Raising Your Game

While providing clients with a high level of customer service is inherently personal, grooming business owners must balance this with a healthy dose of professionalism.



While customer service has always been an important part of running a successful grooming business, it is an area that has become filled with potential landmines in recent years. Customers’ ability to quickly and easily spread negative impressions or downright lies about a business has never existed before as it does today with the ubiquitousness of social media. As a result, pet businesses must up their customer-service game to ensure that clients are happy. 

“Customer service—it ain’t what it used to be,” is something that might be said on either side of the counter these days. Customers feel, and are quick to mention, that they think good service is lacking in today’s businesses. Salespeople—and that is very much what groomers are—feel much the same way about customers; they are far more demanding and lacking in courtesy. 

So, who is right, and how can we improve the dynamic?

While both sides have legitimate gripes, it is the business that sets the tone for interactions with customers. Leaving a customer feeling unimportant is a sure way to send them looking for alternatives for the service that you are providing. It takes more than good grooming to be successful as a grooming business today; it takes a bit of salesmanship and psychology, as well. 

There are really only two ways to improve customer service. One is to make sure the customer’s expectations are met or exceeded. The other way is to follow a policy very much like the golden rule— do unto others as you would have them do unto you—but let’s paraphrase just a bit and change it to, “Make others feel that you have treated them fairly, honestly and just as you would treat a friend.” In other words, make them feel special and that you have tried your best for them. 

Jeri MacLean of Jeri’s Dog Salon in Springvale, Maine, believes that understanding customers is key. “Customer service is about the person at the end of the leash,” she says. “We personalize the grooming experience for the dog and should for the owner as well. Communicate!”

Customer service is all about expectations. Client satisfaction levels depend on whether you meet their expectations, exceed them or fall short. Although striving for perfection is a great goal, a larger part of customer service is creating accurate and realistic expectations in clients’ minds, and that usually means clear communication. 

Let’s say a mobile groomer told a new client they would be there between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m., only to find the customer irate when they had not arrived by 1:10. Why? The customer, used to salon grooming, did not understood that the van would arrive between 1:00 and 2:00 to begin the grooming; they thought the van would arrive by 1:00 and the groomer would be done by 2:00. 

Situations like this highlight the fact that we often overestimate the level of understanding that customers have. I once had a customer who reported at every groom that her dogs’ nails were left too long last time. I was starting to get annoyed, but after I took the time to discuss the subject with her, I realized that she did not know that the dog’s nail had a quick and that I could only trim so close to it without hurting the dog or making it bleed. Her original expectation, based on a lack of knowledge, was that I would be able to get the dog’s nails as short as she wanted every time. I was not able to meet that expectation, but once her expectations became more realistic and she brought the dog in for more frequent nail trims, she was happy.

When tempering customers’ expectations, keep in mind that the way you phrase things and how much you communicate can have a bigger impact than you suspect. Educate your customers kindly. 

Jenn Dios, owner/stylist at A Smitten Kitten mobile dog and cat grooming in Cliffwood, N.J., is a customer service expert. Her 2017 customer newsletter is pretty much a masterpiece and can be found on her Facebook page. The newsletter informs customers that her time window for arrival was being expanded to two hours. If clients couldn’t be home, they should provide a key. In addition, they had to rebook on a minimum eight-week schedule or risk not getting an appointment. 

Overall, the newsletter reads like a commitment to improve service and add benefits for the customer. It’s a perfect example of customer service spin and a lesson on how it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. 

The Smitten Kitten website includes tons of information for prospective clients designed to prevent misunderstandings, from explaining what kind of parking her trailer requires to maintaining an animal’s coat between groomings. Some of the small things she does are what her customers appreciate the most, like sending automatic appointment reminders 48 hours in advance. Or, if a customer has a baby or toddler who might be napping during the appointment, she will send a text to say she’s arrived rather than knocking or ringing the doorbell.

Dios believes good customer service creates loyalty and good business. “If you really make them feel comfortable with you, your experience and your knowledge as a groomer and listen to them, understand what they are looking for in grooming and try your best to achieve it, they will appreciate that,” she says. “Just keep in mind that the customers are the ones who got us here. Be friendly, courteous, helpful, caring and professional. Treat them how you would like to be treated if you were the customer handing over your fur-baby.” 

Back to Basics
One big mistake that businesses make is to think of customer service as damage control—something that happens after a customer is already unhappy. Good customer service should primarily consists of preventing that customer from ever becoming unhappy. 

There are some basic techniques that may sound simple or obvious, but if you really take the time to think about it and exercise them with each customer, they will pay off in improved customer service. That means preventing disgruntled customers in the first place and effectively handling damage control with unhappy clients.

Listen closely: We are all busy and live in a society that usually provides information in quick sound bites. It’s important to take the time to really listen to what a customer wants—in pick up times, trim and style, handling of their pet—and make them know you heard them. 

Make eye contact and don’t interrupt, even if you think you know what they are trying to say. Pay attention and give feedback by nodding or acknowledging verbally with “I see” or “yes.” Also, be sure to repeat the clients’ requests back to them in a slightly different form. For example, if the customer says, “I want the usual,” say, “Ok, so you want the usual inch on the body, head round, tail long and ears trimmed at the bottom?” This goes tenfold if the customer is complaining. Listen actively and respectfully until they are done speaking.

Be professional. If you are professional, you’ve set the tone for the interaction. No eye rolling, sighing or annoyed facial expressions. (Yes, I find that last one difficult to avoid too.) 

