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Nail one thing in these 30 categories, and your marketing will take off.

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NO SELF-RESPECTING STORY on modern marketing starts without a few staggering statistics. Here are some to ponder:

  • Prior to the availability of smartphones, American consumers accessed the Internet an average of five times a day. Now, one in four Americans reports being online constantly.
  • Forty years ago, we were exposed to about 500 commercial messages a day. Today it’s 5,000, possibly 10,000 if you live in a big urban area and use the internet a lot.
  • A typical grocery shopper spends 21 minutes doing her shopping, during which she buys an average of 18 items out of the 30,000 to 40,000 choices available to her, all while being bombarded by sale signs, commercial jingles, and other moving displays and psychologically tested packaging.

If you’re now feeling like a tiny entity that’s lost its voice after shouting to be heard in a noisy marketplace, you shouldn’t. There’s actually never been a better time to be a small-business owner, at least when it comes to marketing.

Through social media and the ultra-connectedness of consumers, small businesses can foster personal customer relationships that are the envy of bigger companies. It is also easier than ever to leverage your distinctive personality — read: “brand” — to separate yourself from the competition.

And in a world saturated with information, consumers are increasingly turning a deaf ear to the appeals of corporate marketers. Instead, they are putting their faith in the opinions of their fellow shoppers. Word of mouth is the new mass media.

For all the things that change, there are others that stay the same, and in retail, the one great constant is that consumers are powered by emotion.

To help you make the right choice for your business, and in the spirit of our distracted age, we’ve distilled the benefits of the various marketing mediums to just one thing. So, turn off your phone, power down your iPad and focus for the next few minutes.

1. Branding

The one thing to know: As the owner of a retail business, it pays to be accessible (meaning spending time on the sales floor), to be a little larger than life, to be a genuine persona that can be carried through to every part of your marketing. The unique human element is one of the advantages small businesses have over corporations. Discover your uniqueness and parade it around your sales territory. Forget about being benign and fitting in. Forget about saying, How can we help you? Focus on sharing stories and building relationships, says Peter Montoya in A Brand Called You.

One thing to do now: Add some “campfire language” to your website’s About Us page. Most introductory pages are drearily formulaic, telling the buying public what you do but not who you are. Yet in most cases, what you do or offer in the way of services is little different than what the five other pet businesses in your area provide. In contrast, no one else has your story. Share it and start to build emotional connections with the people in your market. In place of those claims to be the best at one thing or another, offer some insights into how you feel about pets, your ties to the community and your non-work interests.

2. Newspapers

The one thing to know: Traditional wisdom said: Advertise in the newspaper. Everyone reads the newspaper. Conventional wisdom says: Newspaper readers are aging rapidly as the young abandon print.  We say: Don’t buy too much into it. If you need to raise awareness of a sale, a relocation or another event, newspaper ads (run frequently before the big day) can still deliver your message. Don’t forget to run a photo.

One thing to do now: Newspapers are willing to bargain more than ever before. Ask for a free banner ad on your local paper’s website when you buy a print ad. That way, you get some insurance that younger readers will be reached while you get to experiment with online advertising.

3. Outdoor

The one thing to know: Billboards reach more people for a dollar than any other media, and they’re geographically targetable, so you can reach specific pockets of your market with them. Their weakness is that they fail to register with regular passing drivers after just a few sightings in the same location, so you need to be able to update the message or move your ad after about a month or so.

One thing to do now: Put more than eight words on a sign, and you’ll be advertising to the passenger seat. Can’t tell your story in eight words? Think again. The image should be telling most of the story anyway. (Oh, and don’t forget your contact info.)

4. Direct Mail

The one thing to know: It’s expensive, and most of it is tossed out. Use it mainly to stay in touch with your best customers.

One thing to do now: A service from the U.S. Post Office — Every Door Direct — allows you to leverage direct mail’s biggest strength, the ability to target geographically, at a reasonable price. The terms: Minimum of 200 standard flat-mail pieces (under 3.3 ounces) to be delivered via a “saturation mailing” to a particular postal route (meaning every household on that route will get your mailer, at a rate of just 14.5 cents per piece.).

5. Marketing

The one thing to know: Those 5,000 other commercial impressions you’re battling with every day? Wit will help you cut through the noise. Examples of guerrilla marketing include Colgate inserting toothbrush-shaped sticks in ice cream with a reminder: “Don’t forget to brush;” the Fitness First health chain setting up a set of scales under a bus stop seat and an accompanying digital sign displaying to all how much the person weighed; and Absolut Vodka sticking what appeared to be plundered boxes of vodka that went round and round on airport baggage carousels. The rise of social media and the chance to get potentially millions of views on YouTube has added to the impact of such stunts.

