25 percent increase year over year.

EXPERIMENT

Give welcome boxes to new grooming customers.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Kris Minkle, The Whole Pet, Fort Smith, AR

HOW-TO: Ask food, treat and grooming product manufacturers to provide samples and coupons that can be regular items for box. Add to it samples specific to client, such as a sensitive-formula shampoo for pet with skin issues, as well as low-cost items: a roll of poop bags or a small toy. Include nutritional and grooming literature, plus menu of services. Place in box branded with your logo. Minkle says, “If we have time, we also take a photo of their freshly groomed dog and include that as well.” Cost: around $3.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Improves customer satisfaction. “We noticed a distinct rise in new customers leaving feedback, once we started the boxes. It seems like people are much more likely to give feedback online or ratings if they’ve gotten something for free.” Increases sales and improves customer retention. “A woman with a Standard Poodle named Timber came in a few days after she had her dog groomed, and she wanted to try the foods included in the box, saying Timber ‘loved them.’ She has turned into a very regular food and grooming customer.”

EXPERIMENT

Get up two hours before leaving for work to practice self-care.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Wendy Megyese, Muttigans, Emerald Isle, NC

HOW-TO: Set your alarm and don’t hit snooze. Megyese says, “I have been getting up earlier and investing that quiet morning time in myself by reading, meditating and journaling.”

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Start day with clarity and calm, be less reactive at work. “In the past, if events did not unfold the way I had planned for them to, I would work myself into a mental frenzy and somehow convince myself that all my planning was futile because I would always be at the mercy of circumstances I could not control,” she says, offering this example:

“Our town’s Christmas parade was cancelled because of a severe storm. Our store is located on the parade route. It is historically one of our strongest sales days of the year. The call to cancel was made just two hours before the event, so I already had extra staff on hand as well as increased inventory.

“Rather than getting upset, I chose to see it as something that would become a future conversation starter. While my morning routine did not change the negative economic impact the storm caused, I was able to see that there was nothing I could have done differently that would have changed the outcome. Instead of fretting about what I could not control, I decided a rainy day with more than enough staff would be the perfect time to take an afternoon off and spend it having fun with my granddaughter.”

EXPERIMENT

Move from item-pricing to peg- and shelf-pricing.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Duane Poland, Bones-n-Scones of Palm Springs, Palm Springs, CA

HOW-TO: Instead of placing price tags on each item, create peg and shelf tags for pricing.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Speeds up restocking, as products can go from box to shelf. Provides clarity. Poland says, “Many of our customers simply didn’t look at the back of the package.” Boosts sales. “We have also seen an extra bump in sales of our treats we have priced up front, as there is no longer a ‘mystery’ as to the price!” Saves time. “I believe things can always be better, easier and faster. Any time saved, no matter how small, can really add up and frees staff to better serve our customers and companion animals!

EXPERIMENT

Touch things only once.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Kara Holland, Pittsboro Pet Supply, Pittsboro, NC

HOW-TO: Apply this direction to any task you can. Holland explains, “I teach this to our staff members the first day they start working at our store. Instead of handing pamphlets from sales reps to me, ask where they go and always place them there. It saves them from moving it multiple times.”

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: “Touching things once saves us so much time and empowers our staff to make decisions on their own. The same issue or same item shouldn’t have to be reviewed over and over again, unless it is an item that deserves to be!”

EXPERIMENT

Let calls go to voicemail when grooming pets.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Rachel Malmfeldt, Pampered Pups Grooming, Joliet, IL

HOW-TO: Record voicemail message that lets customers know you have a dog on the table and will return their call in a set amount of time. Instruct employees to not interrupt their work to take calls.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Reduces stress and increases safety. “ This has created a more relaxed atmosphere for the groomers and pets,” Malmfeldt says.

EXPERIMENT

Have new employees shadow a top salesperson.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Terri Ellen, Nature’s Pet Market, Salem, OR

HOW-TO: Schedule so that new employees can observe during their first two weeks. Pair them with top team members.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: New team members learn best practices on the job, while those they shadow grow as leaders. Increased sales, higher employee retention. “New employees can quickly learn to run a register and check out customers, but the foods and nutrition for pets are quite a bit more difficult or complicated,” Ellen says. For example, she adds, “It’s wonderful when an employee is standing there listening to me help that customer solve an itchy dog’s problems.”

