Jake always loved animals, so it was only natural that he started pet sitting on the side for fun and extra income. As word got out that he was great at it, he began getting so many requests that he realized he could have a full-time pet sitting business. So Jake left his regular job, created a simple business card, bought small business insurance, and started asking for referrals. Within a year, he was so busy that he needed to employ a few independent consultants to help during high-travel holiday weeks.
When pet sitting was a side business, Jake didn’t mind if people cancelled or asked for last-minute help. He was doing it simply because he loved it, so there were few consequences. But as his business formalized he found himself more and more stretched as he scrambled to accommodate requests from clients and provide some kind of predictable schedule for his independent consultants.
In our business owners group, Jake shared his list of what was causing him the most stress:
- Clients keep canceling at the last minute, which leaves me scrambling to close an income gap or make social plans with no notice.
- It’s also difficult when clients ask to book at the last minute because I like to have the schedule set at least two weeks in advance for personal and business reasons.
- Frequent yet short visits to pets, especially in distant neighborhoods, can make me feel frazzled because the income doesn’t pay for the gas and time investment in getting there.
- One-off clients also take a large initial time investment with too little return. Some of that is expected, but I’d be happiest if I could draw a majority of clients who want recurring service.
- I’m getting frustrated with people expecting services than aren’t reasonable from a pet sitter.
- Pets that are very badly trained cause more stress than enjoyment to care for. I started this business because I love animals but I’m not a trainer, nor do I want to go that direction.
Since great customer service was a high value to him, Jake had set an informal precedent of being flexible and accommodating – and he wasn’t sure how to go about setting some important boundaries without upsetting his clients.
Jake was falling into a trap many independent consultants and solopreneurs face: taking customer-centricity to an extreme. Yes “the customer is always right” and yes, the business only survives by delighting the customer. But that doesn’t mean that every single time a customer has a request the only right answer is “yes.” And it also doesn’t mean that if we draw a line or say “no” to a customer they will automatically be disappointed and leave us.
To get Jake back to a place where he could enjoy serving his customers, we had him do two exercises.
This exercise would help Jake identify what he loved doing and what he did not want to do for his customers in an ideal world. Write a list of most and least favorite customers or customer situations. Ask why you enjoy or become stressed by each situation? Look for patterns.
- I really like pet sitting for my “regulars” and their direct referrals because I have a deeper relationship and rapport with them and their pets, which is more satisfying on a personal level.
- My clients who travel often are also great to work with. They tend to plan ahead and have a high comfort level with being away, which allows for fluid communication and trusting relationships.
- I’ve always especially loved cats, so those client visits are fun for me. An added bonus is that they allow for flexible timing, short visits, and few overnights.
- My base of clients is concentrated in the neighborhoods surrounding our city’s two largest parks. These locations are great because they are close to where I live, plus they are safe and affluent (meaning they pay well). Since I enjoy being active outside, it’s also nice to work with dogs in these area because I can walk or jog with them and get exercise while I work.
- It makes me happy to help people take care of their homes when they are away. I like knowing they can rest easier on vacation because I’m handling the basics.
Most Challenging Customers
- It really pushes my buttons when people ask for last-minute services or cancel with little notice– because of the impact on my schedule and income, and those of my consultants. Along those lines, I feel uncomfortable when customers pay late, even though I know they will eventually pay.
- I get frustrated when clients leave notes asking me to do random favors not associated with the pets. I’m happy to do some house sitting services along with pet sitting– it’s a logical combination– but I want people to realize the difference and ask me in advance.
- Customers who only want me to stop in for 10 minutes, 3-5 times a day are challenging to manage. This especially happens with older dogs, but it leaves me running around too much and I don’t typically charge for time spent getting to and from a house.
- While I love pets, I’m honestly not the best dog-trainer, which has made for some difficult weeks with poorly trained dogs and puppies. I’m not sure how to weed out these clients.
With the results above as a guide, describe your “ideal” scenario.
Here’s what Jake wrote:
I’d like my business to stand out for being flexible and personable, so that my clients feel like they are leaving their pets in the care of a good neighbor or trusted friend. While I want to be accommodating to individual needs, I still need to run a viable business that I enjoy, so I cannot accommodate all requests.
Ideally, I would like to find ways to ensure the following:
- Focus on long-term customers. Since it’s most rewarding, I’d focus on long-term customers, who need regular help.
- Animal Guidelines. Cats and dogs can be accommodated, though dogs must be adequately house and leash trained. Other household pets can be discussed.
- Length and frequency of pet visits. Pet visits can vary from a day to weeks with overnights, so long as I have adequate notice and the duration of each visit is at least 30 minutes.