One thing to do now: While guerrilla marketing has been embraced by big companies (think Red Bull’s outer-atmosphere parachute jump), it has its origins in smaller businesses seeking to generate a buzz on a tight budget. What could you do that’s out of this world … or at least outrageous?

6. Promotions

The one thing to know: Be bold or be ignored. Promotions remain the best way to quickly build excitement and attract people to your store. But … price-driven events don’t keep you top of mind throughout the year. And you run the risk of training your market to wait for discounts.

One thing to do now: Involve your staff in the planning of any sale or promotion. Be clear in your planning on exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve: Do you want to raise cash or promote a brand? Get rid of old merchandise or have an event?

7. Gift Certificates

The one thing to know: The most powerful gift certificates are those that have no minimum purchase requirements. If you’ve got the nerve to do it, offer $25 and watch your customers pour in.

One thing to do now: Are there employers like insurers, banks, hospitals or car dealerships in your area? In the months before the holiday season, approach management with an offer to provide customized gift certificates that could be distributed with payroll checks prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. It will make the bosses, and your sales, look good.

8. Website

The one thing to know: If you don’t have a decent, mobile-friendly website, you do not exist. Marketing tool, e-commerce platform, store catalog, social media portal, first impressions … it’s difficult to overstate how important your website is to your business, and how it is only going to become more significant in the future.

One thing to do now: If your site was designed by a “computer geek” friend or relative, it is probably time to bring in an expert. Opt for a “website developer” over a “designer.”

9. Email Bulletins

The one thing to know: In contrast to a lot of social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), email is a true and tried performer. Recent research has found that 4.25 percent of website visitors from emails turn into customers, while only 0.59 percent of visitors from social media make the conversion. While people show more willingness to be engaged commercially by emails, it doesn’t mean you can get overly promotional. Engagement should come first. Every email you write should be focused on your customer. It should meet their needs or offer something special so they close it feeling happy to have spent the time reading it.

Here are some ways you can make your emails worthwhile, courtesy of Constant Contact:

  • Offer valuable information that will solve one of their challenges
  • Share resources they may not know about
  • Give them a discount code or coupon to use on a purchase
  • Invite them to something exclusive, whether it’s a private page on your website or an event at your location

One thing to do now: Keep a signup sheet on your counter. And your request for a customer’s email address should imply a benefit: “Would you like to receive emails every few weeks about new products and special store events?” Grab people while they are on the premises. That’s when they are excited about your products and services.

10. Co-promotions

The one thing to know: Aim for a partner with similar clientele. It could be a coffee shop, an ice cream store, a yoga studio — even a pet business offering complementary products or services.

One thing to do now: Join your Chamber of Commerce. Whenever there’s small business campaign in the community, you’ll be among the first to know.

11. Word of Mouth

The one thing to know: The secret to generating positive word of mouth is never to promise everything you intend to deliver. The bigger the happy surprise you deliver when your customer comes into contact with you, the stronger the positive word of mouth that will follow.

One thing to do now: Send a thank-you note and gift certificate or discount coupon to referrers. (Of course, you need to make it a habit to ask customers how they found you). Be sure to send monthly emails to these clients with what’s new. If they’ve recommended you to one person, they are likely to recommend you to more.

12. Exterior Signage

The one thing to know: Expensive signage at an intrusively visible business location is often the cheapest advertising your money can buy. In marketing speak “intrusive visibility” refers to a sign’s ability to stand out from its surroundings. Are you in a location with a lot of passing traffic? Does your sign face that direction? It’s surprising how many signs can’t be seen by someone walking up Main Street.

One thing to do now: There is more to exterior signage than hulking billboards atop your store or a huge Duratrans display. A sandwich board out front can reinforce your branding message on a regular basis while building share of mind. Neat handwritten messages in chalk often work the best. The key is to change the message every few days. Give people a reason to look for your sign each day and to come in. You may need to check with your local city council to see what the regulations are, and then get to work.

ONLINE EXTRAs

13. Radio

The one thing to know: It’s the mass media for the small guy who wants to be a household name in his local market. It takes a high-frequency and a long-term commitment, but only a modest budget. According to Wizard of Ads Roy H. Williams, radio advertising offers 14 times the bang for your buck as newspaper advertising when used as a long-term strategy. You just need someone who is good with words and who knows how to script an emotionally engaging story.

