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The Perils of Shipping Animals and — Oh My! — Taxidermist Referrals?

We answer your most pressing questions.

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I have a small grooming operation. What’s the protocol when you’re busy and the phone rings? Answer the call and put it on hold, or let it go to voicemail?

This is really about personal preference. But Pauline Blachford of Pauline Blachford Consulting prefers the latter for two reasons: The customer you are serving at the time the phone rings (or even the pet you are working on) deserves your undivided attention. “This also breaks the train of thought of the service provider and causes a disconnect between the two,” she adds. When it comes to voicemail, the greatest fear for incoming callers is that they never know when their call will be returned.

Blachford recommends the recording say something like: “Thank you for calling ABC Groomers. We are presently taking care of another client. Your call is important to us. Please leave your name and number, and we will get back to you with the hour.” In committing to an hour, it sets the precedent that every team member knows that responding ASAP is the top priority.

The banker who has always handled our account and knows our business is moving to a larger lender. Should we follow him or stay with our existing bank, which has treated us well?

It’s never just about the bank or just about the banker. The most important thing is that your banker has influence within his or her institution. He needs to be able to get things done, either through his professional credibility, knowledge or connections. Talk to the banker. Ask him if he feels his new bank will be the right fit for you. Shifting a business account is not like transferring a credit card debt. It’s a significant process. But then a well-connected banker as also a crucial team member of any growing business.

Is it absolutely necessary to reconcile our books to the last penny? It seems a lot of effort for not much point.

There are some areas where you can disregard small discrepancies, but when it comes to reconciling the bank account to the general ledger, you need to be “bang on all the time,” says David Brown of the Edge Retail Academy. It primarily has to do with security: A common embezzlement technique is to skim small, seemingly random amounts of cash from revenue. Over the years, these mysterious discrepancies can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

Can I send by mail any animals, like a small turtle? I mean, it will be in a proper crate.

Turtles no, but there are a number of “small, harmless, cold-blooded animals” that you can legally mail, along with bees, fish and live adult birds. As you can imagine, there’s an exhausting list of rules and restrictions governing such shipments. (Read the U.S. Postal Service guidelines here: ppmag.us/11910). But given all the requirements and, moreover, the risk to the animal itself, you’re better off legally and morally to let customers pick up pets or deliver them yourself.

Much sales advice recommends role-playing exercises, but my sales staff members always slink away when I suggest them. How can I get them to play?

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That may be because the focus is negative, says sales trainer Dave Richardson. Make role-playing positive and fun. First play the role of the salesperson and let your salespeople critique you. Then, when it’s your turn to play the customer, instead of saying, “Here’s what you did wrong,” start off by telling the person what you felt they did well and what you would change if you had the opportunity. Always finish on a positive, encouraging note.

A taxidermist asked if we’d provide referrals. I’m not sure it’s something I want to be associated with. What’s your view?

Well, it’s a growing market and you’d probably be providing a service to people who don’t think they can physically part with their beloved pet’s remains. Perhaps you could consider providing a discreet link on your website under “Other Services,” and you may find it bringing in a new clientele. Another option is to call around to your local jewelers and see if they do lab-grown diamonds made from the cremated ashes of the pet. Memento mori!

Since launching in 2017, PETS+ has won 11 major international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact PETS+'s editors at editor@petsplusmag.com.

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Harness the Over-Achiever, Sell Your Business to Prospective Employees, and Get Your Customers to Follow Your Move

Ever consider systems and processes that everyone abides by?

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What to do with the over-achieving employee? I have one such person — my newest hire — who puts the rest of the staff in the uncomfortable position of “how do we keep up with her? She’s kicking our ass.”

On the surface, that seems like a good problem to have, but if no one can keep up, it can strain relations and tank morale all around. Nancy Hassel of American Pet Professionals has a question to throw back at you: “Do you have systems and processes in place already that everyone abides by?” she wonders. “If not, it may be time to start, so everyone is on a level playing field. I would try roping in some of that energy of the new hire to see if she inspires new ideas and inspiration for your business. Bring everyone together for team meetings. Maybe her ass-kicking has been needed, and you’re all just not used to it! Or, maybe the new employee may not be a fit for your business as she is disrupting your status quo.”

I’m moving my store to a new location about 25 miles away. What are some ways to get my customers to follow me?

Have no fear — this is actually a great marketing opportunity because it gives you a valid reason to communicate with your existing clientele, as well as prospective customers. Start getting out the news months before the move. “It is important to communicate why you are moving — a better location, a bigger location, a more convenient location, you purchased a building,” says James Porte of the Porte Marketing Group. Place a small sign in your existing store announcing the move. You can also mention it on your business cards, invoices and other mediums. A direct mail-out is critical, says Porte, adding that the more memorable way you can communicate this, the better the chance it will be remembered. “I once saw a pack of playing cards imprinted with a business’s name that was packaged in a die-cut paper moving truck as a self-mailer. It was awesome!” Next, get in touch with the local newspaper and tell them about the move, and in particular what you’re bringing to the market — possibly exposure to the finest independent pet-food makers or a higher level of pet care. As the day nears, get on the phone. “Contacting each and every customer by phone to let them know you are moving is by far the most effective way,” Porte says. Finally, a grand opening will help get your old customers to the new store so “they can experience what you have done that is improved and of greater benefit to the customer,” he says. And don’t worry about overdoing the message. This is one time when repetitive communication is necessary, particularly to your existing customers.