EXPERIMENT

Delegate ordering to a proven manager.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Paul Lewis, Birds Unlimited, Webster, NY

HOW-TO: Choose a manager who knows the store and its customers well, then give him trial-run order. Lewis shares, “Sometimes staff have a different perspective on what our customers like and don’t like. I don’t talk to everyone who comes through the door, and sometimes customers are more comfortable talking with the staff.”

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Saves time, freshens stock and empowers the manager. “It has led to bringing in new products I’d never try myself,” he says, that ended up being a hit with customers.

EXPERIMENT

Reduce stress by watching less TV news.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Julie Husa, D Best Pet Sitting, Dallas, TX

HOW-TO: Subscribe to your local newspaper. Watch only one local news show daily or pick from online highlights. Avoid 24-hour news channels.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Turning off bickering politicians and pundits helps keep cortisol production in check and leads to a healthier self, at home and work.

EXPERIMENT

Find out if there’s an app for that.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Debbie Brookham, Furry Friends Inc., Colorado Springs, CO

HOW-TO: Visit app store of choice to see what tools could improve a specific business process. Or just explore store to see what’s new and could help. Download to evaluate, then ask employees to do the same before purchasing or implementing app.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Saves time and money, improves workflow and communication. Brookham uses Trello for all of the above. “Trello is a great communication tool for us. It is separated in ‘boards’ so you can easily label a column a different name, such as ‘Customer Requests.’ When I order product, I’m able to go to one location. The team member includes the client’s name and contact info, along with their initials and date. I can see to order it, and then when it comes in we go back to Trello, contact the customer and write any additional notes. Once the special order is picked up, we delete the note from the Trello board. With so many shifting gears in a small business, it’s best to stay focused and organized.”

EXPERIMENT

Create employee bonding opportunities outside of work.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Caitlin Jones, Nooga Paws, Chattanooga, TN

HOW-TO: With employee input, plan outing. Encourage non-work talk. Pick up the tab. Jones took her 12 employees to dinner and a haunted house in October.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Improved teamwork. “Getting to know each other on a deeper level helps us work together during our shifts,” she says.

EXPERIMENT

Reduce daycare rates on traditionally slow days.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Angela Pantalone, Wag Central, Stratford, CT

HOW-TO: Determine which day, or days, of week, have significantly lower bookings and how much you can afford to discount and still be profitable.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Increased bookings. Pantalone discounts daycare from $38 to $30 on Mondays and Tuesdays, and has doubled her bookings on those days. “What a fun pat on the back that has been!” she says.

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Cover Stories

7 Ways to Make the Most of the January Slowdown

Avoid the post holiday blues with promotions to get cash-wielding customers through your doors in January.

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DOES THE POST-HOLIDAY prove challenging for your business? It doesn’t need to be.

“January can still be a really good month,” Pet Boss Nation’s Candace D’Agnolo says.

Store owners, don’t dwell on cold weather reducing foot traffic. Instead promote coats, boots and other winter gear.

“Those are higher ticket items compared to the majority of what you sell,” she points out.

Groomers, expect a bump from those looking to get in one last appointment before 2019 prices go into effect, which D’Agnolo recommends doing on February 1, with the announcement in December.

“That gives clients enough time to hear about it and not feel blindsided,” she explains.

Care providers, embrace the slow down. Pet parents returning and paying for holiday services in January will help offset any decrease in bookings.

“It’s the perfect month to give you our employees time off, to catch up on their lives,” D’Agnolo says.

Whatever your business, complete tasks pushed to the bottom of the to-do list throughout the year.

“While doing your inventory, deep clean and organize. Toss out what doesn’t matter and get files ready for your accountant,” she adds.

Need more ideas? Check out how PETS+ Brain Squad members make the most of the post holiday period.

Offer Freebies and Discounts

In addition to marking treats BOGO, Nancy Okun of Dogs and Cats in Port Charlotte, FL, gives customers something sweet or meaty for their pet.