One thing to do now: Use your own voice (not the channel’s talent, which everyone has heard and ignores). And make your point quickly. In an age of digital distraction and information overload, people are losing their listening skills. To embrace the new demands and forestall a wandering mind, Williams advises you to:

  1. Talk faster, say more.
  2. Use big ideas, presented tightly.
  3. Introduce a new mental image every three to five seconds.
  4. Use fewer adjectives.
  5. Embrace unpredictable timing and intonation.
  6. Say things plainly. Bluntly, even.
  7. Emotion is good. Even negative emotion.

14. SEO

The one thing to know: If you don’t show up on the first couple of pages of Google’s search engine, you’re not going to be found.  Without some basic search engine optimization, you will languish in the forgotten purgatory that is Google’s back pages.

One thing to do now: In order to perform well in local search results it’s critical that you optimize your Google Local Guides listing. Update the details about your business — always with identical address, phone number, hours info across  — and you’re good to go!

15. Google Ads

The one thing to know: Local pay-per-click works for businesses that are well known. If you’re still trying to build a reputation, try another mass medium to grow awareness first, and focus your website efforts on SEO.

One thing to do now: While Google Ads might not be a good marketing fit for your business, you should still be experimenting with them. Google itself recommends small businesses start with a daily test budget of $10 to $50.

16. Mobile Marketing

The one thing to know: The future of mobile marketing? It arrived yesterday. Don’t worry if you feel like you’re playing catch-up; most of the world’s biggest retailers didn’t see the impact smartphones would have on Internet use either.

One thing to do now: Make sure that what customers are finding accurately represents your business. If you haven’t done so, claim your business on Yelp to help you keep track of what people are saying.

17. SMS Marketing/Coupons

The one thing to know: Coupons work spectacularly well on mobile phones. A report by Chetan Sharma Consulting found that mobile coupons get 10 times more redemptions than traditional coupons.

One thing to do now: The initial ardor surrounding deal sites has cooled, and rightly so — store owners often ended up holding the bag as bargain hunters scooped up heavily discounted goods and never returned. Newer mobile campaign services such as those offered by Constant Contact promise to give the store owner control over the discounts being disbursed.

18. Social Media

The one thing to know: Social media can be an effective and measurable way to attract customers, but it takes a huge investment of time. It is in the words of the technocrati “earned advertising” as opposed to the paid variety. If you don’t enjoy engaging people through mediums like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter you are probably better off directing your energy to more conventional marketing channels.

One thing to do now: Be genuine. Your goal should be to create a first-name dialogue that will result in relationships rather than leads. Have faith those good relationships will turn into sales later.

19. Facebook

The one thing to know: Facebook is not a push medium. The moment you force Facebook engagement, you lose credibility with your audience. Seek to build a reputation as the “go-to person” for pets in your area. Help your customers make better buying decisions, whether it’s advice on nutrition, training a bird to speak or exercising an overweight hamster.

One thing to do now: Hold a Facebook Fan Friday party to reward those loyal customers who like your page. Can’t do that? Offer these “best customers” a special perk like a discount coupon or daily deal through your Facebook page.

20. Blogging

The one thing to know: You know more about pets than just about anyone in your market. Blogs are your platform to show that off while building trust and appreciation for your business. That Google is increasingly demonstrating a preference for “expert” content — content that answers search phrases that start How Do I …? Where can I …? What is the best …? — is a huge added benefit

One thing to do now: Think up the 50 most asked questions you get from customers and create a blog post around each one. When you get done you’ll have enough fresh content for a year.

21. Review sites

The one thing to know: More than 90 percent of consumers now read reviews before making a purchase, and according to one survey, 78 percent of them say they trust peer recommendations over ads.

One thing to do now: Want good online reviews of your business? ASK satisfied customers for them. Most customers will be more than happy to comply. In your pursuit of favorable coverage, aim for at least 10 customers. Stop letting that one disgruntled customer on Yelp! dominate public perceptions of your store.

22. YouTube

The one thing to know: On YouTube, in contrast to just about every other medium, consumers are willing to spend a significantly greater amount of time with brand messaging … as long as it’s entertaining.

One thing to do now: Use your smartphone to collect video of customers giving you real-world, real-time testimonials “in the moment.” Post these testimonials on YouTube and embed them on your website. “You don’t even need to know what you’re doing, says “Wizard of Ads” Roy Williams. “Professional video editors are plentiful and affordable in the cloud,” he says.

