"I find a good trainer?" a friend from Chicago recently asked me, Shirley Greene. Just a month earlier, I received a "panic" call from a California friend asking the same question. After giving both some advice and networking them to dog friends in their area, I picked up the phone and called my pal and training advisor, Dan Karas. Now, Dan calls himself "a trainer in training." Personally, I call him an open-minded guy with a mind like a sponge when it comes to dog behavior and training.
Here's what Dan had to say:
I consider myself a client, still, when looking at trainers. I am, in fact, looking for knowledge and training techniques. When I read a trainer's book or watch them work a dog, I ask myself, "What makes them different from or the same as every other trainer?" Or, "Why should I listen to them?"
Every trainer has good qualities and faults. You have to weigh the good and the bad in order to make your decision. A shirt I saw says it all: "The only thing you can get two trainers to agree on is what the third trainer is doing wrong!" Probably pretty true.
Why Do Dog Trainers Think Their Business Is "Unique?"
After a few minutes of discussing specific trainers we had known and debating their training styles, abilities and people skills, I asked Dan a few business questions: Why don't most dog trainers behave like other business people? What is it that often makes them blind to the consumer? Why have I, as a client, had to talk to them about the very basics of business etiquette? Why is training a dog (and hopefully the biped on the other end of the leash) viewed as "different" from any other business? And why should it be? Isn't a customer an opportunity? Don't you assess their needs and try to fulfill them, just like a plumber or a hairdresser?
Dan's insight helped me understand, when he said:
I think dog trainers are in a unique business and therefore sometimes think of training as a passion and not a business (this can be a good thing). Maybe some believe they are special and that they are doing their customers a favor by training for them. Or, it might be they are so used to working with dogs, they forgot how to deal with people. I personally know of clients who picked a trainer solely because he/she was the first trainer who returned their call. I don’t think dog training can be treated as a "normal" business, but the same business courtesies should be there. Common courtesy goes a long way in a world where it’s not so common any more.
The Focus Group
Before a new product is launched, or when an existing product has lost market share, advertisers and product managers assemble a room full of average people and ask them for specific opinions about the item being "pitched." I wondered what would happen if we asked a random group of average dog owners - - all currently in the market for a trainer - - a few specific questions. From flyball to Ring Sport, there should be some universal qualities that attract clients to dog trainers, and perhaps we'd also uncover some training traits that repel them.
So, Dan and I decided to launch a project. We asked dog owners or handlers, nationwide, who were actively seeking a trainer to share stories and experiences. After all, what better way is there for a trainer to learn than to listen to the client.
To focus the attention of potential clients, three very specific questions were asked:
As a potential client, what would turn you away from a trainer?
If you've left a trainer recently after establishing a relationship, tell us why.
And, as a client, what is the one piece of business advice you'd offer to trainers?
Respondents were told that no names were to be used and that information provided should deal with the business aspects of training, rather than techniques specific to one sport or another. Our object was to find universality in the approach to client retention.
To round-out our informal poll, we turned the tables and asked experienced trainers to respond to one inquiry:
What is the most important question a potential client should ask a trainer?
The Value Equation One of the keys to successfully marketing your business - whether it is cutting hair or training dogs - is to know your skill level and what each customer expects. If you can accurately determine what it is you have to offer and then correctly assess what your customer needs, a value equation results:
Results + time invested + money spent = value perceived by the customer
About 30 people from around the country - all seeking dog sports training of one type or another, replied. In addition, 10 "trainers" shared their opinions with us, too. This study isn't scientific, but it certainly is insightful and informative. There were honest answers and lots to be learned.
As a potential client, what would turn you away from a trainer?
Respect is evidently a big issue. Ninety percent (90%) of respondents made mention of it. A trainer's ability is not enough. A client would be more inclined to stay with a trainer of moderate ability than one with exceptional ability who treats them disrespectfully. This includes speaking to a client, or potential client, in a condescending tone - or avoiding answering direct questions. Plus, making a rude comment to someone might just run off more than the person to whom it was directed. Others may leave from fear of being next in line for that kind of treatment.
Yelling, which might relate to the above, was also high on the list. We aren't talking about raising your voice to be heard above barking dogs. No one likes to hear constant screaming. A whopping eight-six percent (86%) stated yelling while on the field was a concern. They mentioned things such as derogatory remarks, negative comments and embarrassment. Forty-six percent (46%) left their trainer and forty percent (40%) stated they might leave their trainer for this reason.
A "cookie cutter" approach to dog training was also on the hit list. The trainer seemed stuck in one type of training. Does the trainer go to seminars and classes? Do they continue to read training books? How do they continue learning? Closed minds seem to run a potential client away fast. Sixty percent (60%) of those surveyed alluded to it. Every dog is different; therefore they can't all be trained the same way. Customers appreciate a trainer who tailors himself to the dog, not vice versa.
If you recently left a trainer, after establishing a relationship, tell us why.
