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Bear Realities: How Professional Trainers Survive—Even Thrive—in a Down Economy

The realities of our current economy are becoming all too real for many small business owners. If you're an independent animal trainer or the owner of a training business, you may be understandably anxious about the headlines. The good news is that there are several things you can do to maintain and even improve your bottom line despite the challenges of today's fiscal landscape.

dog with money in mouth

What's up in your neck of the woods?

A down economy means different things in different parts of the country. It's important to understand what's going on in your local target market. How are your clients faring? Are they directly affected by the economic downturn? Examine your clients' current circumstances within the context of your service area. This information will help you understand if your clients are feeling comfortable right now or not.

Also, you probably already know (or should!) the adoption coordinators of the active shelters in your area. Pet adoptions drive a lot of beginner training classes, so you want to keep tabs on activity by finding out if the pace of local adoptions is slowing. If it is, that's an early warning indicator of a slowdown.

What to do when the slowdown hits

We anticipate that some of us within the training community will experience a slowdown. Whether you're already feeling the pinch or you'd just like to be prepared, here are six key survival strategies.

1. Sharpen your value proposition
In downtimes, it is more important than ever to speak to the needs of your potential and existing customers. While those of us who work in the animal training industry don't think of pet classes as a discretionary expense, many people do.

There are several things you can do to maintain and even improve your bottom line.

This doesn't mean that your classes will be targeted for a cutback in your clients' budgets. We know that in a down economy, items that are relatively low-cost and provide great recreational and social value close to home can see an increase in demand. Even when times are tough, people want to have fun, and they'll spend a reasonable amount of money to do so. An economic downturn is an important time to position your classes as a fun and budget-friendly way to relax and to deliver on that promise.

What about new prospects? During a downturn, it's important to promote a cost-benefit argument for taking your new pet owner and puppy classes. Be sure pet owners know that investing time and energy in training is a smart use of both because of all the downstream costs (financial, emotional, and time) of having an ill-mannered dog in the house. This doesn't need to be the central message, but it needs to be an accessible part of the communication. If you are offering the kind of training classes that I've advocated for at ClickerExpo (and that we teach at Karen Pryor Academy) you should be even better positioned to talk to your clients about the unique flexibility that your classes offer. Clients value flexibility in your services in times of uncertainty.

Clients value flexibility in your services in times of uncertainty.

2. Beef up your customer retention efforts
Excellent customer service is vital to any business, but in a down economy, it's doubly important. You can't afford to lose a client due to a sub-par experience or through neglect. Take great care of your current customers. Remember that it's much easier to keep the customers already in hand than to attract new ones.

  • Return phone calls and e-mails promptly and cheerfully, increase your availability, and follow-up on every transaction, interaction, and promise.
  • Make sure that the clients attending your classes go home feeling appreciated. As an operant trainer, you know it's important to offer provide reinforcement that your customers find reinforcing. More interpersonal interaction? Linger for a chat after class is over. More recognition? Send someone an e-mail to acknowledge a job well done with a new behavior at class.
  • Leverage your observation and acknowledgement of individual clients to promote a class or service that might interest them, but don't ruin the reinforcement with a hard sell or you'll risk turning a positive opportunity into something negative.

3. Use free time to your advantage
If you do experience a slowdown, you'll have more time on your hands. Take advantage of the break. All businesses go through slow times, so unless you're on the verge of going out of business, you need to use the opportunity to invest in yourself and your people. This doesn't require a big financial outlay. You can use your newfound time to:

  • Develop a new marketing/promotion campaign.
  • Clean up your facility, operations, files, etc.
  • Provide additional training to your staff and/or yourself.