23. Magazines

The one thing to know: When you know the type of consumer you want to target with your message (meaning their personality, values, attitudes, interests and lifestyles), magazines are one of the best tools. This kind of targeted exposure means the success of your campaign will be determined by how good your ad is. Downside is that frequency is not great and that rates tend to be high.

One thing to do now: Big brands will use magazine ads to raise awareness or to persuade people to consider their product over another company’s. YOUR ads should encourage readers to come in and buy something.

24. Mobile Billboards

The one thing to know: The answer to that problem of a billboard message becoming quickly invisible to regular passers-by? Wheels. Mobile billboards and transit advertising are an effective alternative in large urban areas where the cost of a prominent billboard can be astronomical.

One thing to do now: Congested traffic is your target. Drivers who are stuck in traffic will most likely notice, read and remember the ads on the back of mobile billboard trucks or buses.

25. Location

The one thing to know: Showrooming, social media engagement, geotargeting … for all the upheaval in retailing, some rules remain inviolable, including the granddaddy of them all — it’s about location, location, location. A high-visibility location is usually the cheapest advertising you can buy for a retail business, especially in current times, with escalating media costs and the public showing an increasing resistance to ads. “Your location tells the public what you believe about your company in your heart,” says “Wizard of Ads” Roy Williams.

One thing to do now: Move to where the action is. Take your lead from Home Depot, Starbucks and the other big boys who have already done the research. If you’ve fallen for a cheap location and are paying thousands more in marketing than in rent, you might consider putting that cash toward a better location, somewhere people can’t miss you as they drive by.

26. Public Relations

The one thing to know: Journalists will rarely read past the first 25 words of a press release. It’s why many PR companies are shifting to Twitter to disseminate their news. Make it easy for them as a source. Pitch story ideas, get to know and be available if a reporter calls. In a world where consumers are skeptical about most of the information they see about a business, mentions in the local newspaper boost credibility, influence brand identity and your Google ranking. It’s worth it.

One thing to do now: Think like a newspaper editor. That means, what is it that will make a reader utter those golden words, “Huh, how about that?” This could be a trend in pet-gift-giving at the holidays to something unique and out of the ordinary.

27. Events

The one thing to know: Whether it’s a birthday party, a dog-training seminar or another themed event, the single thing that will determine its success more than any other is a follow-up phone call to the initial invitation. This is about giving people a FUN, possibly educational human experience that they can only get from a small retailer. Your regular customers will likely be put out if you DON’T call them.

One thing to do now: Use the “50 percent rule” to determine how many customers you will need to achieve your sales goal. It goes like this: 50 percent of those clients who express interest will say they will be there; 50 percent of those who do actually will show up; and 50 percent of those who show up will buy something.

28. Loyalty

The one thing to know: Consumers today expect to be rewarded for their loyalty. And there are a lot ways to do that, from incentive operators to a simple program you manage yourself that disburses rewards at your discretion.

One thing to do now: In your mind, you may already be aware of who your best customers are — the people who attend your events, open your emails, engage you on social media, refer other shoppers to you, and who account for a disproportionate share of your sales. Reward these customers for their loyalty by putting them on an exclusive list. Planning a sale or event? Rolling out new products or services? Let them know first by scheduling a special email a few days before notifying everyone else.

29. Yellow Pages

The one thing to know: The Yellow Pages were where people used to go to find a service provider (in contrast to newspapers and magazines, where’d they look for products). The operative words: “used to.” Now, they go to Google.

One thing to do now: Put your ad dollars elsewhere. It’s time to move on.

30. Cause Marketing

The one thing to know: People like to support and spend money with businesses that share the same values and support the same causes. Your community links are an advantage over the majors. Play it up.

One thing to do now: You don’t have to always donate products, your time or energy to community causes (but obviously it’s a good thing to be seen to be doing good). Blogs and other social media channels offer you the chance to express your support and show off your values. If there’s a particular cause your business supports or whose values you stand with, remind your audience. Just stay clear of politics.

Chris Burslem is the group managing editor of SmartWork Media.

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JIM ACKERMAN

Things Are Looking Good in the Pet Business … but Don’t Get Too Comfortable

PETS+'s marketing guru just wants to remind you that eventually, the upswing will become a downturn. When that happens, will you be ready?

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Cover Stories

Pet Pros Share Their Expertise, Helping You Learn How To Do … Everything!

