June 13, 2017
Categories: Organizational Management, Adoption

As pet adoption increases in popularity and social cachet, and national campaigns like our funded Shelter Pet Project continue to drive new adopters to shelters and rescue groups, embracing a culture of great customer service has never been more important.

A decade ago, the experience many adopters had when trying to work with shelters and rescue groups was frequently unpredictable or terrible. At that time, Petfinder.com surveyed visitors to their pet adoption website, asking what kinds of experiences they had while trying to adopt a pet, and how happy they were with the overall process. This was a group of people who considered themselves extremely committed to adopting rather than buying a pet; more than half said they intended to adopt “no matter what.”

Unfortunately, their dedication wasn’t always met with the kind of welcome it deserved. Forty percent of the time, their inquiries at shelters went unanswered. And when that happened, they became three times as likely to view shelter workers as “unprofessional” and shelters as “unpleasant.”

Worse, even among this group of people determined to adopt, lack of response doubled the chance they’d reconsider adopting. And if that lack of response was paired with an attitude they found slow or patronizing? It quadrupled.

The Petfinder.com survey – and common sense, too – shows clearly that animals benefit when adopters have good experiences at shelters. But a lot of people in the animal welfare world were averse to terms like “customer service,” thinking the language of business reduces animals to a commodity and shelters’ compassionate mission to a commercial transaction.

Fortunately, there’s been sea change in animal sheltering in the last few years, thanks largely to leadership from national organizations like HSUS and the ASPCA in developing  resources around conversation-based (or “open”) adoption processes and adopter-friendly policies. As a result, there’s growing acceptance that a friendly greeting when community members come to adopt, and a helping hand when they look for assistance, are critical components of every animal shelter or rescue group’s mission.

“The open adoptions philosophy has caused a very substantial change in the quality and the nature of customer service in those organizations that embrace it,” said Robin Starr, CEO of Virginia’s Richmond SPCA and a recipient of a 2017 Maddie Hero Award. “Organizations that have a culture that prioritizes treating possible adopters with a positive and welcoming attitude have advanced light years in the quality of their customer service.”

Starr has seen great customer service in every type of organization, from municipal and private shelters to rescue organizations, but says despite these advances, it’s still far from universal. “There are still groups out there making the mistake of treating possible adopters with suspicion,” said Starr. “They seem to see it as their credo to grill possible adopters and make them feel unworthy, and take a lot of time on visitations and other activities that delay the adoptions from being completed.” This creates a bottleneck on lifesaving that extends far beyond that one organization or agency.

That bottleneck isn’t just created when adoptions are slowed to a crawl at a single organization by lengthy adoption applications, demand for multiple references, home check requirements and delays in responding to inquiries. Instead, the community’s total capacity for lifesaving is reduced because pets are lingering in those organizations for weeks, months, or even years. That same group and others like it could be saving far more animals each year if they had a more adopter-friendly approach to customer service, because they’d be able to do more adoptions.

Additionally, community-positive policies and attitudes can reduce the number of homeless pets entering shelters and rescue groups. Some progressive shelters have turned their surrender desk into a pet resource center,  empowering staff and volunteers to be more empathetic and work to find solutions to challenges faced by pet owners.

“We made big progress when we began to encourage organizations to welcome people who are considering adopting, to make them feel appreciated rather than grilled and to work to create more good homes through a positive and educational atmosphere,” said Starr. “Over the last decade or so, it is clear that this approach has taken hold at many organizations to the great benefit of animals in need of homes.

“This progressive adoption approach has gone hand-in-hand with pet retention programs that, similarly, reject old notions that pets should be taken away from people at the first moment there is an indication of a problem or a challenge. Instead, we have progressed to providing programs and services that help and encourage people to work through the problems they are having and keep their pets instead of the pets being rendered homeless.”

Starr also observed that improved customer service increases lifesaving in other ways. Because many progressive shelters take in an increasing number of animals with medical and behavioral challenges, as well as animals whose challenges are more profound, the infrastructure that supports adoption needs to expand correspondingly. “We must welcome and accommodate possible adopters meeting with multiple animals as they decide which one to adopt,” she said. “Then, when they settle on one, we must do a better and more detailed educational job of preparing them for the care and the patience that a pet with medical or behavioral issues will need.”

Starr flagged three main customer service initiatives that will unstop the bottleneck and increase lifesaving:

  • Shelters, including government agencies, need to be more positive and proactive in getting pets adopted with a customer service attitude. They also need to be more welcoming to transferring organizations, which is also a type of customer service.
  • Rescue organizations need to embrace open adoptions and to move their adoptions more quickly so that they can take more animals into their care.
  • Larger private organizations need the resources to have better customer service that will accommodate more visiting with pets, more patience and skill with helping the customers’ decision-making process, and more education and support to help the adoptions of pets with challenging medical and behavioral issues to succeed and stick.

There’s no better blueprint for achieving those goals than HSUS’ Adopters Welcome Manual, which is available as a free download. Designed to embrace the community, encourage adoption and provide support for pets and their human families, the program also addresses the bottleneck effect when even a single organization in an area isn’t on board.

It includes:

  • An overview of policies that remove barriers to adoption and pet retention
  • A plan for training your team
  • Information on implementing open/conversation-based adoption processes
  • How to revamp your organization’s marketing efforts to tap into a new pool of adopters
  • Tips for adoption counselors
  • Ongoing support
  • And more
“We’ve made great strides in customer service,” Starr said. “And as we identify and address those areas in which we lag, we’ll finally be able to save all of the animals that can be saved.”

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