By Steve Appelbaum, Founder and President of Animal Behavior College
A great deal has been written about how to attract clients. In the early 1980s, (Yes, I am that old.) I built my first business almost exclusively by networking with other pet professionals. For over a decade, I built a decent network of veterinarians, groomers, and pet stores who referred first me and then my company for dog training services. While I was certainly not the only dog trainer who built a business through referrals, I did approach the companies I wanted to work with a bit differently than what was considered normal. I know this because I was told so on numerous occasions.
I can recall one such instance. I finally got a couple of veterinarians from a hospital I wanted referrals from to let me take them out for lunch. After some small talk, I asked them a question. “What is the most important thing you need from third-party service providers like myself?” They both looked at each other and then back to me. The oldest of the two, who was probably 30 years my senior, said, “You are the first trainer that has asked us that question. Honestly, we don’t do these lunches all that often with dog trainers because we are busy, and we get tired of hearing how you want referrals, are great, people love you, dogs love you, etc. Don’t misunderstand; anyone we work with needs to be decent with our clients, and I hope the dogs mostly love you, or you are in the wrong profession, but none of that helps us. So, son, (I remember he called me son because, again, he was probably in his late 50’s and I was maybe 25 years old.), what we are both looking for are new clients.”
Now I had done some research before this meeting. I had spoken with this hospital’s front office staff and got a general feel for the hospital. They were looking to expand, and the rumor was that the elder vet was considering selling to the younger one, who had plans, etc. All of this told me that they were undoubtedly a growing practice, and if I could generate business for them, this would allow me to develop a real relationship with these people. I had already considered ways in which I could bring them new clients. So, with this understanding, I asked them if they were willing to allow me to distribute free office visit passes to my students. “Why would we do that?” the younger veterinarian, who was probably 15 years older than I, asked. I told him “10 years ago, had I stood in front of a group class and asked the students who had a veterinarian, the class would have looked at me strangely. It would have been a silly question because all students in regular obedience classes had to show proof of vaccinations. The only place anyone went to get the routine puppy shot vaccinations was through their veterinarian.” They nodded, and I didn’t mention that ten years ago, I would have been 15. I continued, “Today when I stand in front of a group class and ask this same question, at least 15-30% of the class raises their hands. In other words, 1-3 out of every ten people I work with have no connection to a veterinary hospital. That’s because many dog owners today will take their pets to shot clinics held at pet stores or in the park and get the vaccinations. That’s great for them, but it prevents those owners from establishing a relationship with a veterinarian and/or hospital. What if I was able to hand those vet-less (I used that term) students of mine a free office visit to your hospital? I would guess a percentage of them would use it, and while you wouldn’t make anything on the first visit, I am sure you would charm them and have a client for years.” This true story illustrates something I learned then and have used very effectively for many years. When you establish networking relationships, approach them from the standpoint of what you can do for them. The rest will fall into place on its own.
Here is something else I have learned…Times change.
Technology changes, but people do not really change. Oh sure, some attitudes are different, and societal norms can shift, but basic human nature remains pretty consistent. This means that the same principles that worked 30+ years ago work today and will work 100 years from now.
I am a big fan of in-person networking in the modern era because I know it works, and if anything, it will be more effective now than in the past because fewer people try it. While your competition is spending thousands of dollars a month on an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) campaign or as much money as they can afford on PPC (Pay Per Click) ads, you can be generating actual referrals through professionals.
While other competitors are spending 2-4 hours a day checking and posting on social media, or thousands of dollars a month on social media brand ambassadors, you can be getting actual referrals through pet professionals.
If you are not comfortable creating these relationships, that’s fine; digital reality is easier and more familiar for some. The truth is that you do not have to choose one or the other. You can do both or focus on what works best for you. Remember, people do business with those they like, and you need to be clear about what the people you are trying to reach need. In other words, if you want to stand out, in any context, online or in person, approach the task from the perspective of what the people you are trying to reach need and how you can satisfy that need for them.
With that being said, I will close this portion of the article. The truth is there are volumes of material out there about how to establish working business relationships in real-time and how to create an online presence, but the second part of this article is even more important than the first in many ways.
How do you keep clients?
The first rule is obvious. Do a good job. This means putting your best effort into everything you do. If you are currently capable of performing A+ work, do A+ work, even if it is easier to do B work. What’s more, if you are presently capable of performing B or even C work, perform at your top level and do everything in your power to get better. Some of this may seem simplistic or even banal, but I can assure you it is not. I am constantly amazed how many people do not follow this essential common-sense work ethic. We all see it. Careless, uncaring work, or people who do not go out of their way to do the best they can but instead settle for just enough to get by.
People who go the extra mile and do A+ work will succeed over time.
