Customer Service Do's and Don'ts Part I

2009

To protect their privacy, all people, pet and organization names have either been eliminated or changed for this article.

In summer 2009, Maddie's Fund and Petfinder.com Foundation conducted a ten week survey to find (and financially reward) shelters and rescues providing good customer service.

"Secret adopters" called, e-mailed and visited shelters to see if staff provided helpful information about an available pet in a timely manner, or provided a quality shelter adoption experience.

While many animal welfare organizations were doing a great job, others had room for improvement. But there's a lot to learn from both examples, as the findings below demonstrate.

Emails
Twenty out of fifty rescues failed to respond to an email request for information about a particular pet within 24 hours.

We were, however, pleasantly surprised at the number of shelters and rescues that did respond, and in many cases, their replies were absolutely amazing.

Emails that worked were warm, friendly and provided great descriptions of the pets. They also offered multiple ways to get in touch or ways to move to the next step in the adoption process:

  • "As we do understand that it is important to have flexible hours to increase successful adoptions, we try hard to work with the potential adopters' available hours and can be available seven (7) days a week. We recommend that you contact us first to ensure that we can be available in off hours. Our address is:"
  • "We will always be here for the lifetime of the dog for any questions, or problems. You can reach us by: email, phone, fax, website. Let me know if this covers your questions, if you have more, let me know. Thank you for your interest."
  • "Please feel free to phone me anytime. My number is. I am always here for you for questions, or whatever you may want to discuss."

Some used language that tugged at our heartstrings or made us feel good about the organization and the care they provided:

  • "The poor little guy came as a stray and it seems that people were not too nice to him. He is just looking for security and love."
  • "He has blossomed from the moment he got here."
  • "Thanks for asking about our girl."
  • "We are small but we take extra special care of all our shelter kids."

Less than perfect emails
Some emails, while timely, were curt or off-putting. Hey, do you really want to find this pet a home, or not?

  • "Note: we are an all-volunteer organization so our time must be respected."
  • " Our process is to essentially process the adoption Application, which will involve emailing/calling 3 personal references, calling a vet reference (if you have or have had pets in the recent past) and then coming to your home to do a home visit. The home visit isn't an inspection of your home, so to say, but more a face to face interview & an attempt to see the environment that the dog will be kept in."

May we suggest?
While the email inquiries specifically asked about the adoption process, several organizations responded with that information before talking about the pet. Suggestion: get the person excited about the animal, then talk about the adoption process. In this example, Gunther sounds great but we have to wade through a lot of verbiage to find out anything about him:

"Hi Joan, I was forwarded your email regarding Gunther and I am his foster ‘mom' so I will answer what I can. Our adoption process is pretty easy - there is an application that you can download from our website or can be filled out and emailed to me. Our main goal is to find good forever homes for the dogs we rescue from the shelter. If you have dogs or cats now, the first requirement is that they are spayed or neutered and are kept current on all vaccinations recommended from your veterinarian. We also adopt to first-time dog owners based on your commitment to the care of the dog. The website goes a little more in depth but those are our main concerns. For the larger dogs we do require a fenced yard, for the smaller dogs like Gunther we look at it on a case by case basis. We foster the dogs in our own homes so we don't really have adoption hours - we are normally at either PetCo or PetSmart the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month, but we also can make arrangements to meet at other times for you to meet the dog and them to meet you. Gunther is a real sweetie with lots of personality." (Several more paragraphs about Gunther are included.)

Phone Calls
Kudos to any shelter that has a live person actually answer the telephone! Organizations that find a way to do this are dedicated to building a strong relationship with their community and are serious about finding homes for their dogs and cats.

Twenty of the 51 shelters we called failed to pick up the telephone, but we were again pleasantly surprised at how many did respond and have good pet information at their fingertips. We were particularly impressed by how many municipal or county animal control agencies fell into this category. Here's one typical response to our secret caller:

  • "Jamie is about 6 months old, came in with about 20 other stray cats that were abandoned. Beautiful coat, black with orange stripping undercoat. Darling and very loving with a great color. Very playful, clean, and litter box trained. She is young to adjust to any environment at this point. Come in and play with her."

