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Writing a Great Reference Letter … and More November-December Questions Answered

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A terrific employee is leaving for the West Coast. How do I write her a reference?

Think about the references that have impressed you as a boss. Make it personal. Don’t just repeat her qualifications or you flub the chance to extol her character traits — something a résumé can’t convey. Think of a story when she went beyond the call of duty and how your business benefited. That’s really what a prospective employer is looking for. But don’t go on too long — a page should be enough. As with all writing, the shorter it is, the greater impact it will have.

An employer has asked me to comment on a former staff member’s performance. He wasn’t great. Should I be honest?

Unlike the previous question, this is an area where it’s often best to keep your mouth shut. Unless he signed a release protecting you from legal action, a simple “It’s our policy not to comment” may save you from a lawsuit.

Are you just doing stories devoted to dog/cat supplies?

No. We try to have Pets+ reflect the overall pets market, and since the majority of sales and products center around dogs and cats, you’re going to see more on dogs and cats than on other pets. And we try to focus the ideas and advice on building your business, no matter your pet specialty. But we are always looking for ways to get birds, reptiles, fish and small animals into the magazine, and to that end, we’ll let you in on a secret: The best way to influence content in Pets+ is to join the Brain Squad (petsplusmag.com/brainsquad) and take our monthly surveys. If you’ve got great ideas, we want to hear them … and share them in the magazine. 

What’s the secret to a thank-you note?

That’s easy: Just try to write as you speak. Instead of “Dear John,” say “Hi John.” Instead of “Yours truly,” write “Regards” or “All my best” followed by your name. Before you put pen to paper, type out a draft to compose your thoughts, then copy in cursive. Keep the paper neat. If you really want to wow your customer, order correspondence cards, personalized with your store name and address, or use pet-themed cards.

How can I get better at business writing? 

Permission marketing expert Seth Godin did a blog post about this recently. Your question was his headline, and his answer was simple: “Don’t do business writing.” Godin asks, “Have you ever met someone in industry who talks like he writes? You visit a store and the person says, ‘Effective Nov. 1, 2017, we have ceased operations at this location. For further information, correspondence should be addressed to our headquarters.’” No one talks like that, so we shouldn’t write like that either. Before writing your next email blast, social media post or even window sign, say your message aloud — then write that down.

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When shopping or dining out, I often meet people who would be great salespeople for me, but I don’t know how to approach them. Any ideas?

Here’s a great one from jewelry-industry consultant David Geller, who advises printing cards that say: “I was very impressed with your sales presentation and service level today when you served me. If you have ever considered changing employers, please give me a call.” Then sign your name. Then, when you go dining, or shopping, or even to another pet business, if you happen upon someone who interests you, just give them the card and walk away. With this approach, if they’re interested, they’ll get back to you. Plus, they can’t talk during business hours anyway.


This article originally appeared in the November-December 2017 edition of PETS+.

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

Here are the answers to these questions.

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

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

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Video: Bush Service Dog Honored with Life-Size Statue — Take a Look

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

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

What should you look for in a mentor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why You Need a Will, Yes, You Have to Give Minors a Refund and 3 Other Burning Questions Answered

You asked, we answered.

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I’m planning an end-of-year company party, but one concern is that somebody might get drunk and have a car accident and I might get sued. Got any advice on protecting myself?

These days, the Grinch must be a lawyer. Concerns about liability for alcohol-related incidents, sexual harassment and workers’ compensation claims have led many companies to forgo holiday galas entirely. You don’t have to. But if you’re really afraid, lawyer Anil Khosla, writing in Inc. Magazine, suggests the following steps to reduce your liability: “1. To distance the business from the party, make it an entirely social event, don’t invite clients or vendors, and make sure employees know that attendance is voluntary. 2. Plan accordingly. Hold your gathering off-site if possible. That may shift some of the potential liability to the hotel, restaurant or caterer. If you must have an on-site party, hire an independent caterer. Don’t permit anyone from the company to serve alcohol, and instruct bartenders to stop serving anyone who seems inebriated. Lawyers advise avoiding an open bar— or, at the very least, limiting it to the first hour. Also, close the bar at least one hour before the party ends. 3. Consider providing transportation to and from the event. Make sure that cabs will be available, and appoint someone to suggest cab rides home for people who have had a few too many.”

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Video: Bush Service Dog Honored with Life-Size Statue — Take a Look

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Video: Adorable Cat Melts Hearts By Trying on Eyewear for Children

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Video: Cat Surprises Airport Security After Stowing Away in Family’s Luggage

How do you know when a new employee can’t be saved? How much time should you give someone?

When you have coached someone carefully and repeatedly, invested large amounts of energy, and they show no signs of improvement, that’s a solid signal you probably need to act. The clincher comes when their co-workers start showing their frustration and stop trying to help the person. This is often at about the three- or four-month mark. A lot of bosses will let it drag on past that, but it’s really in everyone’s interest for both parties to pursue new opportunities.

I haven’t gotten around to writing a will yet. What would happen to my business if I died unexpectedly?

When there’s no will, state law (“interstate succession” statutes) usually takes charge of your estate. “Each state has precise laws about who gets what when there is no will, and there are differences among the states,” says Norman M. Boone, a nationally renowned financial adviser. “In California, for example, the spouse inherits all the deceased spouse’s community property, but the separate property is shared with the children. In New Jersey, your spouse gets the first $50,000 of your estate and one-half of the rest; your children get everything else. If the children are minors in either state, then the court appoints someone to manage their property (including your business), and then supervises their activities, which involves more intrusion and more expense. The children receive their inheritance at age 18. For singles, the assets are parceled out to relatives in an order determined by state law. Usually children, parents and then siblings are first in line. Friends, lovers (even domestic partners) or charities are left out.” Without a will, there is always a chance the estate will be fought over by the above claimants, a process that can drag out and potentially ruin a business. Don’t like those prospects? What are you waiting for? Write that will!

