a smiling man holds a happy dog
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Show of hands—how many of you got into animal welfare because you just love people and want to devote your life to providing stellar customer service?

I think I’m safe in guessing virtually none of you are raising your hands! That’s because we’re animal people—dyed-in-the-wool, tried-and-true, ride-or-die animal advocates! Serve people? You’ve got to be kidding! If anything, we need to protect animals from people, right?

I’m an animal person just like you, and over my 20+ years in the field, I’ve seen every permutation of terrible—the farmer who stood by and watched nearly every animal on his property starve to death; the person who lived in a single-wide trailer with nearly 200 dogs and didn’t seem to notice that all were either sick, dying or dead; the highly respected police officer who returned his adopted dog, weighing much less than half of her healthy adoption-day weight, because he was sick of her trying to steal bread off the counter. We have every legitimate reason to say ‘Forget people—they’re lucky I tolerate them at all!’

The problem? To put it bluntly, whether we like it or not, we can’t save animals without people. Look at your own organization’s mission statement—chances are, it contains some element of “finding new homes for homeless pets,” “providing spay/neuter or other services.” Ask yourself—who do we need to adopt those homeless pets? People. Who do we need to accept our message and guidance about better pet caretaking? People. Who do we need to donate or approve the taxes necessary to fund our spay/neuter and other efforts? People. That’s not to say that there aren’t individuals we legitimately need to protect animals from—of course there are. But we can’t fulfill our mission of saving animals by viewing “people” as a whole as the enemy.

Who doesn’t need people? That person with hundreds of animals in the single-wide trailer. Sure, she’d love to get a windfall of money, but she’s not writing grants or approaching her city council for funding. There’s certainly no call going out for extra hands for cleaning, or foster homes. She doesn’t need adopters—none of her animals are leaving.

We (each and every one of you reading this blog, I’m certain) are different. We have a lifesaving mission that, for better or worse, requires people to help and support us. We can’t afford to say “I hate people,” because in our work, neglecting people can and does cost animals their lives.

In the real world, people make decisions every day based on how they are treated, and companies pay a steep price for bad customer service. According to experts, it costs five times more to acquire a new customer than keep an existing one.

This is true for our world too, right? Isn’t it much easier to get someone to adopt a second pet from us than to convince someone to adopt for the first time? Or to ask for a larger second donation, once a donor has seen the proof their money has been well spent, than getting that first contribution?

When people have a good experience with a for-profit company they may tell a few people, but when they have a bad experience, they share it with the whole world. (Anyone been on Facebook or Yelp lately?) And while 80 percent of companies believe they are providing stellar customer service, only 8 percent of their customers feel the same. Trust me, I’ve had enough meetings with shelter and rescue group leaders to know that disconnect from reality is sadly alive and well in our field, too.

It’s important to note that a customer doesn’t even need to have had a bad experience to be driven away: 86 percent of people decided not to do business with a company because of the company’s “perceived indifference.” How many potential adopters/donors/volunteers/supporters do we lose without even knowing it, because we failed to capture them when they tried to engage with us? We tell people “Adopt, Don’t Shop!” But what happens when Mrs. Smith heeds the message, falls in love and decides to adopt Fluffy, only to have her email inquiry go unanswered, her phone message go ignored, her visit to the shelter greeted (or more often, not) by staff too preoccupied to even acknowledge her presence?

What happens? We fail to fulfill our lifesaving mission.

Back in 2009, Maddie’s Fund and the Petfinder.com Foundation tried an amazing experiment—they “secret shopped” at rescues and shelters to see what a real-life adopter might experience. And the results were dismal. More than a third of the 50 groups they emailed failed to respond in a timely fashion, if at all. Nearly half failed to even answer the phone. And when they visited in person, all too often they were ignored, or received minimal assistance at best.

Of course, we’re all busy saving lives, and many of us work day jobs in addition to helping animals. But how much time does it take to set up an automatic email reply that says “I will return your message within 24 hours” (and then follow through with that promise!), to record a phone message that says “I’m out saving animal lives at the moment, but I will be back in the office at 3:00,” or to glance up from the computer, smile, and say, “I’ll be right with you”?

Need more proof that our failure to value customer service can cost lives? Petsmart Charities asked people why they chose to acquire their new pet from a source other than a shelter or rescue. Poor customer service was one item on the list. But virtually every other reason they cited was actually related to customer service, too—and could easily be remedied with a better approach. “Inconvenient hours,” “no organization close by,” “adoption process is too difficult”—these are all reasons people have given for not adopting that are well within our power to change. And most of the remaining reasons—including “shelters are depressing,” “I wanted a purebred pet,” “shelter animals may have behavioral/health problems,” “you never know what you’re going to get with a shelter pet”—are all perception issues that better messaging can help us remedy. 

So how do we up our customer service game? First, we do our very best to make people feel welcome, important and valued. We need our websites to say “Thank you for considering adopting!”, rather than “Here are all the reasons you won’t be getting a pet from us,” and we need to go the extra mile to make sure those who reach out to us get the benefit of our (understandably limited) time and attention. We need to make sure our policies, like intensive adoption screening and inflexible return to owner requirements, aren’t unnecessarily burdensome. We don’t need to treat every adopter as someone convicted of animal cruelty, and we certainly shouldn’t think it’s OK to hold onto an accidentally lost dog because his owner can’t afford to reclaim him. And last, but not least, we need to share our story, and welcome people to engage with and support us, rather than keeping our heads down, in our comfort zone, focused solely on the animals in our care today.

None of us got into this work because we wanted to become customer service experts. But frankly, we don’t have the luxury of actively, or even inadvertently, dismissing people. We can’t save lives without them. And in the work we do, failure to engage people can literally mean life or death. So for us and the animals, more than many other for-profit businesses or nonprofit endeavors, failure is not an option.

About the Author

Inga Fricke

After several years working as an environmental attorney while volunteering with local shelters and wildlife rehabilitation facilities, in 2001 Inga Fricke decided to pursue her passion for animal welfare, first with Wyandot County Humane Society and later with Loudoun County Animal Care and Control. In 2010, she joined the staff at the Humane Society of the United States, working in various roles to support animal welfare professionals, helping to launch Spayathon™ for Puerto Rico, and authoring and contributing to numerous best practices publications, including the Adopters Welcome manual.

After leaving the HSUS, Inga joined Humane Pennsylvania as director of community initiatives and now serves as executive director of McKamey Animal Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She also serves on the boards of the National Animal Care and Control Association and the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition and is an adjunct professor for Canisius University’s anthrozoology department.


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