“We offer a free frozen yogurt and biscuits. Even if the customer doesn’t bring their dog to the store, we will give them a doggy bag,” she says. “If a cat owner, they get a free can of cat food, just to try something new.”

Angela Pantalone combines freebies and discounts at Wag Central in Stratford, CT.

“January is when tons of bills are due, and cash flow is important,” Pantalone says. “We have scheduled discounts on daycare and grooming packages, freebie trials and spa services for our pup clientele to keep them coming in the door.”

Wag Central in Stratford, CT, offers freebies and discounts to keep cash flowing in January. PHOTO BY LISA GARCIA

Promote With the New Year

Humans adapt healthier habits in the new year, and so can pets. Stacy Busch of Busch Pet Products in Cape Girardeau, MO, offers the opportunity for exactly that as well as for savings.

“We do a trade in promotion called new year, new food,” Busch says. “If a customer or non-customer isn’t feeding anything from us, all they have to do is bring in a bag of their food and let us find something better. They will get 15 percent off the first bag and 10 percent off the next two bags if they stick with it for three months. We guarantee better coat and skin, more energy and overall improved health. We’ve gotten some lasting customers with the promo!”

Busch also has a “Least Wanted” ingredients poster created to help promote the event.

January promotions at Fur Baby Boutique in Milford, DE, also encourage positive changes for pets. Sherry Shupe says, “We focus on New Year’s goals and starting out the new year with a better diet, more exercise (daycare) and a spa makeover!”

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Deep Clean

Thanks to below zero temps in the Minneapolis area, business at Bubbly Paws dog washes slows in January. Keith and Patrycia Miller use the time to deep clean and freshen up their four locations.

“We pull out our drying channels and do a good cleaning behind them. Same with all of our back room shelves. Basically, it’s a great time to move things out into our public area, knowing that not many people will see the mess,” Miller says.

“We also power scrub all of the flooring (we do this about three times a year), but the one in January is always the best because you can really go to town with the scrubber and not worry about getting in people’s way or having our staff do it before/after store hours.”

Shutting a location down for maintenance projects, such as installing a new water heater, can happen in January without significant impact to the business.

“Our water had to be turned off for seven hours to change some plumbing around. When you are in the business of selling water, this is never a good thing. We just kept hoping the older water heater would make it through the holidays, and it did. Then we closed for a day to install the new one!”

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Give Bounce-Back Coupons

When customers spend $25 or more at Purrfect Bark Market in Columbus, NC, during November or December, Eric Mack gives them a coupon for $10 off in January or February.

“It helps bring some back, but it’s also a reward for those who are our top customers,“ he says.

Diana Farrar of Fifi & Fidos in San Antonio, TX, handed out $10 bounce-back coupons on Small Business Saturday in 2017, redeemable in January 2018.

“We had a ton of them come back to us, and customers loved them,” she says.

Red and pink toys and treats take over Miss Doolittle’s in January.

Celebrate the Next Holiday

Cory Giles of The General Store in Collinsville, IL, turns to wild bird seed and feeders to keep sales from dipping.

“Typically we have cold and snowy weather in January, which not only helps wild bird sales, but also provides the inspiration for topical social media posts,” Giles says. “Wild bird content is popular, and informative posts are even more popular.“

He shares videos on the store’s Facebook page that show off products and include tips for keeping wild visitors well fed. Giles posts about National Bird Day on January 5 and even Squirrel Appreciation Day on January 21, as squirrel feeders and food also are available. He always keeps social media content fresh.

“For instance, instead of reusing the same post about the frequent feeder program our wild bird seed vendor offers, I periodically post about it in the context of updating how many free feeders we have given away so far.“

At Miss Doolittle‘s Pet Spa and Boutique in Pottsville, PA, Valentine’s Day decorations go up in mid-January. Missie Mattei merchandises themed treats, toys and accessories, and offers a deluxe grooming package with a champagne and strawberries theme.

“It really helps keep the flow going at a time when it usually slows down,“ she says.

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Take A Vacation

Stephanie Rossini of Giggy Bites Bakery & Marketplace in Chadds Ford, PA, seizes the slowdown as an opportunity to get away. “We plan our vacation for the first week of January because we have found good travel deals and it gives us the opportunity to recharge after the craziness of the fourth quarter in retail.”

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