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

As shelter adoption continues to grow in popularity, some organizations may need to step up their customer service game to deal with the welcome rise in interest. A few lessons from the business world can go a long way towards helping you do your best by the people who want to adopt from your shelter and the animals who need those loving new homes.

Like most charitable organizations - and even, in these tough economic times, many businesses - shelters are already stretched to the limit. A few lessons from the business world can go a long way towards helping you do your best by the people who want to adopt from your shelter and the animals who need those loving new homes.

Petfinder.com survey

Petfinder.com surveyed visitors to their pet adoption website, asking what kinds of experiences they had while trying to adopt a pet, and how happy they were with the overall process. This was a group of people who considered themselves extremely committed to adoping rather than buying a pet; more than half said they intended to adopt "no matter what."

Unfortunately, their dedication wasn't always met with the kind of welcome it deserved. Forty percent of the time, their inquiries at shelters went unanswered. And when that happened, they became three times as likely to view shelter workers as "unprofessional" and shelters as "unpleasant."

Worse, even among this group of people determined to adop, lack of response doubled the chance they'd reconsider adoping. And if that lack of response was paired with an attitude they found slow or patronizing? It quadrupled it.

A new perspective on shelter customer service

The Petfinder.com survey - and common sense, too - shows clearly that animals benefit when adopters have good experiences at shelters. But a lot of people in the animal welfare world shy away from terms like "customer service," thinking it reduces animals to a commodity and shelters' compassionate mission to a commercial transaction. This movement isn't about marketing, it's about saving animal lives, they say.

But every type of charity, from groups fighting cancer to churches, thinks in terms of marketing its message. And your message, amplified a thousand-fold by millions of dollars in free publicity from The Shelter Pet Project, is that shelters are great places to find new companions, and that the animals in shelters are great pets. You're not selling the animals themselves; you're selling an idea about the animals and the shelter, too.

Like all messages, that one will go down a lot more easily with a spoonful of sugar - which is, in this case, good customer service. And whether the setting is commercial or charitable, good customer service is the same. It's direct eye contact and a smile when silently acknowledging that someone is waiting while you handle a phone call, instead of turning away or looking down.

It's doing your best to put yourself in the other person's shoes, instead of judging them for the way they're dressed or the kind of car they drive - or even how you imagine they'll treat their pets.

And it's knowing when you're getting burned out and need a little break from interacting with the public.

What you can do

A friendly smile at the front desk and a warm note in your voice when you answer the phone will go a long way to giving the message that potential adopters are in the right place to find a new pet.

Learn from your own experiences on the receiving end of customer service, good and bad. Companies like Nordstrom, Zappos.com and L.L. Bean are legendary for their great customer service. You can probably think of local businesses that are well-known for providing a friendly, positive experience for their customers, too. Check out their stores, outlets, or web sites and see for yourself what sets them apart. Ask yourself if there's anything you can beg, borrow or learn that can help your shelter cope with increased business from The Shelter Pet Project.

Then do the same with businesses or agencies with the opposite reputation. Notice what drives you crazy when you have to deal with those businesses or agencies, and then see if your shelter doesn't share some of their failings. Do things like phone calls that aren't returned, endless hold times, inflexible rules and procedures, lack of convenience, cluttered or even dirty facilities create a negative impression in people's minds and subtly reinforce the message that shelter animals are damaged goods?

There are some resources out there for shelter volunteers, staff, and management to improve customer service when dealing with the public, as well as more general resources that can also be helpful.

Shelter-specific resources

Head over to the website of The HSUS' magazine Animal Sheltering, and check out their resource library.

Robin Starr, executive director of the Richmond SPCA, gave a presentation on customer service in shelters at the Maddie's Fund day-long seminar at the 2009 HSUS Animal Care EXPO.

PetSmart Charities has a terrific online seminar on customer service for animal shelters that you can listen to at no charge. Just go to https://petsmartcharities.org.

Animal Friendly - Customer Smart: People Skills for Animal Shelters by Jan Elster is a workbook full of helpful tips, games and exercises aimed at improving customer service in shelters. Elster is a consultant with 25 years of experience. The book can be ordered at http://www.shelterskills.com.

The ASPCA gave kudos to the Wisconsin Humane Society for its customer service program: "[The] Wisconsin Humane Society has transformed its adoption process into an open, transparent experience. While still providing careful stewardship of the animals, WHS builds relationships with adopters based on trust, education, and support. [They use] some simple approaches to great customer service that even very small organizations can implement at little or no cost." Find it here.

And here is another customer service tip from the Oregon Humane Society.

Recommended reading

Super Service: Seven Keys to Delivering Great Customer Service...Even When You Don't Feel Like It!...Even When They Don't Deserve It! by Jeff and Val Gee
Unlike most books on customer service, this one was written for the "front line" worker - the person who answers the phone and staffs the front desk - rather than management. It focuses on how you can deliver friendly, excellent service to people who are driving you insane.

Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach To Customer Service by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles
From the folks who brought us the "One Minute Manager" series, this book uses a "bad customer service of Christmas past" kind of approach to demonstrating its principles. Information that's useful to both management and staff.

Customer Services for Dummies by Karen Leland and Keith Bailey
It's arguable whether calling your readers "dummies" is a great way to approach the issue of customer service, but like the whole "Dummies" series, this book is full of well-organized, useful tips and information to give you a head start in improving the way you and your agency interact with the public.