Before I opened my own stationary pet salon, I used to daydream about what it would be like. I pictured myself caring for each dog as if they were my own. I pictured myself bathing and drying, scissoring and sculpting. In my head, I had a rack of organized bandannas, a shelf of quality shampoos, a drawer full of freshly sharpened shears, and most importantly, I had scores of satisfied customers. I envisioned myself starting each day fresh and ending each day triumphant.

Then reality set in. I became a salon owner. But instead of the way I envisioned it, I started each day frazzled and ended each day exhausted. There are phone messages waiting, laundry to do, potty to clean up, phones to answer, shampoo bottles to refill, trash cans to empty, tables to disinfect, and a lunch that sits yet uneaten. Oh, and I’m supposed to groom enough dogs in a day to pay the bills somewhere in there as well.

One of the first casualties of an overworked salon owner’s day is usually customer service. In order to meet our deadlines, calls are directed to voicemail with a message stating that they will be returned in the afternoon. Our patience is worn thin by clients that chain-dial our number until we answer or by clients that feel the need to stop in in the middle of our workday. As a result, we may not be at our very best when interacting with our customers.

A worrisome problem with this scenario is that there are salons that do answer their phones throughout the day. Salons where clients are able to reach a staff member during business hours to inquire about pricing, to check if their pet is almost finished, or to discuss a new development in their pet’s health. New clients, the lifeblood of service oriented businesses, are able to speak with someone right away and book an appointment. These salons may be pulling business away from the ones that leave the phones unmanned for most of the day. They exhibit a professional, well-staffed and unhurried environment. And the client feels that the business is attentive and accessible.

What makes these salons different? How are they able to accomplish this? They have a dedicated staff member whose primary task is taking care of the client. They’ve hired the cavalry, otherwise known as The Receptionist. Bah, you say. I can’t afford a receptionist. That’s just that much more money taken off of my profit per dog, you say. Not necessarily. If you structure his/her pay and daily duties correctly, hiring a receptionist will enable you to groom more dogs in a day than without one and still make a profit after payroll expenses.

First, decide if you need (not want, but need) someone to work the entire day. If not, then decide what portion of the day will most benefit you. This can vary from salon to salon, based on whether all clients are due in at a given time interval (say from 8am-10am) or whether appointments are scheduled throughout the day. In 18 years of owning my salon and training receptionists, I’ve consistently found that they are unable to help with checking clients in, as they are not groomers. So at my salon, the receptionist reports in late mornings after pets are in for the day.

Deciding what their duties will include is the fun part. The front desk position can encompass whatever it is you need it to, this side of the law and within reason. At my salon, the front desk employee isn’t just responsible for the front desk. Her (for simplicity’s sake I’ll use the female pronoun) primary job description is to perform all tasks necessary to ensuring that my grooming staff and I, including my bather, were free to groom and groom unfettered. Those of you that pay your groomers hourly and require them to fulfill housekeeping and phone duties may want to reconsider your allocation of chores. There is a train of thought in management circles that you never want to make your highest paid help perform the duties of a lower paid position. In other words, if your
$25-30/hour groomer is accumulating 10 extra hours per week doing the work of a $9-10/hour employee, you’re wasting money and resources. Rather than sorting towels and answering phones, your groomer could use those 10 hours to groom and earn you both more money. Assign the proper tasks to the proper people for the proper pay.

Some, with groomers paid on commission, may assign these tasks to the bather to complete. Though that still requires the juggling of customer service with back-of-the-house grooming tasks, it can be a viable option with the right person. But in my experience, those folks that have what it takes to work well with demanding pets don’t always have what it takes to work well with their demanding humans.

Morning duties can include returning overnight voicemails and preparing client grooming reports, preparing a list of the day’s grooms and their respective pick up times, placing confirmation phone calls for the next day’s appointments and of course, answering the phone.

As the day progresses, she can check out clients, keep the work areas free of hair, refill shampoo bottles, keep bathing area floors dry, rotate laundry, verify vaccine records with local vets, schmooze the clients and continue to answer the phones.

End of the day tasks will include disinfecting floors, table and crates, emptying trash bins, recording the day’s groomings in client files, gathering dull blades and shears to send out for sharpening, cutting bandanna material, making bows, dusting retail product and yes, answering those phones.

Do you see how much we have to do in a day now that it’s spelled out as a task list for someone else to do? By delegating these menial tasks to the appropriate staff member, you are now freed up to do what it is that you do best and your client’s needs are met.

Now before placing an employment ad, you’ll need to determine what you want to pay for the position. I believe that a staff member is only viable if they bring in double what they cost. So if she works a 6 hour day at $9/hour she’ll cost you $54 plus company contributions for payroll tax. Therefore you should be able to bring in at least $100-120 more in grooming appointments when she’s scheduled. In my particular market, that’s about 2-2.5 more haircuts daily. I’ve consistently found that with a receptionist, I can add on 3-4 more haircuts for myself alone, depending on the size of the dog, its temperament and the style chosen.

Once you’ve outlined what the position pays and the duties it entails, you’re ready to hire. Look for candidates that are outgoing and friendly, with a ready smile. They are the face of your company, the one clients will see first as they enter, as well as talk to when making appointments, so be sure that it’s someone personable.

Ideal candidates should possess good grammar skills, and stellar phone manners. They will be in contact with local vets as needed to maintain shot records so they must be polite and professional. Stress that while you understand that you don’t expect this job to become their life, you do expect them to refrain from unnecessary call outs because the day will already be booked with enough grooms to complete successfully, only if the front desk is manned.

I’ve found that stay at home parents re-entering the work force make wonderful front desk staff. They’re often eager to earn a paycheck again and relish time with adults. These folks often love conversation and engage my clients in a way that makes them feel at home.

College students taking evening classes and spouses of military personnel who have recently been stationed in the area have made great candidates as well, so think of advertising on campuses and in base newspapers.

I’ve spelled out the virtues of hiring desk staff, but you may be wondering what the drawbacks are. The added payroll taxes and reporting can be a hindrance and managing personnel can come with its own unique set of problems. The work ethics of others are never quite the same as ours, which is why proper screening at the application and interview time is pivotal in finding a match. Make a concrete list of attributes you are seeking, create a set of interview questions and call for references.

All in all, however, I find the benefits to outweigh the risks. My clients feel welcomed, my salon looks professional, and I’m again free to live the dream of starting the day fresh and ending it triumphant.