Obviously, there is some overlap here. People leave for the same reasons they gave above. Most come down to respect issues. One person said:
I left because my trainer was more interested in my money jumping into his pocket, than teaching my dog to jump over the hurdle!
Ouch, those are strong words. If money is your only motivation for training, it shows.
To be a great trainer, many believe that you must first relate well to the people, not just their dogs. After all, aren’t you really training the owner, too? I once had a trainer tell me: "Dogs are easy, people are a pain in the behind!" Plus, every person is different. Again, your style of interaction must be suited to the handler and therefore even people may need to be "trained" differently.
As a client, what is the one piece of business advice you would give trainers?
These were short, sweet and to the point:
Have enthusiasm during class. Act like you enjoy the work.
Make time for one-on-one questions - then answer them.
Don't assume everyone is "dog training dumb."
Be patient; after all, if I didn't have a problem, I wouldn't hire you.
There's a difference between giving an insult and offering a critique.
Keep more than one trick up your sleeve.
In a way, you are the employee and the owner is the employer - you can be fired!
NEVER try and fit a dog into a training program. Adjust the training to fit the dog.
Then, to find out what clients should ask potential trainers, that's often omitted, we asked professional trainers one key question:
What is the most important question a potential client should ask a trainer?
And, ten trainers gave us their opinions:
May I see your personal dog work?
How often do you attend seminars and on what subjects?
When is the last time you learned a new training technique?
Honestly, what level do you think this dog will reach?
What is your relationship with your own dogs?
What do you expect of me, as a handler? What can I expect from you as a trainer?
When stuck with a problem dog, where do you turn for advice?
Do you have an "assessment" of some type to help you match what the client wants with your ability to deliver?
Who was your mentor? Who have you studied under?
What magazines do you read regularly, and who are the top trainers you respect in your sport?
You may learn from these statistics:
20% left a trainer because they felt he or she was more interested in money than in training.
"Each time I entered the competition field, it became more apparent that I was overcharged and under-trained."
30% spoke about 3-way relationships between dog/handler/trainer. If any part of the triangle is out of balance, the other sides fold.
50% talked about trainers who made promises and never delivered. Clients don't trust trainers who over-promise and under-deliver.
86% would leave a trainer who had titled his or her own dogs if that trainer had poor rapport with them as an owner or handler.
From the replies of potential clients and professional trainers, a pattern emerges. Both appear to focus on the same concerns: respect, continuing education and flexibility. The key to new business and current client retention appears to be communicating to the client that their priorities are, in fact, yours.
In Conclusion: That All-Important Bottom Line
When all is said and done, the true reason anyone is in business is to make a profit. Profit means benefit. The benefits reaped from the business contacts you sow can be multiple: pleasure in doing a job well done; making new friends; bettering the lives of animals and people; education; personal growth; and increased income.
One thing is for certain, if you are training dogs - - or doing anything else - - only for monetary profit, your lack of commitment will show. It will show on your face, in the job you are doing and - - in your income. Clients are savvy consumers. They are also emotional beings and particularly so when it comes to training their canine companion - whether for obedience, conformation or bite sports. They are looking for a trainer with knowledge, presence and good business manners.
We've started the new millennium. We've crossed the threshold of the information age and are immersed in its evolving culture. The size of business done on the internet doubles every 90 days! Five years ago, I didn't know about the internet. Two years ago, I bought a pup from a breeder hundreds of miles away - via the internet. Plus, Dan found the breeder of his soon to be puppy through people he met on the internet. Word of mouth travels faster and farther than ever before, good or bad.
To reach today's customer, you have to work smarter and harder. Focus groups, target marketing, global economy aren't just buzzwords. They are a new reality for business and a new opportunity for success. Technology is advancing at an exponential rate. In keeping up, let's not forget the human side of customer service.
While the reality of growing ANY business must encompass multiple hi-tech modes, it is also important, from the customers' viewpoint, that your business retains a sense of individuality. You need to ask yourself: "Why should customers come to me first?" "What sets my training apart from others?" "What do I offer that makes me unique in the eyes of my clients?" That's your niche and marketing advantage.
Customers want a business that shows them respect. They want the advances of technology balanced with the warmth of someone who cares about their needs, their wants and their self-image. They want to be treated like "assets," not problems. One of the most important assets of any business is its customer base. A satisfied customer is a "repeat" customer and a walking referral service for your business. Never under-estimate their lifetime dollar value.
If I spend $120 a week at Grocery Store A and shop there for the entire 10 years I live in the neighborhood, I have a lifetime value of $62,400! Pretty smart of them to trust me when I want to return a spoiled cantaloupe and don't have a receipt. Should employees view me as a $62,400 asset or a $1.05 produce loss? Talk to your people and make sure they understand the value of retaining old clients as well as adding new ones.
The best insurance against business decline is making customer service your top priority. The true test of customer service comes when a complaint is received. How do you handle it? Are your people on the front line empowered to satisfy the customer and immediately solve the problem? Do dissatisfied clients have to jump through hoops and navigate barriers just to talk to "the boss?" Do you follow up to make certain the problem has, in fact, been resolved? Do you "inspect" what you "expect" to be done? Do you really care? Does it show? Or, is your customer service policy: "No one can please everyone, so go where you'll be happier."