Our guide to apprehending bad fish, displaying more dog food than you have room for, triaging a sick bird, fixing a freezer, and most things in between

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WE RECENTLY ASKED members of the PETS+ Brain Squad to share standout skills. Their responses, rounded up here, impressed us! We learned a lot, and laughed out loud more than once. Guest stars also make an appearance — check out Lucky Dog host Brandon McMillan and Cat Canopy Rescue’s Shawn Sears — to offer their expertise on additional topics. To take part in future stories like these, join our Brain Squad at petsplusmag.com/brainsquad. We want your knowledge as part of the collective PETS+ readership!

1. HOW TO GET A CAT OUT OF A TREE

ShaWn Sears | Cat Canopy Rescue, Woodinville, WA

Arborist Shawn Sears co-founded Cat Canopy Rescue to help kitties who climb too high in western Washington. In other areas of the country, pet business owners can advise customers with stuck pets by passing along his tried and true tips:

  • Give the cat 24 hours to come down — “They need to climb down backwards. Some can figure it out.” Sears discourages setting out food as encouragement. It can attract other animals, which will make up in the tree seem safer than down on the ground.
  • Don’t call the fire department — “It’s rare that they will come out and help. Dispatch doesn’t generally respond to a cat stuck in a tree.”
  • Do call an arborist if the cat has climbed higher than 20 feet — These professional climbers can safely reach such heights and offer the best possible outcome.
  • DIY up to 20 feet — Most extension ladders measure between 18 and 25 feet, allowing for pet parents to safely climb and attempt a rescue at this height. Simply scoop up the cat if near the trunk. Use a pushbroom to nudge the cat toward you if farther along a branch. Pro tip: Wear rubber-palmed gardening gloves for grip and protection.

 

2. HOW TO FIRE A CLIENT

Kirstin Morrison | Six Figure Pet Business Academy

Difficult clients often cost more money than they bring into a business. Business coach Kristin Morrison recommends firing those who do.

“Letting  challenging  clients go frees up  your time, your energy and creates space to take on an ideal client. It’s worth it.”

Here’s how to have the dreaded but necessary conversation:

  1. It’s always best to “break up” over the phone, rather than in email or text, and start the conversation with honest appreciation.
  2. Be firm, but compassionate.
  3. Try to sound breezy and light, even when not feeling that way.
  4. Don’t blame.
  5. Keep the conversation brief.
  6. Be professional.
  7. Offer a positive affirmation about your experience with the client. Something like “I really enjoyed working with your pets” can be a truthful, simple way to end the call. (Leave out the part about the humans being challenging!) Leave people better than when you found them.

 

3. HOW TO PROTOTYPE A PET TOY

Spencer Williams | West Paw Design, Bozeman, MT

In his role as CEO of West Paw Design, Spencer Williams has created more than a few pet toys. He believes all products should solve a problem or enhance the relationship between a person and their dog or cat.

“If it’s doing one of those things, it’s going to be a great toy.”

Williams recommends that budding designers do the following:

  • Draw the toy and share it with as many people as possible to get feedback. Also consider how it would fit into a product line or retail brand.
  • Finalize design and 3-D-print the prototype — “3-D printing is really cost effective now and widely available. In Bozeman, MT, our public library has a 3-D printer.” If you don’t want to invest in and/or learn the required software, outsource to an expert.

 

4. HOW TO CREATE THEMED BACKDROPS FOR $10 OR LESS

Kris MinklE | The Whole Pet, Fort Smith, AR

Marketing director Kris Minkle knows how to get maximum merchandising from minimal dollars. This sports-themed set began as part of a display she made for pet beds and other items.

A bed sheet from a discount store represents the sky. Minkle painted hundreds of dots on butcher paper to create the blurry stadium crowd. White tape and an inexpensive fleece serve as the football field, with PVC pipe and fittings making up the uprights.

“The display was a smashing success, and we sold out of our first order of beds. It probably cost less than $10 and took an afternoon to put together. I then recycled the painted background and used it as a photo backdrop for our grooming dogs!”

 

5. HOW TO TRIAGE A SICK BIRD

Sal Salafia | Exotic Pet Birds, Rochester, NY

Customers think of pet business owners as all-around animal experts. They regularly ask for information and advice — and for help during emergencies. Sal Salafia provided the latter on a recent Friday night.

“A client brought in a young budgie who was losing energy. With all of the avian vets in town closed, she turned to us out of fear that her bird would not make it through the weekend.”

Salafia raises a variety of birds and does so with regular veterinary guidance. His store has several incubators, so he placed the bird, named Ozzy, inside one to raise and maintain his temp.

