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The Power of Educating Your Customer Base

Season 1: Episode 74

070722 podcast Paws on Chicon

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Keith Zeiler knows a thing or two about pet nutrition, and he wanted to share that knowledge with his community, so he opened Paws on Chicon, a boutique pet store that focuses on your furry friend first. Through a well-educated staff and a careful selection of products, he’s grown his business and added a second location that is almost a carbon-copy of the first, keeping things consistent and helping pet owners find the best food and treats for their dogs and cats.

On the Yelp Blog: Hear more from Keith on the top three lessons for success in opening a second storefront.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interactions. Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.

NICOLE: I live in Austin, Texas, and I live kind of in the suburbs. So when I was looking for places to get really nice, great quality treats and toys for my dogs, I found Paws on Chicon, and I could not believe that they were near where I lived in the city. Because it seemed like such a downtown thing or like a cooler area. So I was so happy and now I shop there all the time.

EMILY: Everyone knows the adage about real estate — what matters is location, location, location. When Yelp reviewer Nicole B. found boutique pet store Paws on Chicon in her suburban neighborhood, she was thrilled. She’s been a fan of shopping local, but the local stuff in her area wasn’t always delivering what she needed, even though her suburb is just south of Austin, Texas, arguably one of the coolest cities in Texas.

NICOLE: It’s like super exploding. It’s growing really fast. It’s really hipster. It’s really cool, but we live six miles south of the city, which is still totally in the city limits, but it’s just suburbia. My grub hub is like, you want Fuddruckers? You want Chick-fil-A? You want Sonic? It just sucks that I don’t really have any cool, awesome stuff, even though I’m really close. So the fact that any local business would come and invest here, I’m just like, oh, thank God. It hits my demographic. It hits what I want to spend my money on. It feels a lot more like my brand and place that I would want to go. Word to the wise of local businesses, get down here because there’s dual income, no kids money who want to not spend our dollars at Sonic. So I just love local businesses because they just bring a unique touch and there’s so much of that in Austin, but just not in these various pockets.

EMILY: The Paws on Chicon in Nicole’s neighborhood in South Austin is actually the second location of the pet store. The first is in East Austin, an eclectic neighborhood with a rich cultural history.

Opening a second storefront can seem like a big accomplishment for a small business, but it can also bring about its own set of challenges — consistency between stores, managing two different staffs, and choosing inventory for different neighborhoods and demographics.

Paws on Chicon owner Keith Zeiler wants the experience in both stores to be exactly the same, and for the connection to customers to be equal no matter which brick and mortar location they’re in.

KEITH: One of the things that I knew before I opened the second store, and we’re in the process, hopefully this year or the beginning of next year opening the third store, is when we set out, we set out to have the systems in place before they open. We have checklists. We have it all down so that there’s that consistency. Because my biggest thing when I didn’t have a store was going to a pet store and I got different answers. If I went from one location to another, they look different, we got different answers, this and that. The way I wanted to do it was I wanted it to look and feel the same.

I want them to get the same answers. And that’s hopefully through the training that all of our staff are trained the same so that they don’t feel that disconnect. I want them to be able to go to any store and feel that they, no matter which store they end up at, they will always go out with the best knowledge and the best service.

EMILY: While the location might have been what got Nicole in the doors, it was the way the store understood her needs and, more importantly, the needs of her puppy, that kept her attention.

Let’s listen to her review for her original thoughts on the store.

NICOLE: What an amazing little shop. I live in south, south Austin. And oftentimes we’re skipped in terms of the cute and local. Read: it’s chain land around here.

I’ve heard amazing things from coworkers about the other Paws on Chicon location, but never managed to get over there. When I saw they opened an outpost near my house, I was so happy. I have an eight month old Bernese mountain dog puppy. (He’s two now.) And as you can imagine, he’s a total spoiled prince, but I mean that in the best way, because we want to provide him with healthy and delicious treats to expand his breed destined relatively shorter lifespan, as well as keeping him safe, stimulated and happy. Throughout the pandemic we’ve been working from home. And it’s important for me to be able to teach our pup to be content being alone in preparation for when that changes. Paws on Chicon has all the treats, toys and tips to make everything I prioritized above happen for our sweet puppy dog. The staff was quick to offer advice.

They have a trade-in program if you want to switch your brand name food to one of their more natural ones and dog washing stations. A huge barrel of my dog’s favorite, no hide earth animal brand bones and local biscuit and even dog ice cream delicacies.

EMILY: As the owner of two boxers, one handsome adult and one really cute but naughty puppy, I can appreciate the joy in finding everything you need for your dog in one place. And a dog washing station??? More on that awesome offering later.