Relationship marketing doesn't mean that each customer has to be your new best friend. It does mean, however, that you develop an individualized rapport with each client. It means you say "thank you" for referrals. It means you send an e-mail, a postcard or another type of "gold star" when they master an exercise that's been difficult. It means you acknowledge their success in public and offer "lectures" in private. It means you care enough to refer them to someone else, as appropriate, and call to see how it's going. And, it means honestly evaluating your abilities and personality, as well as the handler and the dog, each time you sign up a new client.
Momentum is built on one success at a time. Momentum is a powerful tool in the business world - just ask Jeff Bezos! Get the ball rolling in your training group. Step back and look at yourself, and your trainers, from a client's perspective. Do you show respect? Are you realistic in your expectations? Have you explained what clients can expect from your class? Are you involved with continuing education? Are you open minded to suggestions? Have you built up a referral network for problems outside your area of expertise - and no one is an expert in everything. Do you enjoy speaking to other trainers and listening to their suggestions? Are you flexible in your methods - - with both dogs and handlers?
You'll never lose customers because of good customer service. You'll never have clients walk off the field because you praised their efforts. You'll never have a legal complaint because you delivered more than you promised. Saying "I'm sorry" isn't a character flaw.
The most successful businesses are ones where owners treat customers the way they wish to be treated. You'll never go bankrupt following the Golden Rule.
Good luck, good training and good selling!
About co-author Shirley Greene: From the day I climbed on a cow to ride down to the Kentucky River and watch a hound whelp, I've been a dog person. Later, in my 20s, I dabbled with AKC conformation and obedience. Watching Schutzhund matches and making a pest of myself with trainers and knowledgeable breeders, I had the feeling I was getting closer to my niche.
Eight years ago, when my husband was out of town, two men tried to break into our home. As our senior citizen canine slept, the PD K9 unit chased the perps. Watching them work, my addiction was born. I began a journey of learning, listening, reading and watching the many trainers who would put up with me. Many people, and their dogs, have been my heroes and offered encouragement and information. Special acknowledgement has been earned by:
Butch Cappel, founder of K9 Pro Sports, who says: "K9 Pro Sports' goal was to bring money to trainers and create a sport with true professional attitudes. It has evolved into a forum where novice trainers interact with some of the world's most experienced; and, they ALL have a ball. The one word each competitor has used to describe their Pro Sports experience is FUN." Thanks for including me in the party.
Ken Schilling, Northwest Law Dogs, has taken me into his pack. A "dog whisperer," Ken is a trainer who breeds, not a breeder who trains. Your ethical approach to the business world of dogs has renewed my faith and serves as inspiration.
Dan Karas is my co-author and personal training guru. Thanks for your innovative solutions to my dog training problems and wisdom beyond your years. You're my Gibraltar.
I believe in God and in karma. Anyone seriously involved with dogs must give something back to the community. I am proud to be associated with Band of Angels, an Arizona rescue group led by Twyla Slothower. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and infecting me with enthusiasm.
And, there's always one dog that makes you think harder and work smarter. To IKE - - that Alpha male, abused, starved, rank, sharp, Czech lines pup who grew into the confident GSD stallion on whose right side I proudly lean - - I'm still YOUR pupil!
About co-author Dan Karas: I have been a dog lover my whole life. My first "real" family dog was a Terrier/Poodle mix "DeeDee," that was a stray rescue. I begged my folks for that dog. We had her 19.5 years (should have named her Timex, she even survived getting hit by a car). She was so smart that training was easy. You showed her how a couple times, she was trained. THEN, I wanted a Rottweiler. I got a great working line Rottie name Brutus Von Karas. He was a monster. At 10 weeks, he bit through my nose. Now, I needed to learn how to train. I found Christine Filler. She taught me how to do basic obedience and puppy training. Then, Brutus needed a job. I started doing protection training with a local club and, luckily, Brutus was better than I was. I became a "bonafide dog junkie" and started competing in the NAPD and K9 Prosports. We have been pretty successful, so far, despite being "outgunned" by the Malinois and Dutch Shepherds. Working with these organizations, we have met and learned from terrific people like Butch Cappell, Glenn Salamanca, Kathy O'Brien and Ivan Balabanov. Great people whom I admire. Now, I've started training on my own and founded Von Karas Kennels. Mostly, I volunteer to train dogs, such as rescues or friends' dogs. I accept very few dogs, striving to keep quality high. Still gathering all important experience, some day, I hope to be a police K9 trainer. In July of 2000 my malinois pup arrives to begin a new chapter in my dog training life. Until then, I will continue to enjoy working with my Brutus.
This article Copyright 2000 by authors Shirley Greene and Dan Karas and is reprinted here with their permission; all rights reserved. Find this outstanding training article and many more in the May 2000 Issue of Dog Sports Magazine, voice of the real dog trainers!