The Human Element

Although animal care knowledge is critical, pet retailers and their employees must understand that selling pets is ultimately a people-business.


When my wife and I bought our first computer, back in the mid 90s, we went into the local computer store as novices. It was a fascinating experience. The young man who helped us ended up selling us a computer with which we were very happy, but to this day I am perplexed as to how he ascertained our particular needs and fulfilled them. I think he (and we) got lucky. He explained our new system to us for more than half an hour, but we understood a fraction of what he was talking about. What’s more, throughout the transaction, he never looked us in the eye, not even once. His skills with the computer were vast—with humans, not so much.

There are strong parallels between a classic computer nerd and the people who will come to your store seeking employment. People who seek to work in the pet industry are not driven by profit or greed. We all know that our field is labor intensive and low-waged. Pet store workers are also not there because of their overwhelming love of fellow man; they are animal people. They work for and with us because they love the creatures; everything else in their workday is a compromise reached to spend time with animals.

Nowhere in the field is this truer than with herpers. The person who supervises your reptile department probably would never help a client given their druthers, and they will likely rationalize that their care duties supersede their sales work in importance. I have one employee that I am certain imagines himself as a zookeeper—so adamant is he in maintaining perfect enclosures and scrupulous feed records, which he always considers higher priority than helping customers.

As owners and managers, it is our duty to teach our employees people skills. With a bit of patience, even the most introverted person can be taught sales techniques and interpersonal style. The best teaching tool is, of course, example. Every community—and a pet store staff is certainly a distinct and sometimes-eccentric community—develops its own culture. Your store’s culture emanates from you to your senior staff and down to your newer workers. To that end, my business partner and I regularly spend time on the sales floor. As a result, we know that certain sales and customer relations techniques are learned by and reinforced in our staff. 

I also make a habit of listening to my employees and giving them post-sale feedback. For instance, I recently overheard my employee discussing a client’s sick bearded dragon. The customer referred to his dragon using terms like “her,” “my baby” and even by name, but my employee always talked of “the animal.”

After the transaction, I pulled my employee aside and recounted the entire sale to her. She had no idea that she was taking someone’s beloved pet and rhetorically depersonalizing it at every turn. She had unconsciously learned this style from one of my senior employees, who gets away with it because he has a stentorian and professorial manner. It works for him; from her mouth, it came off as cold and haughty. We had a good conversation, and now she rarely lapses into that style.

Customer Contact
I mentioned earlier that herpers typically have to be taught how to interact with customers, but there is another side to this equation that further complicates our particular corner of the pet store: the customer. I find that customers who walk into a pet store wanting a puppy, parrot, hamster or even a fish tank pretty much have a clear idea of what they are looking for. Not so with herp customers; their desires are often amorphous and based in some pretty wild fantasies of what having a pet reptile entails. To this day, I am regularly asked if I have any vegetarian snakes. Can any lizards be trained to walk on a leash? Can turtles do tricks?

It becomes our task to help people narrow down what they want and what is appropriate to their lifestyle. You are in the position of interviewing the customer. There are some basic questions you can ask to get a better handle on what direction to take a sale. For instance, if I can get the customer narrowed down to a snake, I can get a better feel by asking them to envision the perfect fantasy snake. How big is it? Is it tame? What color is it? And, as discretely and nicely as possible, how much does it cost?

Once you have a customer dialed into reality and on the course toward purchasing a reasonable pet, your job takes on something of the quality of an optometrist’s work. I will often line up a series of shoeboxes with representative baby snakes, and play the “better/worse” game as I narrow down the customer’s desires. If I have determined that the buyer wants to spend around $100 for a snake, for example, I will show several snakes in the $40 to $100 dollar range. However, I also include one snake that exceeds that amount by around 40 percent, explaining that although it is a little more, I felt obliged to show it for its superior coloring/temperament/ease of care, etc. You will be surprised how often this works.

Sometimes, the course of your interview will take an unusual turn; people are not always predictable. I have often started a family on a sale that was ostensibly for one of the children, only to find out midway through that the desire for that tarantula was something the son agreed to, but it was dad who was the major force behind the decision. This can be a delicate game, as you don’t want to tip your hand or just focus on the father. Family dynamics can be a tricky thing, and my advice would be to play along, all the while remembering who you are really out to please here.

You will also do well to remember who in the family is the one who will actually make the purchase. I often encounter kids giving their parents a hard time over choices of a pet or cage. I will, if it seems appropriate and helpful, kneel down and get on the child’s level, and explain to them why their parent’s decision is a smart one—even if it means the sale won’t happen that day, which is often what the dispute will be about—and how the child will get a lot farther by acting like an adult and respecting their parent. You wouldn’t believe how much parents appreciate people who have their back, and how much more likely this will make the sale.

Every once in a while, I find myself talking to someone who reveals that he or she is not, in fact, in the frame of mind conducive to having a good experience with pet ownership. Here’s my classic example: a gentleman once came into my shop asking about big snakes. As I showed him a few examples, I noticed him repeatedly asking the same question about each snake: “Will this be good at parties?” I soon realized that his only interest in snakes was a twisted attempt at self-aggrandizement, and as delicately as possible, I informed him that I wouldn’t be selling him any of my animals. When you know that an animal you sell will not be cared for properly or treated well, the big picture is that the animal will suffer, and this kind of customer will inevitably blame you for the problem. This is a sale best declined.

I find that it is not enough in our business to have great livestock, or fantastic product selection, or competitive prices. In the end, this is a people business, and customer service really boils down to being able to talk with and understand your customers. Your most valuable employees are the ones your customers look forward to seeing.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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