Wendie Patrick, owner of Dogs of Pride in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, believes in being professional, even in small ways. “Take the two minutes to return that phone call, text, email or Facebook message, even if you don’t have room or aren’t taking new clients,” she says. “Good relations will pay off down the road. A prospective client may or may not tell people that you couldn’t fit them in, but one who never got a response will definitely tell others that.”

Be real, be pleasant, smile and be sincere. It goes a long way toward creating happy customers. For example, Daryl Conner of FairWinds Grooming Studio in Appleton, Maine, says, “Let the owners know what you like about their pet. It may seem like a small thing, but it means a lot to folks.”

Another way to be real is to apologize if a customer is unhappy. You aren’t admitting any liability if you say, “I’m sorry you are not satisfied,” or even just, “I’m sorry you are upset.” Sometimes that’s all they want to hear—an apology.

The Right Reaction
Your own attitude about complaints can do much to keep customers happy. Smile, be pleasant and don’t take things personally. That’s hard to do when it feels like a personal attack from an upset customer. One thing that may help is to realize that once you walk through that door in the morning, you are no longer just a person; you are a business. It’s best to keep everything on a business footing, which means leaving emotions at the door. 

Remember, your attitude is important to your own peace of mind too. If you look at annoying customers as annoyances, you may get heartburn, but it won’t further your business. Think of them as business problems to be solved. Take the customer who is always late, for instance. Instead of showing your irritation, tell them you noticed they are often 15 minutes late and ask if a later appointment would suit them better. If they continue to show up late, just make their next appointment later and tell them why politely. “I made your appointment for next time a bit later to make it easier for you.” Don’t tell them it made your day more difficult or stressed, they don’t care. Give them the business reason, if you must give a reason—“When you are late, it makes it difficult to keep to a schedule for other clients.”

By the same token, when a customer says, “Your prices are too high. My last groomer charged half of that!” the temptation to ask why they are not with that groomer or to get angry or defensive while justifying your prices is extreme. Don’t do it. Smile and show good humor or list some of the benefits of your service. For example, you can say, “Well, my mother always said you get what you pay for and I believe that’s true,” or, “We provide one on one service and styling by certified, top groomers as well as high end product and equipment.”  If the customer walks out over pricing, they are not a good fit for your business anyway.

Kim Feuerstein, owner at Pet Cutz’ Mobile Salon in Lakewood, Calif., responded to a request for a discounted grooming from a prospect this way: “I do not offer any discounts as my business is priced accordingly for mobile grooming. I understand it doesn’t fit in everyone’s budget. I could refer you to a shop that could meet your needs. Thank you for the inquiry and welcome to the area.” This is perfect—polite, professional, definite, helpful and warm. 

Lately customers seem to think it’s okay to threaten a business in order to get what they want, demanding special services, free items or discounts and telling you how you ought to run your shop or they’ll take their business elsewhere. Remember not to get angry at unreasonable requests or demands; you don’t have to do what they want. Smile and politely tell them what you will and will not do. Starting a fight is a sure way to get slammed on social media. Being professional may net you a perfectly good client.

Preventing Conflict
Document every pet’s trip through the salon, especially in the case of a matted animal or one with any sort of potential medical issue. If they arrive with nasty ears or eyes, bald spots, sores, etc., document it. Show the owner before they leave, if possible. 

If a customer says, “He was lame last week,” or, “He had diarrhea a couple of weeks ago,” let that be your red flag and document, document, document. Jot notes and take pictures. Just about every groomer has a phone or tablet handy that’s capable of taking good pictures, and that is a great way to prove that you did not harm a dog. Many salons already have web cameras in use. These can be great to allow customers to see their dog being groomed over the internet, but they are also handy if you can use them to record as well as stream online. Pictures are a great way to disprove a false accusation about something happening to a dog during grooming.

Release forms are also valuable tools in preventing conflict. Some groomers have a release that covers everything and have clients sign it before the first groom; others have forms tailored to individual situations and use them as needed. For example, if a dog is geriatric, you might want them to sign something saying that they know the dog is older, acknowledging the higher likelihood of problems arising from grooming and absolving you from liability. Or the matted dog owner might be asked to sign a form specifying that they have been told that nicks, scrapes, cuts, stress injuries, etc., are more likely due to the matted condition of the dog and will not hold the groomer or business responsible. 

Does that absolve a business of all responsibility in case of an accident? Of course not, but if a customer is upset by something that happened to their pet under your care, it’s nice to be able to point out that they knew the risks. 

What if, despite your best efforts, the customer is unhappy? Remember to listen to their issue and be professional. You are talking to a real person with a grievance that is—to them at least—real. Identify the actual issue, determine what you are willing to do to correct it, and keep their business and goodwill. It may be doing what’s fair, or something more than fair, but it should always be what will benefit the business the most. If you are not able to work with them, accept that and move on. You will not be a good fit for every customer, and that’s okay. There are plenty of people for whom your business is a perfect fit. 

Good customer service is hard to accomplish—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s not easy to avoid taking complaints personally, to smile when you want to strangle someone, to keep a straight face against what seems to us to be a really dumb question. It’s downright difficult to avoid letting your face show your shock when a customer has been incredibly insulting, or to not get angry when a customer makes a patently false accusation. It takes work to be good at customer service for most of us, but improving your skills at it will lead to a better reputation and increased income, so it’s worth the effort.


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