“You do this because birds can lose energy critical to their survival when in a weakened state.”

Salafia then slowly fed Ozzy a mixture of Pedialyte and Kaytee Exact Hand Feeding Formula through a syringe to ensure he didn’t dehydrate in the raised heat.

“I allowed him to rest for about an hour. Upon the second check-in, he was bouncing around with an unbelievable amount of energy and eating millet.”

For pet store owners who do not raise birds but do sell bird supplies, Salafia recommends being prepared for such a situation: Learn how to hand-feed birds and have available an incubator and an avian vet who will take an after-hours call.

 

6. HOW TO GET THE PRESS TO OPEN YOUR EMAILS

Nancy Hassel | American Pet Professionals

A positive mention of your business on TV or in a newspaper or magazine can give it a significant boost. But how do you get the press to even open the emails you send? Nail the subject line, Nancy Hassel says. That means grabbing their attention and getting right to the point. “Journalists are crushed for time and usually on deadline. Be respectful of that and think about what makes you open an email.”

Hassel wrote this one for APP client Harbor Pet: Media alert! North Fork Dock Diving Pet Expo & Fundraiser May 20-21, 2017. It resulted in 36 press mentions, including camera crews and reporters covering the event.

Hassel also advises not to use tactics like “Re:” when there was no initial contact. Your email may land in the trash — or worse, marked as spam.

 

7. HOW TO CREATE HANGING PRODUCT DISPLAYS

Laura LaCongo | Notorious D.O.G., Clarence, NY

When merchandising in her store, Laura LaCongo utilizes space up to the ceiling. This display features a variety of creatures, on land and in the sea.

“Fluff and Tuff fish hang from the ceiling as if they are swimming.”

LaCongo recommends staying within weight guidelines when using ceiling clips to hang products. For this display, she used clips suitable for up to 12 pounds.

8. HOW TO WIN OVER SCARED (OR SIMPLY ALOOF) PETS

Kelly Catlett | Waggs 2 Whiskers, Bagdad, KY

Not all pets connect quickly with a new sitter. When that happens, Kelly Catlett pulls from her bag of trust-building tricks.

She tosses treats into the crates of scared, barking pups. This serves as a distraction and allows her to open the door and move away. Catlett keeps a children’s book handy and reads aloud to draw in aloof kitties. She also finds that talking to pets as she goes about other business in the home works.

“That gives the pets a chance to get used to my movements, my sounds, my voice. Remember that we are on their turf. It’s their home, and they are always so protective of it. Even though I have already met them at our meet and greet, I’m still careful to not assume they remember me and have accepted me as their caregiver.”

 

9. HOW TO MARKET AND DEMO NEW PRODUCTS ON FACEBOOK LIVE

Cory Giles | The General Store, Collinsville, IL

Cory Giles has embraced Facebook Live as a way to promote products new to his store. Dozens of videos feature everything from dog treats and chews to cat toys and litter boxes. Items that require demonstration, such as a litter box, show best in video, he says.

“There are no tools that compare for pure product demo. Think about how much less effective a traditional text and picture post would be.”

Giles recommends the following when promoting a product on Facebook Live: State how it will solve a problem, and anticipate and address any objections. He also recommends using page insights to decide when to go live and for how long, based on previous viewer engagement. His pro tip: Check out the Switcher Go and Ripl apps for inserting graphics and video.

10. HOW TO GET TREE SAP OUT OF A DOG’S COAT

Jane Donley | Dog Beach Dog Wash, San Diego, CA

Dogs love to roll in anything stinky and/or sticky. In the case of tree sap, Jane Donley has a tried-and-true removal method.

“Out comes the spray bottle of De-Solv-it, an eco-friendly organic product containing a citrus solution safe for skin and hair.”

She sprays it on the dog’s coat, preferably dry, then waits a few minutes for it to penetrate the sap. Paper towels wipe the sap away, and then the dog gets shampooed and rinsed well.

 

11. GET MORE FOOD OPTIONS ON THE SALES FLOOR

Toni Shelaske says, “Stripe it.” Instead of stacking food from the same brand by protein, alternate proteins within the same stack. She says manufacturers have even begu n adding product info to bag bottoms for this very purpose.

“Striping allows us to offer customers a wider selection while saving space on the sales floor.”

 

12. HOW TO KEEP DOGS FROM PEEING AND POOPING ON THE EASTER BUNNY’S LAWN

Nancy Okun | Cats N Dogs, Port Charlotte, FL

Nancy Okun learned a valuable lesson from last year’s Easter Bunny photo fundraiser: Do not use fake grass on the set.

