This is a guest post from Hireology client Cara Armour, founder of Boston-based Active Paws. Cara has 13+ years of pet sitting experience, winning Pet Sitter of the Year in 2009. Below, Cara shares some of her experiences with employee turnover – a common challenge in the professional pet industry – and the methods she uses to avoid turnover, which apply to all small businesses. Read more insights from Cara’s 13+ of professional pet services experience here.
The pet industry experiences upwards of 125% annual turnover, meaning pet care entrepreneurs need to make an extra effort to keep employees around for the long haul or they could be replacing their entire staff every 9 months. In thinking about employees who have worked with Active Paws for four or five years – or longer – I’ve come to notice several common patterns among long-term employees, and key areas to focus on as a manager.
Here are my six criteria for encouraging pet care employee retention and avoiding turnover:
Help Avoid Employee Burnout
It can sometimes be easy for pet care professionals to overlook turnover because exercising and playing with dogs and cats all day sounds like a great job. But no matter how enjoyable any job is, business owners have a stronger threshold for burnout than employees. If there isn’t a work-life balance and employees feel expected to constantly say yes to requests and extra shifts, eventually they might grow to resent it. For example, I once had an employee who always said yes and lasted less than two years with Active Paws because she stopped enjoying the job as it took over her life. No matter how enjoyable work is for animal lovers, you can grow to resent it if you don’t have any life outside work.
To combat turnover, I try to assign my employees regularly scheduled hours whenever possible. I’ve also switched my approach to offering employees extra shifts. Instead of saying, ‘Can you do this?’ I instead say ‘Any interest?’ In rewording the request, employees are likely to take extra shifts only if they really want to, rather than feeling like they’re obligated or need to work more hours.
Beware of Boredom
Boredom can be just as risky as burnout. If you see any warning signs of boredom from an employee – lack of enthusiasm or generic feedback in the comments left to pet owners – try to identify ways to change up the employee’s day-to-day work. Walking the same block day in and day out can get boring, so consider switching up the employee’s route.
Also suggest having the employee ride along with a play group, just to add at least a little excitement and change to his or her work day. If the employee still appears bored, ask for genuine feedback and suggest new ways to make the most of the job.
Reward Good Behavior
Positive reinforcement and rewarding good behavior can go a long way in keeping employees happy. Make an effort to say or do something nice for staff members on a regular basis, such as complimenting employees onleaving detailed comments for owners. I occasionally give staff members gas cards, restaurant gift cards or a small bonus, just to show their hard work is appreciated. Think of other opportunities or ‘holidays’ to reward employees, such as Professional Pet Sitters Week or National Pet Day. In many instances, small, encouraging gestures will make employees that much more motivated to do great work.
On the other hand, when employees struggle with specific tasks, point out what they’re doing right when you discuss areas for improvement. For example, an employee once forgot to put a harness on a dog during a walk, and I ‘sandwiched’ the constructive criticism about the harness between listing all the good things the employee was doing. No matter the job, employees are always hard on themselves and can get wrapped up with mistakes, so focus more on rewarding good behavior rather than harping on mistakes.
Stand By Your Word
When it comes to compensation or scheduling expectations, it’s always best to be realistic, underpromise and overdeliver, rather than the other way around. If you promise a certain number of dog walking jobs or a certain weekly salary, but don’t have enough business to fulfill those promises, you risk disappointing employees and driving them away.
If you’re more conservative with your schedule or compensation estimates, employees will be pleasantly surprised when you can offer a bit more than anticipated – as long as it doesn’t reach the point of burnout. This is one of the key benefits of Hireology – when business is booming, I can offer more shifts to employees who want them, but use Hireology to track a constant pool of candidates, so I don’t wait to hire until it’s too late and my employees are overworked.
Treat Employees Like Family
For the most part, pet sitting can be a solitary job, as pet sitters stop by owners’ homes while the owners are at work or out of town on vacation. To create a sense of camaraderie and build employee loyalty, as a manager, I do my best to get to know each of my employees. I do this in the initial interview process by asking my favorite question, ‘What makes for a perfect Sunday morning?’ If it sounds like he or she really enjoys sleeping in, I won’t schedule early shifts for that particular employee.
Other than getting to know employees during the interview process, as a business owner, get to know employees on a personal level. This shows you care and value them as people, not just employees.
Customize Training to Each Employee
Between both the interview and onboarding processes, employees’ strengths and weaknesses start to show through from the beginning. Understanding these strengths and weaknesses can help you better cater training to each individual employee.
if you have an employee who is a trainer and knows about all the different harnesses and collars, you can breeze through the walking apparatus section of your training program. On the other hand, if you spot employees who are introverts, they might be great with animals but need a little extra training with customer small talk, so the owners feel confident leaving pets in their care. By customizing training to each employee early on, I find it’s much easier to schedule against any weaknesses and set employees up for success.
Giving Regular Feedback
Finally, even with all these criteria in place, I always make sure to check in with my staff frequently. As a business owner, you might assume all staff is happy, but in some cases, silence can be scary. Solicit regular feedback about what’s working and what’s not to make sure you do everything possible to keep employees happy and prevent turnover.
Interested in learning more about the pet sitting business? Read Cara’s first blog post, ‘Customer Spotlight: Cara Armour’s Advice On Staffing And Running A Pet Sitting Business,’ here.