By Veronica Boutelle, dog*tec Dog Walking Academy co-founder and San Francisco Dog Walking Academy instructor

We’ve all heard the “customer is always right” adage. But too often dog walkers take the idea a little too far, often bending over backwards for clients to the breaking point. Offering good customer service doesn’t mean making compromises on your services and policies—or letting clients dictate them. Making too many concessions means putting the leash in your clients’ hands, and Muffy’s rhinestone collar around your own neck. Instead, set and ask your clients to follow thoughtful policies designed to be a win for all—you, your business, your clients, and their dogs.

Do you let your clients dictate your hours? Doing so likely means scheduling inefficiencies that make your work more difficult and time consuming than need be.

Every client, given the chance, chooses a noon pick-up time. So unless you’ve found a way to be multiple places at once (please share your secret with us if you have!), asking clients when they’d like their dog walked quickly creates a scheduling dilemma.

Instead, give your clients a window within which their dog will be walked. You can make that window as wide as you need it to be—even letting them know you’ll pick their dog up no earlier than 9am and return her happy and tuckered out no later than 5pm. This allows you to drive the most efficient routes and, if you’re walking dogs in groups, gives you maximum flexibility to group dogs according to size, energy level, and personality.

Letting clients cancel at will is not customer service; it’s a lack of good business policy. And if you can’t stay in business because you’re losing tens of thousands of dollars a year to cancellations (do the math—the numbers will likely shock you), your good customer service won’t mean anything, certainly not to the dogs you’ve worked so hard to help.

Most dog walkers use some version of asking for a certain number of hours’ or days’ notice. But for dog walkers, time equals money, and those last-minute cancellations can be nearly impossible to fill.

You’re much better off not allowing cancellations at all. Your clients should be paying for one of a finite number of spaces in your walking schedule, not for services rendered. Just as in child daycare or a private school, they are paying for their dog’s spot. Instead of a cancellation policy, you might offer a vacation allowance—each client enjoys a certain number of “excused absences” per year, after which they pay for their dog’s space whether used or not. Or you can build a vacation allowance into a flat monthly rate for added convenience for both you and your clients, and easier policy enforcement as well.

Still not convinced? How about if a strict cancellation policy is better for dogs, too? Because it is. Dogs who maintain a regular walk schedule enjoy the health benefits of consistent exercise, along with the added bonus of living with people far less likely to be irritated by boredom and hyperactivity behaviors easily controlled by exercise.

Letting clients dictate your services is also not customer service. It’s a lack of service definition, a lack of confidence in deciding what’s best for dogs and insisting on it.

Allowing dogs to use your walking services on a drop-in basis without set weekly minimums gives clients great scheduling flexibility, but also makes life for dogs and walkers much harder. Dogs who walk infrequently tend to bring chaotic pent-up energy with them, making extra work for you and, when walking in groups, riling up other dogs and causing stress for calmer group mates. And as you get busy, clients will eventually be turned away on busy days—there’s no client convenience there. In the meantime, you may go out of business as you struggle to predict your income and, if you have staff, accurately set their walking hours.

Though it reduces some flexibility you, your clients, and the dogs are all better served by strong set and minimum day policies designed to keep you in business for the long haul.

Cultivating respect
Respect is contagious. Cultivate respect for your own business, your time, and your policies, and clients will respond favorably. During initial meet-and-greets, communicate your policies clearly, including the reasons behind them, and do so without apology. This shows clients that you respect yourself enough to charge for the time they are missing and that your time is valuable.

For some of us, of course, this is easier said than done. If self-assurance isn’t your forte, we suggest a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude. Imagine that confident peer you’ve always respected, and model yourself accordingly. A few repetitions later, you might be surprised at the results.

When faced with difficult clients who continually question your policies or demand special treatment, we suggest an honest appraisal of their worth to your business. Bending over backwards to please in such cases means giving abrasive clients an unfair advantage. And dealing with challenging clients often affects how we feel about our work. Time spent catering to the whims of difficult clients might be better spent looking for clients who respect you and appreciate the service you provide.

What is customer service?
We don’t want to be misunderstood. Good customer service matters—a lot. But rather than handing over the keys or bending until you break, simply take good care of people. Return phone calls and emails in a timely manner. Interact with clients with genuine warmth and enthusiasm. Make an effort to remember and ask them questions about their lives. In short, strive to build relationships with your clients.

Be reliable. Do what you say you’ll do, and do it on time. Do what you do better than anyone else; exceed your clients’ expectations. In short, work hard to improve your clients’ lives with their dogs, and each dog’s welfare—the reason you hung up your shingle in the first place.

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