- Location boundaries. Clients would need to be within a defined geographical area, otherwise I would charge an additional fee or would refer them to someone within their area.
- Some light house sitting services. My pet sitting service includes some complementary services: bringing in mail, pulling trash and recycling to the curb, watering plants, and adjusting thermostats and lights daily. Tasks typically done by a specialist (landscaping, pool cleaning, etc.) are referred out or scheduled for an additional fee upon request.
- Payments and Scheduling. An online payment system would streamline and improve payment turnaround. Customers could book in advance, and I would have guidelines for bookings and cancellations.
What Jake Did
When Jake shared his “ideal job” exercise with the others in his business owners’ group and asked for ideas and feedback, he got all sorts of ideas – here are just a few of them:
- Create a flyer itemizing your services, making it less likely to get requests for items not listed.
- Create 3 options of “packages” for customers that show the flexibility you do want to offer. These might include a standard price for pet-care only, plus the special housesitting offer itemizing what’s included.
- If someone asks for something you don’t mind doing that isn’t on the list of included services, have a script: “This isn’t something we normally do but let me see if I can find a way accommodate you” – and then offer to fulfill the requests at a special service rate of $25 per hour. If they ask for something you don’t want to do, have another script: “This isn’t something we are able to do, but maybe I can refer you to someone who can help with that” – and have a list ready.
- If you want to find a way to do the 10 minute visits, you could come up with an annual or monthly subscription for a certain number of short visits that get squeezed in, and build a team that can easily accommodate a quick stop on short notice to those “subscribers.”
- Set up a minimum charge per visit so that visits under 30 minutes are still financially viable.
- Charge a deposit upon booking that is returned for cancellations made within two weeks of the planned services. And offer incentives for people booking well in advance and frequently.
- Mine specific neighborhoods for clients – and even have special “neighbor offers” for clients who hire him as a group in the same neighborhood or refer him to people in the same neighborhood.
- Write a friendly paragraph on your flyer about what animals your business handles.
Jake’s implemented many of the group’s suggestions, and his greatest tools became his new flyer, plus a basic website outlining his services and policies. He didn’t want anything too formal, so he was able to draft these items up within a week. While creating these resources, it also helped him articulate his vision and service parameters without the ambiguity he previously felt.
He then created a menu of offerings, including three main packages that were ideal for him and his customers. He found that customers tended to gravitate overwhelmingly to the set offerings. The packages included neighbor deals to help him stay concentrated in his favorite areas, a yearly rate for a certain number of short visits that felt more economically reasonable, holiday packages to help manage those busy weeks, and other perks for customers that steered them toward what worked best for the business.
To honor his commitment to flexibility, he added a statement that “Any unlisted services may be accommodated for an additional charge of $25 per hour if time and resources allow.” Jake also drafted a verbal script he could use to tell clients what he could and couldn’t do, and he was happily surprised that his clients didn’t blink an eye – not one of them pushed back. In fact, a lot of his existing clients were thrilled to learn that he didn’t mind watering the plants or pulling the trash to the curb, and some even tipped him for it. The few requests he received for extra help paid off economically and in customer loyalty.
To communicate more clearly what services he really didn’t want to provide, he created a list of referrals on his website and flyer for common requests. These referrals included a trusted dog trainer, landscaper, house cleaner, babysitter, airport car service, and grocery delivery service. He was even able to get a little boost in income by linking to favorite services and products people could buy online.
The website proved to be an invaluable tool for improving the scheduling and payment challenges Jake was having. Clients can check his availability online, which has saved a lot of time with communication and has helped people see how quickly he books up. Discounts for earlier bookings also seem to be a great incentive for more advance planning. And by collecting payments at the time of booking and having a cancellation policy in writing at the checkout – Jake is finding that people are more thoughtful about planning. He is really enjoying the more predictable schedule and the time he is saving with clearer parameters.
It has proven difficult to assign consultants to help in each neighborhood to cover busy weeks. People who tend to be available are less reliable, and the reliable ones tend to book up early. That said, Jake is continuing to network and experiment in this area of his business. He is always happier to turn clients down because he is too busy, than to be constantly spending time building a network of clients.
Keep in mind, when you start a business, it really is your business, and you get to create it in whatever way you wish. Your customers expect you to be human, and what draws them to you is not that you will do everything they ask, but that over time they get to know you and can rely on you to be honest, consistent, and do your best for them.
If your customers are beginning to feel too demanding and you’d like some help setting boundaries, re-thinking your offerings, or coming up with scripts to help you draw boundaries with your them, contact Nahid for a consultation.