Many small businesses start out by filling in an existing hole in the marketplace. Paws on Chicon is one of those businesses, opened by Keith after he found little in the way of nutritious food for his dog when he relocated from Seattle to Austin several years ago.

KEITH: I leaned into it because of the fact that my dog was becoming ill. I was doing research, the traditional way of things seem to be causing a lot of the problems, a lot of the shots that they were being forced down by certain people and things like that.

So I just went out and did my own research and just really realized that there’s so much out there, that is not in traditional ways, and things that can help your pet. And you can do a lot of healing your animals through nutrition. So my dog was getting ill and I just really wanted the best for him.

I ended up taking a pet nutritionist course, which took several months. That course is actually more than what vets take as a course on nutrition. I’m so very well-educated on the nutrition side of it. I just really wanted to pass that along. And as you can see through so many of my  reviews, it’s all about nutrition.

I look at it this way, every person that walks through this door and every one of my employees that I train, it is about helping that dog. It’s not about making that dollar on them because if we can help their pet, that builds loyalty  and that makes me and that makes my staff feel like we did an amazing job and that’s what it’s about.

There’s nothing better than having customers come in and talk about how much we have helped their dogs, without costing them thousands of dollars.

EMILY: According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $44 Billion on pet food and treats last year. That’s a lot of money, and there are a lot of food choices in the market. When it comes to picking a pet food that’s right for your budget and your pet, it can be really daunting. And it seems that everyone has an opinion about what’s right and wrong when it comes to pet food.

NICOLE: I have to be really honest. The first time I walked into the store, the staff had a big button pinned to their apron and it said, ask me why X dog brand is bad.

And that was the dog food brand I fed my dog. And I was so scared and nervous that they were going to be judgy or say that I was like killing my puppy or giving him McDonald’s equivalent in dog food. But at the end of the day, they were no pressure. I said, listen, this food our vet recommended when he was a puppy, I’m not going to switch, but what else can I do?

Are there supplements? And then when we wean him to adult food, what do you recommend? And it was just so nice that they took that in stride. They were not judgy. They were like, fine. Do what you gotta do. Listen to your vet. We’re here to give you other information that you may not have considered. So that felt like such a relief that they were really a trusted partner and not just pushing me away from one food and onto theirs. So that was great. I also love that they really seem to know and care about the dogs. You can tell there’s pictures around and when dogs come in, that’s very kind of a personal experience. And then finally they know the area, they know the environment.

My dog has skin issues and allergies and they’re like, oh yeah, this literally happened to my dog, has happened to me. Here’s what I’ve done. They really know. They care. They’re invested. It’s not just an hourly job for them. That’s very much how it seems.

EMILY: I love that Nicole mentioned the buttons. That could have been really intimidating and off-putting for a first-time customer, which is not something you want as a business owner. But the staff at Paws on Chicon treated Nicole with respect, and that makes for excellent customer service. So I asked Keith to talk about those buttons, and why he chose to have his employees wear them.

KEITH: With that pin, it’s a good conversation piece, just like the Yelp review, she was saying she was feeding one of those brands and we just explained to her why we don’t carry those. Because here’s the thing: I can carry that if I want in my store.

There’s no one that says I can’t bring that into my store. But again, my approach is not about the money. It’s about healing and giving the best for the dogs. So none of our products in our store ever going to have anything like corn wheat or soy in it. And that’s where a lot of these major brands use a lot of filler and corn molds in the bags of food, which kills about a hundred dogs a week.

Wheat causes yeast in the ears and in the paws. So there’s a lot of things in this food that’s filler that I choose not  to sell in my store.  They are very popular. But people who come into my store and they’re feeding a food that I don’t carry, I’ll look it up online and we’ll compare it. I can’t tell you how many people I tell – stick with that food. That’s a good food. There’s no reason to change that food. The price is good. The quality of the food is good. Don’t change it.

Because again, it’s not about that for me. I want their dogs to live the longest and if they’re feeding a good food, I’m going to tell them that. So, that button. Those foods are not a good food and they’re pushed over and over and over.

All my staff is trained on a lot of issues. We’re not vets. We don’t say we’re vets, but we know a lot about pet nutrition and how we can help with those issues.

EMILY: Keith turned what could have been a real pain point for customers — and a detriment to building relationships with those customers — into a trust-building conversation starter. By using a gentle approach and having a well-educated staff, he’s created a safe space for pet owners who have questions and concerns and really just want what’s best for their pets.

NICOLE: I feel like having somebody local that you can trust is like having the equivalent of a big brother, big sister to ask life advice of. You really know that they know what they’re doing cause they care and this is their job.

