Customer Service - Another Way to Save Lives


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

Excellent customer service (is) the ability of an organization to constantly and consistently exceed the customer's expectations.

True story: A family with three children, ages two, three and five, is looking to adopt a German Shepherd puppy. Both mom and dad have had dogs all their lives. Both are veterinarians, and one has worked in animal welfare for many years. They live in a nice home in a nice community. Mom works part time. They've tried to do the right thing by looking for a pup at shelters and rescue groups. But instead of getting a dog, they've gotten the third degree.

"Shelters need to remember that the basic consumer will shop where they feel good," remarked this unhappy mom. "If animal shelters make people feel defensive and less than adequate, consumers will naturally turn to other places like pet shops and puppy mills. Bringing home a new puppy should be a warm, happy and wonderful experience, not a humiliating ordeal."

In their desire to protect their four-legged clients and to see them live happily ever after, some staff at animal shelters and rescue groups treat potential adopters as adversaries rather than allies. The fact of the matter is, poor customer service leads to fewer lives saved - and the opposite is true as well.

Good Customer Service Saves Lives

The Richmond SPCA in Richmond, Virginia, revamped its customer service program in January of 2001. Without any changes at the shelter other than a new customer service policy, adoptions rose from 62% to 76% after one year. Euthanasia dropped 14%. Says Operations Director, Makena Yarborough, "the better the relationship with adopters, the greater the number of adoptions."

As an important public relations tool, good customer service has also paid off in increased donations and community support. Says Community Relations and Major Gifts Manager Tamsen Heckel, "reformed customer service practices have helped to position the Richmond SPCA as a valued community resource. Attitudes towards the SPCA are overwhelmingly positive throughout Greater Richmond."

The policy change didn't come easy. Says Yarborough, "When we shifted to a customer service emphasis in 2001, not everyone was comfortable with the idea. People were used to blaming the public, not embracing it. Someone would surrender a litter of kittens, and we'd just take it and walk away, muttering under our breath about how irresponsible they were.

To change our policy, we had to change our own attitudes. We had to think of our customers as lifesaving partners. These days, if someone brings in a litter of kittens, we try to engage them in a non-judgmental way, and, in so doing, allow them to help us solve our problem. For example, we might ask them to keep the kittens until they're old enough to be spayed and neutered, offering to provide food or other support in the interim."

Service with a Smile

Customer service at the Richmond SPCA starts at the front door. Every person who enters gets a warm smile and a friendly, "may I help you?" from a receptionist.

When entering the animal areas, the customer is greeted again and asked once more if he needs help. "We don't want to make the person walk all the way back to the front desk or wander around looking for an adoption counselor to get their questions answered," continues Yarborough. Five paid adoption counselors are on the floor at all times through the week; on weekends, there are ten. Employees wear a uniform of khaki pants and blue smock, to make them easier to identify.

"When we hire for positions that require public contact, we look for people who not only love animals but who also like people and have demonstrated people skills. Waiters and bank tellers are typical of the backgrounds we look for."

As part of their training, new hires go through extensive role playing exercises to learn how to deal with customers who may be angry, upset or rude. They also study an assortment of written materials including the adoption Counselor Guide and Training Manual, which lists customer service guidelines, tools for communication, and customer relations do's and don'ts.

Employees come out of the training with more than good customer relations skills. They gain an in-depth knowledge of important organizational polices on such sensitive issues as pit bulls, no-kill, and the organization's agreement with the city shelter. They also come away with a good working knowledge of basic animal behavior. "Educating staff gives them a sense of control and comfort when working with the public," says Yarborough.

Making the Match
At animal shelters, the most delicate interactions with the public take place when animals are surrendered or adopted. These emotional transactions are filled with joy or sadness, hope and expectation.

At such critical junctures, Richmond SPCA employees are counseled to be non-judgmental and non-threatening. Says Yarborough, "When it comes to adoptions, our goal is to make the process more like a conversation than a test; to make it a discussion and not a series of barriers that applicants must overcome. We want to look for ways to approve adoptions, not turn them down. Let me give you an example. A young single man who works full time comes in looking for a puppy. We'll talk to him about the advantages of adoping adult dogs or cats and show him a few he might want to consider. We'll talk about puppy care and some of the difficulties of raising a puppy. We may offer literature and ask him to take it home and read up on puppies before making a final decision. But generally, if the adopter can provide a safe atmosphere for the animal and has enough information to make an informed choice, we'll abide by their decision.

If we can't do exactly what the customer wants, then we try to offer an alternative so they don't feel like they're getting a strict no. We focus on what we can do, not on what we can't. We always aim for a positive outcome."

Denise Deisler, Richmond's Chief Operating Officer, echoes this sentiment: "Our customer service is based on faith and trust in the community. People come here because they have love to share. Our job is to educate adopters and give them the tools they need to help them build successful bonds with their animal companions."

From adoption Police to adoption Counselors

Wayside Waifs in Kansas City, Missouri has made a lot of changes in eighteen months.

Vice President of Operations, Kim Staton, has overseen many of them. "Our complaint rate used to be high. We'd hear: ‘It's too hard to get an animal.' ‘Your staff was rude and we weren't treated well.' And, the fact of the matter is, we used to act more like adoption police than adoption counselors. We had a page and a half long adoption form that was so unrealistic, that many of our own staff wouldn't have qualified. Some shelter workers felt anger towards adopters or felt they were the enemy. Then we decided to reexamine our adoption policies and work on customer relations. We started talking about the need to educate our adopters and to think of people as basically good, not irresponsible. We pointed out that if we treated people poorly and made them mad or defensive, we lost the opportunity to influence their behavior. At the same time, we implemented a program called "Meet Your Match" by Dr. Emily Weiss, Applied Animal Behaviorist, to help match pet and adopter in a more objective and educational way.

We started doing more education through follow-up phone calls, an animal behavior help line and free dog training classes. We worked on publicity. We enlisted a volunteer greeter to welcome people and started offering free coffee and hot chocolate in the shelter lobby.

As a result, adoptions have soared and complaints have dropped. In January and February 2003, we did 366 adoptions. Over the same two month period this year, we found homes for 681 dogs and cats. Last month alone (March 2004), we placed 370 pets in good homes-an all time record for Wayside Waifs. Needless to say, our changes have been very well received."


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