“A little one pooped on the grass. Not to worry. It was hard enough to pick up with a poop bag. A fairly large dog peed on the grass. Soaked that up with paper towels, sprayed Fizzion and thought all was well. Nope.

“Within the next 40 minutes, and we book every five minutes for pictures, we spent more time cleaning up poop and pee than taking pix. By the end, we couldn’t get the grass clean. The smell was so strong we had to leave the room to catch our breath. The bunny had to toss his sneakers in the garbage along with the fake grass.”

Okun solved the problem in 2018 by swapping the fake grass for a sheet, keeping the Easter Bunny’s “lawn” from too closely resembling a doggie bathroom.

 

13. HOW TO HAVE A SALE

Candace D’Agnolo | Pet Boss Nation

The business coach regularly points out to clients that they own a store — not a museum! That means moving older inventory.

“Mark items older than three months 20 to 25 percent off, and items older than six months 35 to 50 percent off. Get an influx of shoppers twice with one sale by kicking it off on a Friday; on the following Thursday, take significant additional markdowns on stuff that’s older than six months. Refresh the displays as you go, ensuring they always look the best they can. Promoting the additional markdowns will bring shoppers back who love a deal.”

 

14. HOW TO BECOME THE GO-TO PET PRODUCT EXPERT FOR LOCAL TV

Rachel Phelps | PrestonSpeaks.com

When Preston the Westie became an internet-famous blogger, local TV stations began asking his human Rachel Phelps if they could appear in pet-centric segments.

“After a very painful first interview, where luckily the camera focused on how cute Preston was instead of his rambling mom, I knew I need to get help ASAP.”

Phelps joined Toastmasters, the nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills.

“My club meetings gave me a safe place among supportive people to practice speeches for events, conduct mock interviews, and even how to lead a press conference. I also received constructive feedback from other members and tips on how to improve.”

She recommends that all business owners join Toastmasters or a similar org.

“The way we are perceived is so important for first impressions. If we come across as confident when we speak, then people will take us more seriously and are more likely to work with us on projects or partnerships. Plus, the media loves to put people on camera who make a good impression and feel comfortable in front of the lens.”

 

15. HOW TO RECOGNIZE A NEW REVENUE STREAM

Robert H. Smith | Jungle Bob’s Reptile World, Selden, NY

Before Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Jungle Bob’s offered exotics boarding as a courtesy to its customers. The natural disaster changed the store’s approach.

“We never lost power and suddenly had 65 extra cages of other people’s animals,” Robert H. Smith — aka Jungle Bob — says. “It was a major emergency, as people lost their homes during that storm.”

It didn’t feel right charging for the service, but the tip jar overflowed as customers began picking up their pets, some after weeks of boarding. That told Smith that they would pay for the service, especially after the store had showed such generosity in their time of need.

 

16. HOW TO DIY WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO DIY

Laura Amiton | The Filling Station Pet Supplies, Tigard, OR

When a power surge took out the lights in two of her store’s freezers, Laura Amiton decided to try a DIY repair with help from the manufacturer.

“They walked me through the first one. I took some pictures so I would make sure to re-attach several switch cords to the same places, and then I did the second one without their help.

“Honestly, I was sweating bullets because the person on the phone made it very clear that the replacement part would blow out if anything was hooked back up again in a wrong order.

“But, it worked out, and I truly did feel like I accomplished something that generally I would have hired out for. I’m sure it saved me the cost of a technician’s time, and if it were to happen again, I feel much more confident that I could fix it myself.”

 

17. HOW TO STOP BLEEDING WHEN YOU CLIP A QUICK

Kristen Finley | La Bella Puppy Doos, San Antonio, TX

Quicks get clipped. It happens, and then blood begins to seep from the nail. Groomer Kristen Finley prepares for these inevitable — especially with black nails — accidents. She never clips wet nails, as the styptic powder that stops blood flow adheres only to dry nails, and she creates a calming atmosphere in her salon.

“If you are nervous, the dog will be nervous as well, so go slow and be calm when clipping nails.”

Nerves can lead to high blood pressure and stronger blood flow. Finley also cuts nails only during vet office hours in case a dog has an undiagnosed disorder that keeps blood from clotting as it should.