Word to the wise
Responders were very honest and told the caller everything they knew about the pet. But it was amazing how often they inadvertently made the pet look scary. Remember: emphasize the positive! Get the person to meet the pet before describing her flaws. Here are some scary examples:

  • Rex barks a lot but is very friendly. Barking might decrease once he is in a home. Somewhat shy. Has been at shelter for a while.
  • Lady is about 5 years old and was recently given up by her owner. Great dog, very friendly. Gets along with most other dogs and cats. Has a little leash aggression, something that you will need to work on, but is still a good walker. Has a good temperament. Knows most commands. Has shown some separation anxiety, but will lessen with time in a good home.
  • Billy is deaf, however is good at learning hand commands (sit, stay, come). Can jump an 8-foot fence, master escape artist, should not be left outside alone. Very sweet temperament shows no signs of aggression. Good with other dogs and people.
  • Pete (pit bull) is about 7 years old. With a few issues, has been at shelter for a while and takes some time to warm up to people. Aggressive with other dogs, but can be sweet. He really just needs a loving home. Does not get along with other animals and is not good around kids.

Pets already adopted
If the pet was already adopted when our query came in, many shelters knew how to make the most of the person's enthusiasm to adopt by promoting another available pet. Here are some of their responses:

Email: I am sorry but Boots has been adopted. I do have her sister which is a Tortoiseshell calico and is a beautiful and unique color almost like Boots. She is also spayed. She is more of an outside kitty. She likes to be petted but doesn't really like being inside. I do have several kittens that are about 4 to 6 months old. If you have any questions or would like to see them please just give me a call. Thanks.

Telephone call: Sally was already adopted, but we have a great other cat, very similar. Her name is Marnie, she is about 8 years old, tortie mix. Great lap cat, very vocal, especially at dinner time. A real sweetheart.

Telephone call: Shorty was already adopted. But a similar dog is Pal. She is about 8 months old, black lab mix. Very sweet, loves water and to play with toys. Very good with dogs and cats and kids. Easy-going personality and loves to cuddle.

Secret Shelter Visits
We visited shelters at random in ten different states. Initially we considered having a checklist for our secret adopters (i.e., clean facility, noise levels, etc.) but ultimately, we chose only two criteria: Did the person have an overall positive experience, and were staff helpful in making a match. We have two write-ups below that clearly illustrate positive and negative experiences:

Unsuccessful visit
"There were 3 staff/volunteers behind the front desk when I entered, none of whom acknowledged that I was standing there for the first 2 minutes or so. One walked past me and left with a small dog, and then one of the remaining two came over to assist me. She was pleasant, I told her the dog I was interested in seeing, but she told me she had no idea who I was talking about. When I described the dog by color/size/breed, etc. she said she still wasn't sure who I was talking about, but that the dogs were down the hall and to the left. She did provide me with a sheet outlining some of their adoption policies and procedures but didn't discuss them. When entering the dog kennels, there were two more volunteers, none of whom offered assistance. The dog I came in to see was not there, and when I inquired as to his whereabouts, it was thought that he might possibly be on a walk and that I could check back later. The person at the front desk was not unfriendly, but did not really provide any helpful information outside of pointing to where the dogs were kept."

Good visit
"Extremely helpful! I was first greeted by a volunteer/staff member who was seated outside with Sadie, one of their older adoptable dogs. After welcoming me and telling me all about Sadie, she then directed me inside where I could find out more information about their other available pets. Once inside, I was greeted right away by Carolyn who gave me a questionnaire to fill out then took me back to the dog area, where I was then greeted by several other volunteers. Nancy, one of the volunteers, took me around and told me about each of their available dogs as well as discussed their adoption process, fees and what was included.

The staff and all volunteers were exceptionally friendly and VERY well informed and knowledgeable about their adoptable pets! A really positive and enjoyable shelter experience."
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The Customer Service Awards Program made it perfectly clear that initial contact with a potential adopter has a huge influence on adoption outcomes. So put your best face forward - and watch for our second Customer Service Awards Program coming next year!