Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Our pets are becoming more like family every year. Nearly 70 million people own dogs in the United States. And for some, what they feed their pet is as important—if not more—than what they feed themselves. Paws on Chicon owner Keith Zeiler had a beloved dog who wasn’t feeling well, and while investigating ways to make his pet’s life better, he dug deeper into dog nutrition. He later took an extensive course in pet nutrition and then decided to share his knowledge through his boutique pet store in East Austin.
For Keith, it’s all about the pet. “I’m so very well-educated on the nutrition side of it. I just really wanted to pass that along. And as you can see through so many of my reviews, it’s all about nutrition,” he said. “I look at it this way: Every person that walks through this door and every one of my employees that I train, it is about helping that dog. It’s not about making that dollar on them because if we can help their pet, that builds loyalty, and that makes me and my staff feel like we did an amazing job. There’s nothing better than having customers come in and talk about how much we have helped their dogs, without costing them thousands of dollars.”
The myriad of choices in pet products is both a blessing and a curse, sometimes. Having so many choices in dog food alone can be downright intimidating. When reviewer Nicole B. walked into the pet store for the first time, she felt overwhelmed, but only for a moment.
“I have to be really honest. The first time I walked into the store, the staff had a big button pinned to their apron, and it said, ‘Ask me why X dog brand is bad.’ And that was the dog food brand I fed my dog,” she said. “And I was so scared and nervous that they were going to be judgy or say that I was like killing my puppy or giving him McDonald’s equivalent in dog food. But at the end of the day, they were no pressure. I said, ‘Listen, this food our vet recommended when he was a puppy. I’m not going to switch, but what else can I do? Are there supplements? And then when we wean him to adult food, what do you recommend?’
“And it was just so nice that they took that in stride. They were not judgy. They were like, ‘Fine. Do what you gotta do. Listen to your vet. We’re here to give you other information that you may not have considered.’ That felt like such a relief that they were really a trusted partner and not just pushing me away from one food and onto theirs.”
Keith works hard to educate his staff so they have the latest nutrition knowledge on hand, but he also wants to ensure they have an equal amount of compassion for the dog owners.
“My approach is not about the money. It’s about healing and giving the best for the dogs. But people who come into my store and they’re feeding a food that I don’t carry, I’ll look it up online and we’ll compare it. I can’t tell you how many people I tell, stick with that food. That’s a good food. There’s no reason to change that food. The price is good. The quality of the food is good. Don’t change it.
“Because again, it’s not about that for me. I want their dogs to live the longest, and if they’re feeding a good food, I’m going to tell them that. All my staff is trained on a lot of issues. We’re not vets. We don’t say we’re vets, but we know a lot about pet nutrition and how we can help with those issues.”
The trust built between customers and staff is crucial for building a long-lasting relationship, and when it comes to caring for a pet over the course of many years, the purchase cycle could be pretty long term for customers like Nicole.
“I feel like having somebody local that you can trust is like having the equivalent of a big brother, big sister to ask life advice from. You really know that they know what they’re doing because they care and this is their job. So that’s such a relief as I navigate different seasons with my pet, be it his age or health issues, or even maybe getting a second dog, what that would be like. They know and they’ve been there, whereas as a first-time dog owner, I haven’t. So I really trust them,” she said.
Most small business owners know employees are on the front line as the face of the business. They represent your brand and culture when you can’t be there in person. With two stores, Keith can’t be in two places at once, so he has crafted training for his staff to make sure they are all sending the same message to their customers.
“We go through an extensive four-week training with our staff, which, from what I understand, is the most out there in the pet industry, in pet stores. We try to be very cautious because we don’t want to make pet parents feel like they’re doing something wrong,” he said.
“We try to give them the tools to educate themselves if they don’t have time to talk to us in the store. They know we’re not here to shove anything down their throat. When I opened the business, I wanted to find the best quality product for the price. I want them to have a good experience when they come in and know that we are literally here to help their pet because we love the pets.”
Sometimes, the added features of your business can also help it stand out in the crowd. When Keith expanded his first store, he added dog-washing stations. Anyone who has ever cleaned their own bathroom after bathing a dog knows that while the dog walks away clean, you and your bathtub take a real beating.
“There’s a couple of things that make us a little different in Austin. One of them is the dog washes and how we have them set up. We have a system that’s easy. It’s like a car wash. So the shampoo, conditioner, everything comes out through the hose. We tried to make it as easy as possible. We have little hoodies for the dogs, so when they get blow dried, it doesn’t hurt their ears. We have an upgrade where there’s a peanut butter lick mat that they can lick while they’re getting washed. And then the owners get a free drink while they are also doing their dog wash.
Keith says the dog wash is a huge hit, so he’s upped the amenities to include soft-serve dog frozen yogurt with a toppings bar. On weekends, he has a waitlist for available spots.
That feature was so important to Nicole—she mentioned it in her review—because when she does review a business, she wants to make sure others have a full picture of the business.
“When it comes to the content of my reviews, I try to think about what I would want to know if I was reading a review. If this is a store that just has pet food and maybe it’s more science-based or prescription aid that’s more of a medical thing, that wouldn’t really be what I was looking for,” she said.
“I wanted to make sure it was clear to say, these are all the options… so kind of an overall snapshot. And then if anything stood out—either the customer experience or the selection or something I was surprised by—that usually always makes its way into the review.”
Replying to reviews can be a great way to expand your customer experience beyond the brick-and-mortar of your storefront. Keith says he makes responding to reviews a priority, even though the negative ones can sometimes be tough to receive.
“I take reviews very seriously, and sometimes a little too personal, which I’ve had to learn to back away from because it’s ruined my week before. I feel like the business owner should always be paying attention to the reviews. They should always respond back. There is never any of my reviews where I have not personally responded. Good reviews, bad reviews—I can respond right away and take care of it if I need to take care of it right away.
“And sometimes things happen, you know? No, one’s perfect. I strive for five stars on everything. I get some bad reviews once in a while, but if you look at those reviews, you’ll be like, okay, I can see why this review was this way. I think that as a business owner and just thinking on the other side of it, if someone is taking the time out of their day to write a review for you, the least thing you can do is acknowledge them. The least thing you can do is say, thank you.”
Reviewers like Nicole appreciate small businesses, and review them purposefully. What might seem like a small thing — a simple thank you to a positive review — can go a long way, and customers like Nicole are the people keeping small businesses going. They are some of the best advocates for your business.
“If there’s something local or really cool, like Paws, that’s when I want people to know about it. I’m going to write a really good review. And I also feel like I’m helping out the business because of my elite status. I know people will see it. And so it’s really important for me if I care a lot to get them that good review, just so other people can find this hidden gem as well.”
Check out some of these other tips from Paws on Chicon:
- Respond to reviews, good and bad. Take careful consideration of how you respond and just as importantly, what action you take afterwards.
- Find the thing that makes your business stand out and capitalize upon it. It could be as simple as an added feature, like Paws on Chicon’s dog washing stations.
- Keep things consistent between multiple storefronts. Opening another location is a great way to grow business. Just be sure to keep the level of customer service consistent between locations.
- Your employees are the front line between you and your customers. A well-trained and educated staff can build loyalty and trust between your business and your customers, as they are an extension of your business’s persona.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Keith and Nicole, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.