By Daryl Conner
It is a sad fact that many hurt feelings are caused by very simple miscommunications. One person says something, believing that they are being crystal clear with their words. The person they are talking to misunderstands what was said and feels unhappy. In our line of work, misunderstandings can carry additional emotional weight because people love their pets very much, and can become very sensitive if they believe their pet care professional harbors negative feelings about their dog or cat. If someone thinks you dislike their pet, they are not going to want to leave it with you, no matter how good you are at your job.
Here is an example. I was given our Pug, Smooch, when he was about 5 months old. I took him to my veterinarian for a checkup. He received a clean bill of health. I gushed to the doctor, “Isn’t he cute?” I mean, really, a black Pug puppy? Cuteness overload! The vet replied, “Well, I guess, if you like space aliens.” That pug is now 10 years old and I still vividly remember that conversation. It hurt my feelings. I took the comment as an insult to my beloved puppy. I had to really reign myself in. My veterinarian is a great guy, and a skilled doctor. I had to push down the feelings this conversation brought up in me and realize that he didn’t mean anything bad by it; he was trying to be funny. If I got really practical, I had to admit that Pugs do sort of look like aliens. But the fact of the matter is this; people are sensitive about their pets.
A recent conversation with a new customer gave me the idea for this article. A woman brought in her two mixed breed dogs. As she told me about them, it was very clear that the younger dog held a special place in her heart. I didn’t have to be psychic to realize this, she said, “Earl is special.” She hugged him tight, “He is just the best boy.” Then she said, “My other groomer says he is a challenge when she trims his nails.” I made a note of that and went about my work. Earl was fine for his nail trim, but is a nervous, high strung dog, and grooming him was a little bit like trying to pat a squirrel. He was jumpy and fidgety, and to be honest, sort of annoying to work with. Not difficult, really, but less than fun to be sure. When his owner returned she greeted both dogs, but gave Earl extra loving. “How did he do?” she asked. “He was fine when I did his nails,” I told her. She looked incredibly relieved, “Will you be their new groomer?” she asked. “The other groomer doesn’t like Earl.” Since I happen to know the other groomer, and found it unlikely that she disliked the dog, I asked, “What gives you that idea?” The owner looked very sad and said, “She always tells me how difficult he is, I can tell she just doesn’t like him.” I am imagining the conversation went something like this, “I did the best I could with his nails, but he is really difficult.” Those words (or some like them) are innocuous enough, but the owner read more into them.
When people are communicating, they rely on more than just words to convey ideas. The person speaking uses body language, facial expressions, inflection and tone of voice. All of this is wrapped up in one package which is delivered to the person they are speaking to.
The person who is listening takes in the information in two stages. The first stage is fast, automatic and without effort. They hear the words, and register the tone, inflection, facial expressions and body language in an instant. The second stage is when the person purposely thinks about the communication, analyzing what was meant. For instance, if your best friend says, “We need to talk,” your first, automatic response is, “OK, we need to talk.” Next you will begin to examine how your friend looked and sounded when he or she said those words. Will this be a pleasant talk that will involve ice cream or a confrontation to dread?
In the case of Earl and his owner, she was clearly interpreting the groomer telling her that Earl was a handful for a pedicure into something with a lot more emotion. I have no way of knowing if the other groomer genuinely didn’t like the dog, or if she happened to have a bad headache when she told his owner about the difficulties she experienced. What I do know is that I now have a new customer that brings her two dogs in every 5 weeks, tips generously, and plans to tell all of her friends about my service, all because of a simple misunderstanding.
Let me give you an example of a time when something I said went horribly wrong. A regular customer with a small dog had her sister pick the dog up from grooming one day. We were having a very bad tick season, and the dog had a tick on his chest. The skin around the tick bite was deeply red and angry looking. When the sister picked the dog up I said something like, “He had a tick on his chest, and it left a red mark. I suggest you keep an eye on it.” Weeks went by, and the dog and owner reappeared for grooming. I greeted the owner cheerily, but she would barely meet my eyes. Normally a friendly, chatty person, she was clearly unhappy. I pushed the issue,
“Is everything ok?” She took a deep breath and said, “My sister said you thought I kicked my dog.” I was gob-smacked. “Kicked your dog?” I asked. “Yes, she said he had a red mark on his chest and you thought I had kicked him.” It took me more than a few moments to sort out what had really happened.
Misunderstandings happen, and sometimes there is no way that we can prevent them. What we can do is make sure that customers know that we do genuinely like their pets. It is not difficult to find something positive to say even about a dog that has really tried your patience. I am not recommending that you be untruthful, but do find something upbeat and complimentary to say. Even dogs that are horribly challenging to groom have obvious good points. If you are at a loss you can say something like, “Bosco has such pretty eyes,” or “Look how happy he is to see you! He has the cutest wag!” As pet owners ourselves, we can understand how important it is to us to have people like and accept our pets. Convey the fact that you like the pets you work on to their owners. It is an excellent way to retain customer loyalty. ✂