So that’s such a relief as I navigate different seasons with my pet, be it his age or health issues, or even maybe getting a second dog, what that would be like. They know and they’ve been there, whereas the first time dog owner, I haven’t. So I really trust them.

EMILY: Your staff is an extension of the persona you want customers to inhabit when they walk in your business, whether it’s a restaurant or a pet shop. Nicole mentioned explicitly that where she expected judgment, she found none. No one made her feel like a bad dog mom for her choice of food.

This culture, it turns out, is meticulously curated by Keith, particularly for customers that really take an active role in their pet’s health like Nicole.

KEITH: We go through an extensive four week training with our staff, which, from what I understand, that is the most out there in the pet industry, in pet stores.  We try to be very cautious because we don’t want to make pet parents feel like they’re doing something wrong.

Or, for example, if their cat or dog had bladder stones or kidney stones, and we’re like, well, you’re feeding this food and this is why, that doesn’t help. You’re not there to shame because people don’t know. You don’t know what you don’t know. So our approach is always, let’s see how we can help them.

Let’s walk them through. We have displays and everything that shows them on the different things of food and what the ingredients are.  Our biggest thing is education. And that’s all we want to do. Now we have sheets we send home with people if they don’t want to talk about it right in the store. We give it to them and say, Hey, do your own research?

We’re not here, we’re no pressuring you to take this, just do your own research. Cause a lot of people just look at, oh, this TV advertising says this food is amazing. Well, Guess what? It’s not,  but no one knows that. So we try to give them the tools to educate themselves if they don’t have time to talk to us in the store.

Now we have had bad reviews before, because someone was like, whoa, you know what? I’m a vet tech. I’m not going to believe you and blah, blah, blah. And so they give you a one-star. Well,  those aren’t our customers. Our customers are the ones who come to us. They know we’re here just to help.

They know we’re not here to shove anything down their throat. When I opened the business, I wanted to find the best quality product for the price. So all of my product is a highest product for the price. And I had different price ranges from Costco, all the way up to really expensive food.

So I try to have a mass for all. It’s just my staff being trained to educate and talk to the customers where there’s no pressure because I don’t want to turn them off. I want them to have a good experience when they come in and know that we are literally here to help their pet because we love the pets.

And that’s what we’re doing this for.

EMILY: Back to the dog washing stations. Why let the dog hair accumulate in your own bathtub, when you could bathe your dog somewhere else and have someone else clean it up?

It’s an amenity that’s not necessary to run a pet food store, but it certainly makes a tough, dirty task much more convenient for Keith’s  customers, not to mention a little bit of a wonderland for owners and their dogs.

KEITH: There’s a couple of things that make us a little different in Austin.

One of them is the dog washes and how we have them set up. When I planned the store and everything, I wanted to make sure, cause a lot of dog washes you go to, they’re all open. There’s a bunch of tubs. They’re not private. Well, guess what. I have anxiety when I take my dog to go get washed somewhere, the dog has anxiety.

Why do I want to put my customers and the dogs in a very anxiety ridden place? So when we did that, we made sure the rooms were separate. We made sure they had their own space. We have a system that, it’s easy. It’s like a car wash. So the shampoo conditioner, everything comes out through the hose.

So we just tried to make it as easy as possible. We have little hoodies for the dogs, so when they get blow dried, it doesn’t hurt their ears. We have an upgrade where there’s a peanut butter lick map that they can lick while they’re getting washed. And then the owners get a free drink while they are also doing their dog wash.

That’s been really a really good thing. On the weekends we have a wait list, because it’s first come first serve. So that’s been really good. The second thing that we did was we invented a doggie fro-yo mixture. On Friday, Saturday and Sundays, we do soft serve doggie fro-yo. It’s made with primal goat’s milk. So any dogs that have digestive issues or anything like that, it’s really good for them, helps with their digestion. And then we have a topping bar where they can put toppings on it.

EMILY: I’m pretty sure both of my boys would enjoy a frozen yogurt bar with toppings, and if they could, they would leave a five-star review.

Since our pets can’t leave reviews on their own, it’s up to pet owners like Nicole to spread the word on their behalf. She is very particular about what kind of businesses she reviews, however.

NICOLE: I like to review every business that I go to that’s not a chain. Cause if you don’t know what an Applebee’s is like, I don’t know why you’re reading about it on Yelp. That’s my philosophy. So if a business is new to me, whether I’m on vacation, I love to try new restaurants in my own city. I’ll check in, that reminds me to review it, and then I just let people know what’s up. I want them to know what they can expect there. What I liked. The bulk of my reviews are food places cause those are the places I try the most, but if there’s something local or really cool, like Paws, that’s when I want people to know about it.