I have a no-return stipulation on all my products. But somebody told me that if a minor buys, for example, a hamster wheel from me, they have the right to return it for a full refund and I can’t do anything about it. Is this true?

It is true in most states. And it’s something many merchants are unaware of. Basically, it comes down to what the law regards as “capacity to contract” — something minors are considered to lack but which is an essential element of any valid commercial agreement. In most retail situations, minors thus have a right to disaffirm a contract and demand the return of their money in exchange for the good also being returned in perfect pre-sale condition. The law doesn’t state, however, you must return the money immediately, and if you’re up for it, you can insist Mom or Dad enforce the big-spending youngster’s right to disaffirmance in a court of law. Faced with such a prospect, the child or his parents are likely to come to something approximating a reasonable arrangement.

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Ask Us Anything: Helicopter Managing, AMEX Cards, 2020 Planning

We always got something for ya!

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I got really angry at a customer the other day and left a nasty message on their voicemail. So, OK, I’ve lost that client. But how can I keep this from happening again?

If you feel anger management is an issue that’s affecting many parts of your life, go see a mental-health professional. However, if you’re like the rest of us, and anger is more a cause for periodic embarrassment or regret, we fully recommend business author Tony Schwartz’s Golden Rule of Triggers, which is “Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.” Instead, he says, take a deep breath, and “feel your feet” — a distraction tactic that allows you to pull your head out of the red mist. Different from the old “take a deep breath” or to “count to 10” advice, Schwartz recommends interpreting any sign of compulsive behavior as an indication that the action is probably imprudent. Rather than battling compulsion, his rule co-opts it as a warning system.

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Video: Bush Service Dog Honored with Life-Size Statue — Take a Look

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Video: Adorable Cat Melts Hearts By Trying on Eyewear for Children

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Video: Cat Surprises Airport Security After Stowing Away in Family’s Luggage

I’ll admit I’m a helicopter manager, but if I didn’t keep an eye on everything and intervene, nothing would get done properly. How can I get my staff to show more initiative and responsibility?

It sounds as if you’ve micromanaged your staff into drones. Basically, you’ve got two options: Go big picture, where you give them ownership of their responsibilities on a day-to-day basis, or go small, where every procedure and system is mapped out in detail. The first requires employees with the right personality and experience who will know what to do when you say, “OK, our goal is to wow every person who comes in. Go to it!” The second requires a lot of work from you in putting systems in place and providing the necessary training. In such cases, one approach is to imagine that you’re planning to open another business 3,000 miles away and put in writing everything you’d want the remote employees to know — from how to run the POS system to how to make deposits to whom to call if there’s a problem with the building. With such a reference, you’d be able to step aside and, in theory, be confident your staff would be equipped to tackle most situations. Keep in mind, though, that these situations often reflect as much about the manager as the staff. Taking action is how micromanagers deal with anxiety — just as surrendering control is how under-functioning staff deal with challenges. Breaking the pattern is tough, because the manager needs to step back and do less, which means potentially letting bad things happen and tolerating the resulting anxiety. Can you handle that?

I keep hearing contradictory advice: Set goals or don’t set them. What’s your take?

There are three main arguments against setting goals: One, that they can lead people to focus on the wrong things (by, for example, becoming too aggressive in chasing sales targets) or cut ethical corners; two, that they become demotivating when it becomes clear they can’t be reached; and three, that it’s healthier and more satisfying to live your life focused on the present rather than constantly looking ahead to a future when something might be accomplished. The secret to smart goal setting then is to do it in a way that addresses these problem areas. That means:

1) Set challenging goals but don’t make a big deal of it if someone, including yourself, falls short.
2) Structure goals that focus on behaviors, so your people are learning and improving rather than wildly chasing a financial goal.
3) Be specific. Setting vague goals can produce higher rates of success with motivated staff, but if your employees are normal human beings, being specific will prevent procrastination.
4) Make the first couple of milestones easy so that people can build momentum toward the major goal. Progress is a HUGE motivator.
5) And finally, don’t make goals a death march, have fun trying to accomplish them.

What’s the best way to tell a customer you’d really rather not take their American Express card?

To be sure, there are reasons to wish they just would leave home without it. AMEX’s extra charges and reputation for slow payment are annoying, but once you make it clear through store signage that you accept all major cards, you don’t have much of choice but to take their American Express card with a smile. “Don’t ever, ever, ever, ask your customer, ‘Oh, do you have another card?’ In terms of customer service, that’s just plain lame,” says Rick Segel, author of Retail Business Kit for Dummies. Remember, your customer might be saving up points for a reward, or may be close to their limit on their other card, and your hesitancy to take their card puts them in an awkward position, he says.

As I start my financial planning for 2020, do you recommend a bottom-up or top-down approach?

It’s a new year, a new beginning … start at the bottom. “Top down is quicker but invariably leads to existing costs being left in rather than being properly evaluated,” says David Brown, CEO of the Edge Retail Academy. Brown explains that he asks his clients to set the financial goals they want to achieve and then work backward to determine the sales and earnings they are going to need to achieve those targets. “This results in a complete budgeting process,” he says. “If an owner has planned a retirement nest egg in 10 years and they know they need $50,000 into a retirement plan each year to reach the goal, it provides them with the incentive to hit the sales target each year.”

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