Keeping everyone happy? That is a pretty tall order! If you are running a training school or serving as Training Director for an obedience club, a big part of your job description is keeping your students happy. Happy (satisfied) students stick with the classes and the training, tell everyone about their experience, and come back again and again.
One unhappy client can do a lot of damage to your business, and while we know we really can’t please everyone, it is to our advantage to try to please most. Others in our network need to be kept happy as well; particularly those businesses and professionals who routinely refer to us. Keeping students happy really starts with that first contact, be it on the phone, by e-mail, or in person. It goes without saying that you should answer every honest inquiry. I am always amazed when I get a student who tells me, “you were the only one who called me back.”
You can’t get the student if you don’t make contact with the student. Although I like to speak to everyone on the phone before they come to class, I am finding that I do more and more communicating by e-mail and it seems to work out well. You need to let prospective students know that you want them to come to class, you are interested in helping them with their dog problems, and that you are the place they should choose to come to school. These first contacts will not always lead to a registration, but if you don’t follow up on them, none of them will result in a training fee. I frequently hear from peers how they hate to talk to dog owners who are just calling up for information, possibly shopping around, or (many times) looking for free advice. Time on the phone can be a huge chunk out of our day if not managed properly. Some instructors will set a certain time aside to return calls, some take them as they come but put a time limit on them, and some just hire help to answer calls. Do what works best for your business schedule and what you like best.
If you enjoy talking to people, “selling” a service, and can manage your time efficiently, then taking the calls yourself as they come in may be a good way to go. Regardless of what you do, do return calls and e-mail inquiries as promptly as possible. If the caller is not in your area, or wants a program you don’t offer, be prepared to give a referral. This makes you look good, and will pay you back later. Once your student has registered for class, follow up by a quick call or e-mail to let them know their paperwork and check have arrived, and you have them on the roster for the class they wanted. This can take all of 20 seconds if you simply leave a message on their voice mail or inbox, but makes a good impression.
Nowadays, a big complaint of just about everyone is that personalized service has gone down the tubes. You want to let students know that your company will excel in service where others may not, and that you will personally see to that! A reminder call or e-mail a day or two before class is a good idea as well. Setting up a class list with everyone’s e-mail addresses can be a big help. At your orientation class, let students know that although they are learning in a group format, you will always be happy to give individual help. Our students are encouraged to come to class 30 minutes early to practice and get one-on-one time with instructors and assistants. Let your students know a good time to call you between classes, or encourage e-mail questions. We have a business nearby that offers help outside of class, but they charge for it. Personally, I don’t like “add on” fees but if this works for you, that’s fine. My theory is that people appreciate and remember if you go the extra mile for them, and I find that I reap new and repeat business “down the road” when I do that. Treat each and every question with respect.
When we trivialize our students’ problems we tell them very clearly that we really don’t think they are important and we don’t want to talk to them or help them. Try to remember that no one falls to Earth knowing all the answers, and if they did, you wouldn’t have a training business! Although some things will seem simple and straightforward to us, they may be big issues to the student who is asking, and our answer (and the way we present it) may even mean life and death to a dog. Learn your students’ names, and the names of their dogs. If you run many classes each week this can be a challenge, but it is well worth the effort. No one wants to be pointed to or addressed as “Sugar’s mommy” in class. This little bit of professionalism will tell your students that you care about them as individuals and will go a long way to keep them happy. If you have a bad memory like I do, just carry cheat cards or refer to your class roster. Learn to say something nice about every dog in your class. If you can’t think of anything (and believe me, I have walked in your shoes), comment on “Maxie’s soft ears,” or “Blondie’s white feet.” Everyone is proud of their dog, and although he may be about as far from the breed standard as he can be, he is still theirs. Look at the photos they bring to class, and yes, that means the ones on the cell phones too! It goes without saying that the best way to keep students happy is to give them what they paid for, and that means a good start to a well trained, under control, and happy dog.
Be prepared to give help on management issues and common home problems in addition to your training curriculum. Of course, behaviors that are going to take extra counseling to solve, or serious issues like aggression will warrant extra time and an extra fee. If you have a student who finishes your course but still gets rid of the dog because he wasn’t housetrained, he will not be happy and will be unlikely to recommend your programs. Sometimes just having handouts available to give out or on your web site will solve common problems and create satisfied students. Make sure your students know they are important to you even after they finish their course. Tell them you want to hear from them and hear how their dog is doing. You will be surprised how many holiday cards you will get from “Lobo” and “Kisses!”
And lastly, keeping your referring veterinarians, groomers, and pet store owners happy is huge! If you don’t get their referrals, you won’t have a business for long. Take the time to call or send a note of thanks occasionally. Holiday cards are a good idea, as is taking by a cookie tray to those really good ones. I have one vet who puts every client of his who graduates from my class up on a bulletin board at the office … I would say he is happy with how I treat his patients, and the satisfaction has just come full circle. Giving a discount or even waiving the fee to vets and their staff can create lots of happy people and lots of referrals. Many instructors will give business like these a newsletter to put out for their clients, handouts on common problems, or offer to come in and provide info/training to staff at a reduced or no charge. It is often said that you can’t buy the best kind of advertising … the testimony of a happy client. I think this is true, and with good “customer service” of every kind becoming rarer, it is more important than ever to keep ’em happy.