 

18. HOW TO BREAK UP A DOG FIGHT

Brandon McMillan, LUCKY DOG on CBS

Dog trainers and owners of daycare and boarding facilities know what to do when a fight breaks out. Because it happens less frequently in retail settings, store owners may be caught off-guard. Lucky Dog host Brandon McMillan shares this don’t and do.

5 Don’t try to grab the dogs by their collars — “The danger zone when a dog is fighting is right near the collar and above. Dogs don’t know what they’re biting if they go into full bite mode. I’ve seen people lose digits that way.”

5 Do make noise — “The best way to break up a fight is with a loud noise.” He recommends shaking pennies in a jar or using compressed air.

McMillan regularly employs noise during training to break a dog’s focus on unwanted behavior. He partnered with Petmate to make his own version of pennies in a jar, the Shake & Break Training Tool. Use one to break up a fight and ensure a sale.

 

19. HOW TO WRANGLE A MISBEHAVING DOG

Trish Elliott | Town & Country Pet Resort, Valley Springs, CA

Trish Elliot’s boarding facility sits in the middle of her 160-acre ranch, which also has sheep. Wrangling dogs who just want one more minute — or 10 — in the play yard doesn’t differ too much from moving livestock, she says.

Whether the dog just won’t listen, or hasn’t settled in and fears the unknown, Elliot starts by opening the gates to the play yard and their run. She then makes a big circle to approach the pup from behind.

“That small amount of pressure by approaching will cause them to move away, toward their run.”

It also helps to put a treat on their bed as a reward.

 

20. HOW TO NOT LEAVE ANYTHING OUT OF A CONTRACT

Rachel Diller | The Poodle Shop and Urban Sophisticats, Littleton, CO

Some salons hire groomers as employees. Others bring them on as contractors or simply rent them a booth. No matter the setup, Rachel Diller details it in writing. Among the factors she covers in a contract are who has responsibility for products, equipment, scheduling, pricing, insurance, client retention. Also: payment amount and who handles withholding taxes.

Diller also recommends a thorough set of salon guidelines.

“Clearly define the rules and policies. The space being offered to a worker is your space. You have every right to define how it is utilized and cared for.

 

21. HOW TO MAKE YOUR PET INSTAGRAM-FAMOUS

Hilary Sloan | Instagram.com/EllaBeanTheDog

Ella Bean — puppy mill rescue and lover of all things cashmere — has 113,000 followers on Instagram. How did she get so famous? Her human Hilary Sloan made it happen. Here’s how you can do the same:

  • Post clear, clean pictures.
  • Tell a story — “Ella chooses to cuddle up on a cashmere or faux-fur blanket above anything else in the house. She positions herself at the highest point in the room and looks down on everyone. Those quirks inform her luxury diva personality.”
  • Engage with the community — “As people come on your page and like and comment, it’s important to acknowledge that. It’s also important to acknowledge people who are creating content that you really like and respect. Ella’s account is so successful because we’re friends with so many people we’ve met on social media.”

 

22. HOW TO CATCH A BAD FISH

Mike Doan | Odyssey Pets, Dallas, TX

Overnight, a fish can turn into a cannibal that can evade capture. When that happens, Mike Doan reaches for his tiny tackle, then baits the hook with mysis (shrimp-like crustaceans), and drops it in.

“Because the bad fish is also the alpha, he’ll be the first to check out the new food dangling down. Once he takes the bait, tug on the line to set the hook and draw that bad boy out of the tank. Gently, with wet hands covered in StressGuard, remove the hook. With one end of a Q-tip, dab the puncture until dry. Then dip the other end in iodine or mercurochrome and cover the wound.”

Then find that bad boy a new home where he can live … alone.

 

 

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Meet 8 Pet Champions With Business Super Powers

These heroic pet pros’ alter egos are anything but underdogs.

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At a store in New York, a man stares at shelf after shelf of bags and cans, stressed about choosing the right food for his dog. A cat cowers in her carrier at a grooming salon in Ohio, fearful of what awaits outside the open door. At a home in Maryland, a woman frets over a beloved pet’s health, worried something may be seriously wrong. Who can these mere mortals turn to? Who will help their furry family members? The Super Pet Professionals! These heroes excel at education. They have a calming way with animals. Their instinct and knowledge tell them when it’s time to involve a vet. Some also have a knack for merchandising, an eidetic memory or the ability to be extraordinarily efficient. With these powers, they keep people and pets happy and healthy. Let’s meet eight such champions!

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Tough Talks: The PETS+ Guide to Mastering Difficult Conversations

Our exhaustive guide to having difficult conversations.

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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.

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