Winter is coming.
Game of Thrones references notwithstanding, the winter winders always bring a degree of chaos beyond the other seasons: multiple holidays (and time off requests from employees) disrupt the natural flow of our schedules, the Christmas crush squeezing on shipping and logistic companies and all manner of weather-based disruptions. And, that’s to say nothing of the still-pervasive COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to challenge our assumptions of even the most basic daily practices. Staffing has become a severe issue across all industries, which in turn causes decreases in customer satisfaction.
So, how do we navigate this snowstorm? Effectively, there are two primary approaches one might take when addressing the twin perils of low-quality customer service and understaffing, but they must be addressed in sequence to actually make an impact on your store’s bottom line. First, you must turn a critical eye to your own staffing and training needs, before making an active, external push towards better customer service.
The so-called “employment crunch” comes, in many ways, down to a single issue: workers are no longer satisfied to work for bare minimum wages, with minimal benefits or time off, in conditions that may not always be exemplary. When unemployment benefits outstrip actual wages, store owners and other employers have to find new means to attract and retain employees above and beyond simply raising payroll.
First and foremost, your store must be one in which your employees feel appreciated and confident that you have their best interests in mind. While every employee surely enjoys a free lunch once in a while or the ubiquitous donuts in the break room, consider looking for alternate means to show employees how much their best efforts are noticed. Consider an ad-hoc “great service” bonus, if you catch a given employee doing something above and beyond their normal efforts. Maybe an employee stayed a touch late to take care of something that would save everyone time later that week. Maybe that employee took on some extra responsibilities while another was out sick or on vacation. A simple conversation recognizing their efforts, coupled with a gift card or other reward both shows that you’re acknowledging their hard work and provides positive reinforcement for their diligent work habits. If your current staffing situation permits, you might also consider offering time-off as a reward for positive contributions. Even offering a “half-paid” day off as an ad-hoc reward, over and above an employee’s already-earned time off of course, provides a worthy reward for deserving employees.
If your store is in close proximity to a local college or technical program, consider also entering an agreement with their zoology or biology programs. By offering an internship program, students may be able to earn wages and notable experience with your store while simultaneously gaining program credits towards their degrees. Further, this can also serve as a pipeline for future workers; as those students graduate, they’ll surely be looking for jobs within their career field, which your store may be able to serve. And, of course, those students will likely be pet owners — even if they’re not actively working in your store, the likelihood exists for positive word-of-mouth, bringing additional animal lovers to your storefront. Within a few semesters, you may have both a series of already-trained interns to join your staff, and a number of eager customers within that academic community. Investing in training, as well, will surely keep more employees, as they continue to learn how to best care for animals, provide sound advice to your customers and move forward as sales employees. Consider taking a half-day per month to focus on employee training and team bonding. Springing for a meal after a seminar or such can go a long way towards ensuring that your staff stay around for years to come.
Once your staffing situation is situated, it becomes all the easier to approach your external community with goodwill and openness. With ad-hoc bonuses and rewards in play, it can be an easy thing to offer such a bonus to anyone willing to take on a responsibility, such as spearheading an adoption event, organizing a veterinary clinic or taking on an extra bit of time to finish some often needed deep cleaning or animal care. Another event to consider might be kid-friendly “meet the animals” events, especially for creatures such as snakes, frogs and other less-traditional pets. Providing a venue for children to meet your animals not only encourages future sales, but also approaches pet-owning parents with openness, expertise in your stock and the goodwill to keep them coming back as loyal customers.
As we’re all still struggling to find our “new normal,” don’t be afraid to discard those processes and procedures that have existed just because “we’ve always done it that way.” Staffing and customer service are more important than ever, especially when customers can get their pet supplies delivered directly to their door. Only by providing an experience beyond just the product can we hope to prosper.s