Doggy day care owner gets creative to retain staff

NEW YORK (AP) — Andrea Servadio didn't want to put the employees at her doggy day care business on a leash. But she sure did want them to stick around longer.

Last year, more than half of the 13 dog handlers at Fitdog Sports Club in Santa Monica, Calif. unexpectedly quit. A couple of months later, the rest of them left.

"The work can be labor intensive and isolating," says Servadio, who opened the business in Nov. 2010. Dog handlers spent six-hour shifts mostly on their feet cleaning up after the dogs, walking them and putting away any play equipment.

"They weren't happy," says Servadio.

Employee retention is a problem that many small business owners face. Especially at restaurants, clothing stores or other service businesses. The jobs are often part time, have low pay and don't offer much career advancement. Keeping workers content is a challenge, but it can be necessary. Finding and hiring new employees is expensive and time-consuming. Having experienced workers, who know what they are doing, can only help a business. But when turnover is high, problems can arise.

Servadio learned this the hard way. She hired a new staff — and did her best to make sure it was a good fit by bringing on people with experience. But that wasn't enough to make things go seamlessly.

"Even though they had more experience, they didn't know our dogs, which was a big difference," says Servadio.

Knowing the dogs' personalities turned out to be critical. The new workers placed dogs that wanted to lounge all day with more active ones. That led to a few scuffles.

"Nicks and scratches at doggy day cares are very common, but these are things we try to prevent," says Servadio. "I didn't want customers to think we didn't have a safe environment."

Servadio knew she needed to make changes so that Fitdog employees would want to work there for a longer stretch.

She started by expanding the job duties of dog handlers. Now dog handlers fill out report cards for the dogs they watch. The report cards tell owners what their pet has been up to, what they ate, if they went for a walk and how they behaved. This helped break up the day for employees, gave them more responsibility and kept them engaged, says Servadio.

She also began holding a mandatory one-hour monthly meeting for all dog handlers. At the meeting, a manager talks about any issues over the past month and the employees bring up their concerns. There's also a discussion about a goal the company might have. "It makes them feel included and part of a team," says Servadio.

To inject some fun with a purpose, employees play games that help them get to know the dogs better. Employees are asked questions, like which Labrador Retriever has a pink collar with flowers?

Servadio also started rewarding workers. Those that have been doing a good job may get gift cards worth up to $25. She's given gift cards from online retailer Amazon.com or Subway, the sandwich shop chain.

The changes have worked. Fitdog currently has a turnover rate of 30 percent, down from 100 percent a year ago. In the past five months, no employees have left.

"We changed the way that we operated," says Servadio.

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