Dishing on Pet Food

Melissa Brookshire, DVM, has years of expertise in consumer relations issues impacting the pet food industry. Founder of North River Enterprises, Brookshire and her veterinary team provide customized consumer support solutions. She writes on timely industry topics impacting consumer relations.

Pet Food Market Trends

The pet food customer is always right. Really?

I am a Costco shopper. I love it. I spend far too much money on things I probably don’t need, but that does not seem to stop me from going back on a regular basis. Shopping there this past Saturday, I walked past the customer service counter on my way out with my very full cart. The line was long, it was Saturday afternoon.

The customer at the counter was in a heated argument with the individual behind the counter. I do not know what his complaint was, but as I walked by, I heard him say, “I am sorry, but you simply do not know what you are talking about.” I find it highly unlikely that the woman behind the counter did not know what she was talking about, much more likely this customer did not know what he was talking about. But, the customer is always right, or so they say.

I did not stick around to see the outcome, and I did not go up to the man to suggest that he try not being so rude, but it certainly got me thinking, and wishing I had stepped up. Customer service is a demanding role in any industry. In the pet food industry, it is an emotionally charged role that brings challenges even to the seasoned professional.

Maintaining a database of consumer complaints is one way to gather information to better tailor responses when a similar call or email or Facebook post comes into the customer support department. It is also a requirement under the Food Safety Modernization Act and certainly a best practice for managing a business that has the role of feeding pets. Sometimes there is something that simply has never happened before, and when it does, you are wishing it wasn’t happening now.

So what is the best approach for a consumer who is just being unreasonable? Some companies have vast customer support departments, marketing departments and even legal teams on their side. Smaller companies sometimes have all of these same resources, but on a much smaller scale. Other companies may have one individual, the person responsible for wearing many hats and putting out fires in many areas on any given day. Large companies with vast resources likely already have a well-defined plan for handling an aberration or a challenge when it arrives. If your company does not, it is time to get that plan in place.

Consumers truly want transparency surrounding the products they buy and the companies responsible for those products. When they do not get the precise response they are seeking, they often become angry or upset. Dealing with these consumers often requires simple questions such as, “What can I do for you to help you through this?” Or “Tell me more about your experience.” Their response might be something that is not that difficult to provide. However, the customer who wants to be reimbursed for every single bag of dog or cat food that they have purchased over the past 10 years might require a little more finesse.

It is beneficial to have your entire team trained to handle customers who are upset. This may not always be feasible, so one approach that can be extremely effective is having a “go-to” individual to handle a challenging situation. In the case of a report of a sick pet, a veterinarian or veterinary technician is the best option. The transfer should be done quickly, before the caller goes through their entire story. If they report that their pet is ill, tell them you have a veterinary department that would like to talk with them. Immediately transfer the call so the issue can be addressed right then. When a call is transferred and a pet health expert is on the line, this is often reassuring to the person on the other end of the call.

In the case of a different type of concern, not involving the worry over a pet’s health, a highly trained member of the customer support team is a reasonable option. This individual should not only have experience with the company’s products and policies, but also should have training in best practices for managing a customer who is upset. Steps to take in these cases include listening closely without emotion and taking notes, asking questions of the customer to make sure their concerns are fully understood, telling the customer what will be done to either further investigate their concerns or resolve their issue right then and, finally, following up with the customer to make certain they are satisfied with the resolution.

Acquiring new customers is more expensive than retaining existing customers, this is well reported in business statistics. Make sure your team members have the “right stuff” to keep your customers happy.




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