October 2010

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

To protect their privacy, the names of all people, pets and organizations have either been eliminated or changed for this article.

When you go into a new store looking for that special something, isn't it always nice to be greeted by a salesperson and asked if they can help? The same is true for potential animal adopters - and it can make a big difference in an animal shelter's ability to move more animals into forever homes.

Because of its success in 2009, Maddie's Fund and the Petfinder.com Foundation again teamed up on a Customer Service Awards Program to provide cash and local publicity for shelters and foster-based rescues with good customer service. The program aimed to raise awareness about the importance of good customer service; offer suggestions and support for shelters that did not provide good customer service; and use the lessons learned to help others implement "best practices."

"Secret adopters" called, e-mailed and visited a total of 120 shelters to see if staff provided helpful information about an available pet in a timely manner, or provided a quality shelter adoption experience. Of those, 74 groups from 50 states showed great customer service and were given a financial reward for it.

Over the course of the ten-week promotion, at total of $51,000 was awarded. In addition, each winner was given a copy of the book Animal Friendly - Customer Smart: People Skills for Animal Shelters, by Jan Elster. Non-winners were given the option to receive the publication.

New this year was the "Second Chance" prize: Shelters and foster-based rescues that were contacted by phone or email but did not win an award got a second chance the last week of the program. Two each from the phone call and email categories were selected, contacted and won $250.

What Makes Good Customer Service?
The first step in good customer service is to capitalize on the public's enthusiasm for adoping by responding right away when initial contact is made. The second step is to make a potential adopter's experience positive and helpful. Many of the organizations that were contacted provided the kind of positive experience that helps compel potential adopters to take home a pet. Others could benefit from some simple skill-building.

The results of this year's program shown below shed light on those practices that win over potential adopters and ultimately save more lives of homeless pets.

Twenty-four out of fifty-four groups contacted (44.4%) did not qualify for an award in this category. Either they did not respond to the email request within the 24-hour qualification period or their response wasn't helpful.

The thirty groups that did respond were not only friendly and welcoming, they also provided wonderful descriptions of the pets and offered further information on the next step in the adoption process. Here are some examples:

  • "Thanks for your inquiry about Max. He is an 8-year old dog that has been a sled dog his entire life. But I think he would transition well because he has a calm demeanor and is just an all around nice dog. You can fill out an application from the website under 'Forms.' That way we can start the process and even if you don't adopt Max, there might be another dog that you would like. You can fax the application, email it or snail mail it. Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks!"
  • "Goldie is a great puppy! She LOVES other dogs and people. She has medium-level energy and is most active when playing with another dog. She cuddles right up to her doggy buddies. She is approximately four months old, spayed, vaccinated, dewormed and microchipped. She is most likely a Lab/Terrier/Shepherd mix. Her adoption fee is $250 and it covers all of the medical things mentioned previously. The first step in the process is filling out our online application. Once we process that, we will be in touch."
  • "Donny is a very, very smart cat. He pays attention to everything around him! He is a calm kitty who is always happy to play with toys, particularly if they have a feather on them. He was found as a stray, and is about a year old. He has a major purr motor which kicks in immediately when he gets attention. He is fine with dogs, as well as some cats, but can be a bully with certain cats."

Room for improvement
Some emails did come back on time, but were distancing and unfriendly. Others, while giving information, were obviously form replies or did not offer any information about the requested pet. Would these be the kind of emails you would like to receive after showing an interest in a particular dog or cat?

  • "Interested adopters first need to complete and submit an application. It will be assigned to a team of dedicated volunteers who will process it. This includes verifying and contacting references. Once of our team members will set up a time to chat with you and ask questions via telephone. Once approved, you will receive an invitation to come see the available dogs. The following link, copied and inserted into your browser, will give you a look at a day at our farm."
  • "Stanley is actually a courtesy posting and his contact info is at the bottom of his bio on Petfinder. Good luck!"
  • When emailed about a little Terrier named Sparky, this is the response our secret adopter received: "We start with some questions. Own/Rent _____. Type of home/yard_______. All humans in the home and ages ______. Past and present pets in the last 5 years with info_______. Employment type of adults and hours at work______. Location, if out of area, send pictures of home and yard. Thanks."

