Triple 'A' Animal Hotel & Care Centre.
If pet heaven exists, it's to be found at the Triple 'A' Animal Hotel & Care Centre near Washington in Tyne & Wear. Stick insects and stoats alike receive an enthusiastic welcome from boarding kennel owners Ann and Arthur Adlington and their dedicated team of animal carers. Every conceivable step is taken by the 28 full-and part-time staff to ensure each pet has a contented stay during its owner's absence. But it is the almost inconceivable leaps which the entire Triple 'A' team regularly makes in pursuit of delighted customers which earn the company two of this year's Service Excellence Awards.
Former nurse Ann and her husband Arthur set up their boarding kennels on an undeveloped 10-acre site in 1983. Bitter personal experience inspired their decision. 'We wanted to go on holiday and visited 27 kennels looking for somewhere to board our pets. None of them was anywhere near good enough.' On holiday (the pets with relatives), the couple mulled over the idea of opening their own kennel. On their return, they bought a derelict property and set themselves a target of a 10-kennel business.
Today Triple 'A' offers a wide range of services, including boarding for 300 dogs, cats, small animals and birds. Pets enjoy their own centrally heated apartments with outside adjoining sun terrace, electric heated bed, TV, sofa bed, duvet, video and radio. Triple 'A' also offers specialised dog and cat grooming, a pet-sitting service, dog training and puppy socialisation lessons, plus a pet garden of rest. The kennel provides boarding for cats and dogs rescued by the RSPCA, police and other rescue services. In addition, Triple 'A' delivers animal care training which includes National Vocational Training (NVQ) in animal care, customer care, supervisory management, business administration and City & Guilds grooming qualifications.
An ethos of Total Quality Animal Care lies at the heart of the Triple 'A' business. This, says Ann Adlington, is a new concept among the vast majority of Britain's 4,760 kennels, 1,420 catteries and 10,000 grooming parlours. 'When we entered this business, it had the reputation of a "hobbyist" rather than a professional industry,' she explains. 'Our goal has been to improve industry standards and establish animal care qualifications throughout the UK and beyond. By 1999, we want Triple 'A' to be recognised as the market leader in animal care standards.' This professionalism goes hand in hand with the Adlingtons' determination to improve customer satisfaction in their own backyard.
Skilled employees who have a passion for their work, customer care and personal development are the bedrock of excellent service provision, insists Ann Adlington. Triple 'A' includes psychometric testing among the various methods used to ensure that only those with a flexible and caring attitude towards animal care and customer needs are recruited. At the end of a three-month probationary period, it is potential employees' prospective colleagues, rather than managers, who decide whether they make the grade.
Staff at all levels in the company are encouraged to pursue qualifications and further training. The company's open culture of daily meetings and constructive feedback provides an ideal way for individuals to identify their own training needs. Staff are encouraged to try new skills and develop new talents. Quality and customer care manager Alex Hammond, for example, began working for Triple 'A' as a receptionist.
'We fervently believe in developing our staff from the bottom up,' explains Ann Adlington. Reception and customer care manager Anne Ternent and operations and grooming manager Melanie Burns both began their careers at Triple 'A' on Youth Training Schemes.
Open communication plays a major role in the success of Triple 'A'. Staff attend morning and evening meetings to discuss individual animals' needs.
Employees are free, says Ann Adlington, to put forward their views, particularly any criticisms. Every week, each employee (including managers) writes a report, which includes a performance rating and written appraisal of each of their colleagues. This report also includes any improvement ideas they may have - last year, staff thought up 1,500 such ideas. 'This is an ideal way of really keeping in touch with what everyone in the business thinks,' says Ann.
Investment in staff development clearly pays dividends. Individual employees are strongly committed to the company's mission of high-quality animal care. They have the skills to deal effectively with clients and are fully empowered to deal with customer complaints. Explains financial manager Mike Brown, 'We ask the customer what it is that will make their problem dissolve. Then the cause of the complaint is logged so we can learn from it without losing the customer.' Excellent customer service is recognised through the company's staff recognition scheme. Winners of the Supervisor, Staff and Apprentice Employee of the Month Awards receive a £20 voucher and their photographs are displayed in the reception area for customers to see.
'Our philosophy is "The answer's yes. What's the question?",' says Hammond.
All visitors to the centre are asked to fill in a questionnaire, which gathers information on which of the hotel's 12 core services (day creche, evening creche, short-or long-stay, etc) and 24 additional services (daily 17-point health check, walks and cuddles, etc) the customer may require. On booking, owners fill in a detailed form, which outlines each pet's special requirements. Extra services ranging from specially prepared food and cuddling sessions to daily injections and daily grooming are all on offer.
All clients receive a questionnaire when they collect their pet. Among other things, this asks customers to rate Triple 'A' on value for money, appearance of premises, range of services, attitude of staff and pet living conditions. The results of this survey are displayed in the reception area and updated month by month. Triple 'A' now also telephones customers three days after they have collected their pets to gain further feedback.
More than 85% of Triple 'A' clients have used the kennel before or try it because of personal recommendation. To promote long-term relationships, customers receive regular mailshots, the Triple 'A' newsletter Paws for Thought, and details of special offers.
Such small touches aside, the Adlingtons have great ambitions for their operation. With annual turnover now topping the £340,000 mark, they plan to franchise the operation, first in the UK and, later on, in Europe.
They also plan to build a veterinary and teaching hospital on site. In the crusade for better industry standards, Triple 'A' continues to lead from the front.
Key Business Lessons
- Make main measures of customer satisfaction highly visible (eg in reception area) and publicise them widely
- Maintain a regularly updated client database: it provides an ideal tool for encouraging long-term relationships and understanding customer buying patterns
- Consider telephone questionnaires: a poor written questionnaire response rate means valuable feedback is lost
Think big: setting the standard for the industry at large ensures continuous improvement at home.