I’m going to write a really good review. And I also feel like I’m helping out the business because of my elite status. I know people will see it. And so it’s really important for me if I care a lot to get them that good review, just so other people can find this hidden gem as well.

I guess when it comes to the content on my reviews, I try to think about what I would want to know if I was reading a review. If this is a store that just has pet food and maybe it’s more science-based or prescription aid, that’s more of a medical thing. That wouldn’t really be what I was looking for.

So I wanted to make sure it was clear to say, these are all the options. This is how much hands-on information you can get from the people and then, oh, look a dog wash too. Just so people may not know, even from driving by that that’s an option there. It’s not a pet washing place, but they have that. So kind of an overall snapshot. And then if anything stood out, either the customer experience or the selection or something, I was surprised by usually always makes its way into the review.

EMILY: There’s the dog wash again. Clearly, Keith is on to something there.

Small business owners all know the joys of a five-star review, and the pains of a one-star review. The good reviews are great for business, but as we’ve discussed, the bad reviews can be just as impactful if handled correctly. I always say business owners should respond to every review, properly, not just the good ones or just the bad ones. Those responses can make a business stand out from the crowd.

KEITH: I take reviews very seriously, and sometimes a little too personal, which I’ve had to learn to back away from that. Because it has ruined my week before. If someone says something that’s untrue and then I feel like I have to get defensive and defend myself, which I have learned to hold back on that.

I feel like the business owner should always be paying attention to the reviews. They should always respond back.

There is never any of my reviews on Yelp or any of my Google where I have not personally responded. It comes right on my phone. Because a couple of things. Good reviews, bad reviews – I can respond right away and take care of it if I need to take care of it right away. So it’s like a buffer, if there’s a problem in between, and hopefully you can resolve it before it got worse. Because I’m not always here at the store. And sometimes things happen, you know? No, one’s perfect. I strive for five stars on everything. I get some bad reviews once in a while, but if you look at those reviews, you’ll be like, okay, I can see why this review was this way.

I think that as a business owner and just thinking on the other side of it, if someone is taking the time out of their day to write a review for you, the least thing you can do is acknowledge them. The least thing you can do is say, thank you.

I always like to go in and talk to them and talk about their experience and just give them a little,   how much we appreciate them.  Honestly, I don’t even know if they get a ping. I don’t know if they know that we respond to them. I don’t know how that all works, but I know there’s two sides to it.

If the customer gets back on, they’re going to see that I responded. And if someone else is looking for our business, then they’re going to see how we responded as well.  It’s all about how people are going to treat your business and see your business. And if you’re just letting things sit there with no response, well, I’m more likely to go to a business that acknowledges me and says, thank you for taking the time to write a review because no one has to do it.

And for them to do that means a lot.

EMILY: Responding to reviews is crucial. I can’t say that enough. It shows that as a business owner you’re truly invested in the customer experience, which in turn builds loyalty and trust.

KEITH: I always want every single customer to feel as if they are the only customer. I want them to know it’s a relationship building thing. I think that’s why we were one of the top 10 coolest pet stores in America this year.

Which is a big thing because only one other store in Houston won it several years ago. It just makes us feel like we’re doing things right. We have so many customers that are so loyal to us and we couldn’t do it without our customers. And so I tell my staff, if it’s not for the customers, none of us would be getting paid or a job.

And it’s so hard right now as a small business owner especially right now, because guess what? My products are going up. I’m not setting those prices. The company set those prices. People are getting frustrated because prices are going up everywhere and that’s going to take a toll on small businesses.

People don’t understand what small businesses do to the community. When it’s so easy to get it on Amazon or Chewy’s, and people think that small businesses are more expensive than them. And a lot of times I’m less expensive than online or big box stores, but they think since you’re a small business owner, you’re going to be more expensive.

So I just hope people listening to this, go and support your small businesses cause they’re here for the community.

NICOLE: The owner seems super into it, which is something I was really surprised by. I didn’t meet him when I went in for the first time, but he mailed a free doggie fro-yo coupon to my house and sends like a holiday letter and staples goodies onto the bags when you leave. So it really feels like he’s super invested and cares and is a huge part of the community. And most of all cares about his store. So if he has that much pride in helping people in his store, I want to support that. Because it’s a great experience for me. And I love people who are super invested in what they do.

EMILY: Every small business owner has the intent to be an integral part of their community. At the same time, consumers should remember that those small businesses are in many cases the backbone of the community. When you build that trust, great things can happen.

KEITH: Whenever I do these things, I just always like to make a shout out to my customers. Just for the loyalty and for the great three and a half years and many more years to come. Because again, without them, there would not be us.

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