4. Invest in the right marketing tools
A lot of business owners, when faced with a slowdown, will instinctually cut off marketing efforts. Unless you're in the aforementioned death spiral, that's a mistake. Successful companies work even harder to promote themselves during downtimes. Do the things you simply didn't have time for before. Avoid splashy, image-based advertising, which tends to be less effective and costs a lot. Advertising that is more direct, personal, and easily actionable is almost always more successful. Here are a few ideas:

  • Work with a local vet to provide a free training seminar one evening or weekend to pet owners who have a puppy or kitten younger than 12 months old. You can do a direct-mail campaign to the vet's customer database with low-cost postcards. The vet benefits by providing a free service to his or her customers; you benefit by reaching a new audience—one with young animals and training needs. Your seminar should be engaging and fun. Every participant should leave with your promotional information and contact details. This strategy results in an actionable impact at a very low cost.
  • Provide a free, open public training seminar through your local community education program or outreach organization. Promote your event by posting flyers at every municipal and retail establishment that allows them and place notices in the local newspapers (which usually print local event listings for free). If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can afford the required legwork.
  • Send e-mails to dormant clients to re-activate them. As often as possible, create a personal and friendly e-mail that says something along the lines of: "Hi! I'm checking in to see how you and Roxy are doing." Don't sell in the first e-mail. Let the conversation evolve. On the second exchange you can tell them about "the new agility class next month that I think you would both enjoy."
  • Bolster your website offerings and use your new content as a good reason to e-mail your existing customers. What to offer? Our free RSS feed is a great place to start. You might also consider joining our Affiliate Program if you haven't already.

5. Know your bottom line

Every trainer has to look at his or her financial situation and become intimate with the details and the big picture. Do you know how much cash you're using every month? You should know what your basic monthly "nut" is in terms of volume of client activity and net revenue. If you have cash in the bank, you'll be better equipped to survive a downturn. It's important to know how long that cushion can last.

If things are looking scary, consider changing some of your operating practices. Maybe there is a class that you normally outsource to another trainer that you could instead teach by yourself. Yes, your time is worth money, but your time may be best spent engaged in an activity that directly feeds the bottom line. Similarly, if you previously adopted a six- or eight-student minimum for classes, for example, consider reducing that number. When your business is hurting for cash, a class of three students is better than no class at all, when it contributes to covering your monthly costs of operations.

Many large companies will pin all of their problems on a bad economy. Don't make the same mistake. It's important not to mask business flaws as recession related when they could really be other issues, such as the quality of your service or the effectiveness of your marketing. If you know that you're a good teacher and that you have highly satisfied clients—and repeat clients—business woes usually come down to execution and promotion. Figure out what's going wrong and make the necessary improvements.

It's important not to mask business flaws as recession related when they could really be other issues.

Are you nervous about your viability? For a crash course in the finances of a training business, read my article Become Your Business's Chief Medical Officer or listen to the podcast.

6. Be a realist

Not every business survives slowdowns and fewer survive protracted recessions. A down economy can be an opportunity for you to take market share from competing trainers and businesses that aren't as talented, creative, resilient, or hard-working. Even talented trainers, if they only have a small financial cushion, may fall out of the marketplace. If you're alert, you can take advantage of the opportunities to pick up new clients (or trainers!) who don't have anywhere else to go. You can even ease the difficulty for trainers who have decided to exit the market by working out a cooperative arrangement for their clients so that they can transition to you! Know what's going on around you.

Let's be clear, I'm not advocating for poaching clients or saying that you shouldn't have empathy for others; I'm saying that surviving tough times can come down to recognizing that your business's performance relative to other businesses can be even more important than the absolute level of your business's performance.

Surviving tough times can come down to recognizing that your business's performance relative to other businesses can be even more important than the absolute level of your business's performance.

Here's a well-worn joke that illustrates this point quite nicely: Two guys, Joe and Mike, are hiking down a trail one afternoon when they see a huge, hungry bear lumbering around, just down the trail. Mike immediately takes off his backpack, sits down on the trail, removes his hiking boots, and starts lacing up his sneakers. "What are you doing?" Joe asks. "You can't outrun that bear!" "Don't need to," says Mike. "I'm just making sure I can outrun you."

That's how to survive a "bear market." Good luck. Go to it!

This article presented six key strategies for surviving a bear economy. Have advice of your own? Post a comment!

You may also enjoy:

Independence Day: Challenges Facing Independent Trainers (article or podcast)


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Aaron Clayton is President of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and TAGteach International, and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

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