The Right Direction

Pet store owners and managers can improve the performance of their business by clearly conveying their expectations to store employees.


With rare exception, your employees want to succeed. But when they are forced to guess what you want them to do, it is easy for them to miss the mark.

When employees perform poorly, managers usually assume they lack necessary knowledge or skills. In fact, the most common reason for poor job performance is unclear expectations. Being explicit about your expectations and providing specific direction on how to meet them is a valuable technique to improve performance.

Coaching your team to achieve performance excellence can often be as easy as letting associates know what you expect of them. Never assume that they know what you want.

Examples of expectations include:

• Tasks or responsibilities that employees are expected to perform.

• Deadlines by which tasks or projects must be completed.

• Criteria employees must meet to succeed, such as greeting every customer as they enter the store, using add-on sales techniques or increasing sales by a specific percentage.

When stating your expectations, it is important to use objective statements to describe responsibilities, set deadlines and outline criteria. Avoid using subjective terms like “good,” “quickly” or “soon.”

Communicate Clearly
To communicate an expectation clearly, you should:

• Be clear with yourself about what you expect from employees.

• State your expectations to associates, clearly and simply.

• Check for understanding.

When clarifying your expectations to an employee, it is important to avoid using vague statements that might be confusing or make him defensive. General expectations may describe the behavior you want, but they don’t provide employees with specific, actionable direction. By being specific, you can communicate your expectations in a way that is clear and easy to understand. Specific expectations also make it easier for both the manager and employees to objectively assess whether they are performing to meet your standards.

Before starting a coaching session with an employee, carefully think through your performance expectations. Then, assess whether they are specific enough that a third-party could easily determine whether the employee has met your expectations or not.

Be Specific
Compare the following examples of general and specific expectations:

General:    “You need to improve your attitude.”
Specific:    “You need to greet customers with a smile.”

General:    “You need to do your job more effectively.”
Specific:    “You need to increase sales by suggesting at least one add-on item to every customer you help.”

General:    “You need to stop being so lazy.”
Specific:    “You need to follow the detailed procedures when cleaning and sanitizing the reptile housing units.”

Taking the time to explain the logic behind your expectations can also help associates internalize the desired performance standard. For example, explaining that the cleaning procedures are designed to keep both animals and people healthy can help employees understand that the rules are there for a good reason.

Another guideline of coaching to clarify expectations is to listen and negotiate. This is particularly important in situations where you are trying to clarify your expectations to someone who disagrees with you.

To use this technique, first listen and acknowledge what is being said. It is important to recognize the other person’s concerns as a starting point for negotiation. Although you might not agree, you should remember that her concerns are real and significant to her.

Listen Carefully
Use the following techniques to show that you hear what is being said and want to learn more:

• Listen without interrupting.

• Use nonverbal and verbal signals to show that you’re listening.

• Paraphrase what’s been said in your own words.

• Once you are confident that you fully understand the associate’s concerns, successful negotiation depends on your willingness to offer something in return for what you want. Negotiating with you has to be of some benefit to the other person.

While what you offer will vary widely based on the situation, common employee requests may include:

• Making yourself more available to answer questions.

• Providing more advance notice of changes.

• Allowing more time to complete special tasks.

Taking Responsibility
You aren’t the only person who needs to clarify your expectations. Everyone in your store has expectations of others, regardless of their respective roles.

In today’s dynamic pet retail environment, open communication is critical. It allows everyone on the team to be as productive as possible and move quickly to take advantage of new opportunities. Every person who works in your store must take responsibility for communicating their expectations.

By encouraging associates to express and clarify their expectations of each other, you help create an environment where your team runs smoothly, even when you aren’t directly supervising their activities. Understanding what employees expect of you is also important to your success as a manager.

Stephanie A. Kaplan is the director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. She manages PIDA’s free online training program, Pet Store Pro. Since it was first launched in 2008, over 4,700 retailers have turned to Pet Store Pro for brand-neutral training on critical skills for associates, managers and owners. Pet Store Pro is free to qualified retailers; visit to register and begin using the program.

This article was adapted from “Coaching & Motivating Employees,” one of 25 chapters available as part of Pet Store Pro’s online training. Lessons cover coaching techniques to build skills, clarify expectations, boost confidence, increase motivation, encourage flexibility and resolve conflict, as well as identifying employees’ coaching needs.

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