More often than not, the success or failure of a pet specialty retailer will depend on the level of service it provides to customers. This is something that has obviously been long understood by Pet Food Express, as it is often cited as a major reason why this retailer has been able to grow from a single-store operation into one of the biggest pet specialty chains in North America.
But Pet Food Express also understands that maintaining this competitive edge cannot be accomplished without a comprehensive program for training the associates that serve on the frontlines of its customer service efforts. With this in mind, the company has developed a best-in-class process for educating its employees–a process that goes well beyond orienting new hires to the business of pet product retailing to constantly grow each staff member’s knowledgebase.
According to Sue Tasa, director of education for Pet Food Express, the core of the company’s education efforts is a formal new-hire training program. This multifaceted five-day course is conducted once a month in a classroom at the company headquarters–dubbed Pet Food Express University–and covers everything from policies and procedures to customer service and sales skills to product training.
“The program is geared toward giving our new employees basic information to bring them all up to the same knowledge level,” says Tasa.
One of the most important roles of the program, says the education director, is educating new employees on Pet Food Express’ core philosophy: “In a nutshell, we believe that if you treat people the way they want to be treated, everything else will fall into line,” she says. “Certainly, that applies to customers, but it also applies to your coworkers, your boss and those people you manage–really everyone you interact with. That is our culture, and we spend a lot of time making sure that every new employee is taken through the concept.”
However, before a new employee is brought into Pet Food Express University, they must first spend a couple of months working in a store to build foundation for the formal new-hire training.
“If we do it too much earlier than that, they don’t have a lot of base information to bring to the class, and everything is so new and so overwhelming that it’s hard for them to absorb it all,” says Tasa. “By having a couple months out in the stores, they have some practical experience, they’ve had an opportunity to recognize what they don’t know and how much their coworkers know. So by the time they get to the new hire class, they really want to be there. It sort of creates this desire to be there and to obtain the knowledgebase that their coworkers have.
“It also gives us an opportunity to allow new employees to see what we’re all about and decide for themselves if this is something they want to move forward with.”
To help new employees through the first two months with the company, Pet Food Express has developed 10 web-based modules that each new hire must complete before moving on to Pet Food Express University. “It’s basic information, so they have some value that they can offer to customers and they have some comfort level out in the store,” explains the education director.
While Pet Express’ initial round of training is pretty comprehensive, to say the least, the education process does not stop there. Store employees are given some type of training exercise to complete literally ever day. “Every day that you have a shift in the store, we ask you to complete what we call a product-training sheet,” says Tasa. “It’s a written exercise that their managers print out from our library of information-documents that we’ve created in the education department. It is either about a product or a service that we offer in the store or about general care information. They read through it and then there are some questions that they have to answer to test their comprehension of the information that they read.”
Also part of Pet Food Express’ ongoing educational efforts are quarterly advanced training sessions, which are conducted by the company’s group managers (the management level between the district and store managers, each group manager is responsible for three stores).
“Three or four times a year (we try to do it quarterly), we conduct formal, focused training out in the stores themselves–either before or after hours,” says Tasa. “It’s mandatory, so everybody on the staff has to attend. We’ll focus on either a specific product or a specific topic. For example, right now we’re doing grooming. We take all of our grooming items and we do a hands-on training to teach them the application of all of our combs, brushes, eye-care, ear-care, nail-care, etc. So when customers come in and have a question, our people have practical experience with how to use them and recommend them.”
Given the prominent role that formalized training plays in educating the Pet Food Express staff, it’s not surprising that the company also has structured management-training programs. For example, the company has developed a winning formula for preparing prospective store managers to run their own location.
“Our manager-in-training is a sort of learning and testing period during which everyone gets to see if it’s going to work,” she says. “The individual gets to see if it’s something they want and the company gets to find out if the individual is capable of running a store.
“It’s progressive, so we throw a multitude of situations in there. They will manage a store with another manager, then they will manage one of our less active stores. We have formal checklists and formal procedures that we take them through. And they have to complete all of that before they can become a store manager and get their own store.”
Similar to the approach that it takes in sales-associate training, Pet Food Express believes in ongoing training for its various management levels. “Every week, we have a different level of our management team come into Pet Food Express University for a meeting–one week, we’ll have a meeting of all of the lead associates from our stores; then the next week, we’ll have a meeting of all of our assistant managers, and so on,” says Tasa.
“We do all kinds of things in those meetings–we bring them up to speed on new products, we discuss any operational issues we’re having at stores, and then we always do some sort of training, whether it’s management training or product training or some other type of training. That’s incredibly valuable time. It’s another way for us, as we continue grow, to stay in contact and keep that small business feel.”