The next rule. Stand out when and where you can. I would combine this with another rule: Listen to what clients actually want. I used to obsess over these. Now I could lie and say that I obsessed because I love people, and it gave my heart joy to help them. Nah, I like people well enough and love helping dogs, but in truth, I obsessed over this because I am very competitive. I always wanted to know what the competition was doing. Once I knew what they offered, I could figure out ways to provide more. For years, I had a connection for dog breed key chains. It sounds nefarious, but it wasn’t. I could get about 25 different dog breed key chains years and years before Amazon made such acquisitions easy. I would give them to my clients (provided they had one of those breeds), and I can’t tell you how much this silly gesture meant to people. I would run into people who still had the key chains for years down the road. I made it a point to write out the homework assignments for all my clients. I made it a point to take photographs of their dogs at a graduation ceremony and mailed them the prints. Once digital became popular, this became much easier. I was the first in my area to offer unlimited returns on my group classes.
Did I do this out of the goodness of my heart? Well, no, I did it because my biggest competitors did not offer it and figured that most people who purchased the option wouldn’t use it all that often… but they would love knowing they could if they wanted to. As a result, that option increased my business by 10%. Oh, and I had a bunch of people tell me not to do it. They claimed I would make more if I discounted the class for someone who took it the first time and wanted to return. Perhaps, but my way was not only popular, it also resulted in at least two more veterinary hospitals referring my classes because they thought it was the best value for their clients. The point to all of this was I always tried to stand out and understood that the little things showed my clients I cared, and that, coupled with doing great work, resulted in a lot of referral business. I also made it a point to send the graduation photographs to the client’s veterinarians. Whenever they were willing to write them, I encouraged letters of referral which were also sent to the business that referred them to me in the first place. By the way, I talk about dog training and dog trainers because that was my initial experience. However, I want to assure all you cat trainers and pet groomers reading that the identical principles hold true for building ANY business. What can you do to stand out? Can you get better at your craft? Are you doing the best possible job you can? Can you offer more than your competitors and how? These are universal questions.
Do what you say.
This is a pet peeve of mine. How many people reading this article have been stood up by someone they expected a quote from or paid someone for a job that did not end up being delivered as promised? Perhaps I am cynical, but I would be shocked if everyone did not raise their hands. There were and still are a lot of flaky people out there. Do not be one of them. I was meticulous about this. I was also good at managing expectations. I realized early on that I had a challenge with time.
First, for private dog training lessons, I didn’t time my sessions, and they would often run more than an hour.
Secondly, driving around the Los Angeles area meant traffic and these two factors meant setting to the minute appointments was problematic. So instead, I scheduled windows. Our appointment is between 3:00-3:30 on Tuesday. Occasionally, I would run late, and in the days before cell phones, this meant finding a payphone to call my clients. I did this because I wanted them to understand that I respected their time and took my promise very seriously. Of course, cell phones made this more manageable but the principle of honoring what you promise people never becomes irrelevant regardless of technological advancement.
Pick your battles.
This might seem like an odd suggestion. After all, in service businesses, who wants to fight battles? However, some customers could be downright demanding and unreasonable. Was the customer always right? Heck no. However, as my dad used to tell me, “You can be right, or you can be in a relationship.” He was married to my mom for 63 years, so he knew a thing or two. So, what does this mean? Not the dad part, which is obvious, but the rest of it.
It means that whenever and wherever possible, try to satisfy the customer. I will give you a perfect example of this. I used to have a policy in my group class that no refunds were available after the 3rd lesson of my 8-week program. This was noted in my class contract and something I made clear on week one. Sometimes clients would come to me after week 3 telling me they were moving and would be unable to continue with the class. Could I have kept their tuition? Yes. Did I? No, of course not. I pro-rated them.
Did some of these clients lie and tell me they were moving when they were just tired of training? Yes. I knew this, and some of them knew I knew. Why didn’t I refuse to refund? Because a good reputation is more important than the $1,800 worth of these refunds I gave out each year. This one took me a little time to master, and again it was my dad who gave me good advice on this. I was irritated about what I felt were clients taking advantage of me. He asked me how much this was actually costing me, and at first, I couldn’t even tell him. “Perhaps you should figure out what this is costing you before getting upset about it?” So, I went home, did some calculations, and concluded about $1,800. I told him this, and he asked me if it was the $1,800 over a year or my ego that was the issue. I did some soul searching (because he didn’t want me to answer right away) and realized it was more ego-driven than anything else. He smiled, and that is when he said, “You can be right, or you can be in a relationship.” Again, these rules are relevant for all service businesses.
Much more can be said about how to keep clients, but I think I have covered some important points. I wish all of you the best of luck and hope you have as much fun as I have over the years in a beautiful industry where you get to work with pets and the people who love them. We could all do a lot worse.