Today’s consumer of products and services is often fickle, and brand loyalty is something companies and providers can no longer always depend on. Americans are expected to shop for the best value, and don’t mind leaving a company if they find someone else doing what they need better, cheaper, faster, more convenient for them, whatever! So how do dog trainers and obedience clubs and schools generate client loyalty? We often don’t have the big advertising dollars to spend to continually attract new students, so keeping the old ones becomes important. Besides, it always takes less money to keep a student than to go out and find a new one.
Giving students more than they think they have “bought” or more than they expect is a great way to build good will and satisfaction, and thus loyalty. One way to do this is to make sure students know you are here for them until their concerns are answered. Not everyone will get what they need at the end of an average 7-10 week beginners program, and your student needs your reassurance that you will provide training for them and their dog until they feel comfortable with what they have accomplished. This may mean offering free or reduced price “repeats’ of the basic course, as long as the client is training the same dog, of course. Here at Canine Counselors, we have long had a “life-time” fee policy for the basic class, and clients are encouraged to use it to come back at any time with their dogs to repeat, brush up and refresh their learning, or just to have a safe place to practice any time they choose. Because no other school in the area offers this, it sets us apart from that first phone call, and builds good will even before the client comes to school. And it goes without saying that you need to make sure that your course is actually producing trained dogs and educated owners!
Let your students know that your job is to see that they are successful, and you will go the extra mile with them if that is what it takes to make sure they get what they need. If the student has a problem that can be easily addressed in the class format, do so, and send them home happy and singing your praises. I know of a school that books appointments outside of class to teach students how to handle the dog jumping up on them. Although they may generate additional income by doing this, in my experience “jumping up” is one of the things that most students expect to be solved in their class, and nickel and diming them just to get the basics in won’t help your programs in the long run. Don’t be stingy with your knowledge and ability to help. While serious problems or behaviors should certainly be given time outside of class (with an additional fee charged), remember that that “little extra” will be remembered and appreciated by your student much longer that it took you to provide it.
Providing training equipment for the student is another good way to offer a “little extra” and this is easily built into the price of the course. Collars and leashes can be purchased in bulk from animal supply houses, and it is not necessary to have a tax permit if you “give them away” as part of the course. Many instructors like doing this because of the added benefit to them; they know everyone will get quality equipment and have it when they need it. Now no one comes to class week 2 with chain leashes or livestock leads that would be suitable for a 2000 pound bull! I know instructors who provide bait bags or clickers to their students, and for a few dollars more, they can be monogrammed or printed with your club or company name. I know another instructor who gives all class graduates a t-shirt with “I trained my dog at _____” screened on them. This is a great way to build loyalty that I think I will try!
Incentives to continue to train with your program can be pretty basic or quite inventive. Probably the most common thing for instructors to do is to offer discounts on lateral or advanced classes. Everyone likes a “deal” and our students are no exception! Scholarships can be offered in exchange for working around the school, or volunteering as a class assistant. If your client refers someone new to you, reward them by knocking off a little from their next class. If they have already finished training, drop them a thank you note or even a quick e-mail so they know you appreciate their referral. Your client will remember you when they are ready to come back, have a new dog to train, or run into another friend who asks, “Where did you train your dog?” A little thoughtfulness goes a long way, especially nowadays when service seems to be a thing of the past. And it costs you nothing!
Probably the most difficult thing for busy obedience school owners to do is to spend time on the phone with students. Of course we want them to know we are here for them, but in the real world time on the phone cuts into your efficiency like nothing else. Sometimes setting a time aside for phone calls, and letting your class know this, works well. That way you are not pulled off of another pressing matter, and you can limit the time you spend. I let my students know that e-mail is probably the best way to reach me outside of class, and not to worry if they post me at midnight!
Building loyalty often costs you nothing but a little time and the desire to show a genuine interest in your client. How-ever you do it, in today’s market you really must work to keep clients coming back to you instead of to your competition.