What kind of discount should I give my bookkeeper on my merchandise, given that she knows exactly how much I paid for it?

We’d say very little. Your bookkeeper should be a pro who understands how discounts impact your bottom line. If she asks for a “good price,” offer her the employee discount or trade merchandise for her services. And to keep it fair for both parties, trade full retail for full retail. Unless your bookkeeper is willing to discount her services, you should not feel obliged to cut the price of her purchases.

If I join other retailers in a group marketing effort, am I responsible if their advertising is misleading? What about the advertising of a brand name item I carry in my store?

Wherever your name or store is represented, you have responsibilities. If you are part of a group advertisement, adding your logo to a prepared ad (as in co-op advertising) or endorsing a product, you have the obligation to do your homework to ensure the ad is not misleading. Know whom you’re dealing with and ensure you know where and how your name/logo are being used.

What’s a good way to sell our company to prospective employees?

One of the most valuable skills a businessperson can have is the ability to recruit and retain good people, and it all starts with the job posting. “When the right people read your ad, their hearts will whisper, ‘These people are like me, and I am like them,’” says Roy H. Williams, author of The Wizard of Ads. Bullet-point what the job entails and also the benefits, but the core message of your ad should be about who you are as a company, your reputation and your goals. The best salespeople often don’t have a sales background, so go easy on the requirements. Your message should be more about culture than qualifications.

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

Learn to handle those days when business is off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where can I find a good employee evaluation form?

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

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How to Retain Staff, Decide on Vendor Displays and Deal with Miffed Vendors

Old school still works.

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What’s better for marketing: email or social media?

Studies have shown that email is a stronger direct marketing tool than social media. Consider these numbers from OptinMonster based on research carried out between 2016 and 2018:

  • 91 percent of people check their email daily compared to 57 percent who check their Facebook account.
  • 77 percent of consumers say they prefer email for permission-based promotional messages compared to just 4 percent for Facebook.
  • 66 percent of email users have made a purchase as the result of a marketing message from email compared to 20 percent for Facebook.

The most telling statistic though has to do with control of your message: Email will typically reach more than 85 percent of the people you send it to, whereas Facebook’s organic reach has declined to about 1 to 6 percent, depending on your total number of followers.

Social media sites, in general, are more casual and can help build brand awareness, reach very specific customer segments and foster and create communities. Social media is also a great of way building your database of email addresses through contests and other activities that require audience participation. With social media generating leads but not necessarily more business, it’s thus important to combine both email and social media marketing efforts to get the maximum return.

We spend a lot of time training staff. How do we ensure we’re keeping them in a competitive environment like the current one?

A competitive salary is obviously important, but employee longevity is often more about other issues like the friendships people have at work, the opportunities to grow, the challenge and satisfaction they get from their career. And sometimes it’s about the benefits. One of the best ways to find out what an employee wants is “stay interviews,” held periodically. Specifically, say: “Please tell me why you like working here and what I can do better.” (Employment website Monster offers a list of “stay interview questions here: petsplusmag.com/2192.) As you gain experience as an employer, you’ll develop better instincts when it comes to hiring the kind of people who will stay. But it doesn’t hurt to be upfront. Tell job candidates, “This is a long-term position for the right person. If you don’t see yourself here in three years, please tell me.”

I carry two competing brands in a fairly narrow, raw-food category. Now one of them is implying I should drop the other slightly-less-popular brand or it will cut off supply. Is this legal?

With a few exceptions, yes, the law allows a miffed vendor to cut you off cold. “In general, companies in the U.S. are free to decide when to do business and when to stop doing business with another company,” says attorney Barbara Mandell of the law firm Dykema Gossett, which focuses on antitrust law.

Is there a rule of thumb on using vendor displays?

There are times, says display expert Larry Johnson, when it makes sense to use vendor-provided collateral, such as when customers ask for the line by name, or when the display has some feature or information you can’t recreate in your own setup. But more often than not, you won’t get the seamless fit that top-notch visual merchandising demands, says Johnson, listing mismatching colors, overbearing logos and “displays that are too big for the amount of business you expect them to generate” as some of the problems he’s seen in such situations. Good display is all about balance, focus and restraint, and an ad hoc approach will rarely work. “Sometimes free can end up being very costly,” Johnson says.

I just caught an error in the bonuses we paid out to staff for the holiday period. It comes to over $1,000. Should I ask for the money back?

Nope. Eat the loss. Even if you could collect, the impact on morale and productivity would be a killer. Instead, you could explain what happened and that you plan to treat the payments as interest-free advances against next year’s bonuses. That way, you should eventually recover most of the overpayments without demanding staff find money that’s probably already spent.

How do you know an online review is sincere?

We’ll assume you’re asking because you suspect a rival is padding its Yelp page, not because you’d ever consider doing anything so unethical (and illegal in some states).

Based on Yelp’s own data-driven research, fake reviews tend to stand out because of the following:

  • The glowing testimonial belongs to a newly created account with no history of reviews.
  • There’s an overabundance of first-person pronouns or mentions of who the person was with (“my husband,” “my family”).
  • The review features strings of empty adjectives extolling the general unadulterated awesomeness of the store.
  • The reviewer goes overboard with detailed descriptions of product or service features.
  • There is the existence of terms and phrases that business owners, rather than shoppers, would likely use, such as “great customer service” or “their industry-leading prototype bridal display.”

Bottom line: It’s surprisingly difficult to fake sincerity.

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