Phone Calls
Warm, friendly, "live" interaction goes a long way to getting adopters in the door - and out the door with a new pet! Organizations that can build and train a welcoming staff and volunteer force that create receptive and responsive relationships with the community will see animals move more quickly through their facility, and word will get out that you have a top-notch operation.

Only twelve of the forty-two groups (28.6%) that were called did not pick up the phone - or lost out on the award because they were unaccommodating. Our secret adopters wrote:

  • "Tanner was recently adopted but the shelter person was not helpful whatsoever in directing me towards another dog to adop."
  • "Bobo was not available for adoption but the shelter did not suggest any other dogs that might be like him; they just said to look at the Petfinder.com page for more dogs."
  • "The shelter was called and the office answered and said that the actual shelter was in a different building and to call them to get information on the animals, but when called, they never answered."

Of the 30 that did receive the award, not only did a live person answer the phone, they were polite and helpful, and even added small details about the pet that heightened the interest of the caller.

  • "Buster is comfortable with dogs and other cats and especially women (our volunteer cradles him and he loves it). He and I play catch: He runs, then stops and lets me get to within a foot or two, then does it again until he decides that it's time to stop and that it's okay for me to stroke his head and back and stomach as he rolls over."
  • "Ozzie LOVES to play, the people at the shelter always leave a bucket in his area because he absolutely loves playing with it."
  • "Polar Bear's owner passed away so he was turned over to the shelter. He is 10 years old, housebroken, and not too grouchy for an old man. Come on up to the shelter, visit, and take him outside to play!"

Secret adopter Shelter Visits
There were only two criteria the facility had to meet to win an award: Did the person have an overall positive experience, and were staff helpful in making a match.

Thirteen groups were visited and of those, 10 were awarded a grant (77%). Here are reports from our secret adopters that clearly illustrate positive and negative experiences:

Successful visit

"I received a friendly greeting from Officer Smith who was working in the front when I entered the shelter. I asked to see Macy, a senior dachshund, off their adoptable pet list. Officer Smith knew immediately which pet I was talking about and also that she was not in the shelter at the moment, but at a vet appointment. I asked for a second pet by name, and the officer asked a shelter volunteer named Bob to take me back for a visit. Bob was very helpful and very polite and asked if I would like to take the pet (Juno, a cute Border Collie mix) outside into the yard. Bob walked with me and answered all of my questions about the pet and the shelter's adoption process. When he did not know the answer to one of the questions, he went inside to find out then immediately came back with an answer. When I was done walking Juno, Bob asked if I would like to see any other dogs. I said I would be interested in seeing any older dogs they had. While they didn't have any, Bob did take me through the rest of the shelter, showed me the other dogs they had and told me what he knew about each one. Over all, the experience was very positive and enjoyable. The staff and volunteers were very helpful, friendly and knowledgeable. A really wonderful visit!"

Unsuccessful visit

"When we opened the door, the lights were off in the front waiting room. We looked in and saw a woman sitting at the desk; we asked if we could look at dogs for adoption. She said, ‘Well, I closed 10 minutes ago, but if you're fast, you can go in and look around. But I don't have anything you'd want to adop, anyway.'

"I apologized and said I thought they were open until 5 p.m.; she said they were only open until four, and not on weekends anymore either. The shelter's hours do not represent very good customer service, because they are closed during the times that the vast majority of adopters would actually be able to visit.

"We walked through the door into the kennel area, which had been cleaned thoroughly. I was so puzzled by what the worker meant by 'I don't have anything you'd want to adop.' Every dog in there was perfectly adoptable, at least at a glance. There was a nursing mother with 6-week old puppies, some Terrier mix/small dogs, a Pug mix, and a few larger dogs. All appeared healthy and quite friendly."

If at First You Don't Succeed...
Four second chance prizes of $250 dollars each (two for email responses and two for phone) were available to those who failed to win on the first go around. Eleven groups had to be contacted to come up with the four "second chance" winners.

The Customer Service Awards Program made it clear that initial contact with a potential adopter has a huge influence on adoption outcomes. So put your best face forward - it can save lives!