Shelter Management

Welcome! We’re So Glad You’re Here

Is that the vibe that permeates your reception area and greets every visitor to your shelter? If not, potential adoptions – in the moment and down the road – are at risk.

But your staff is working hard, your visitors are sometimes fractious, and the work itself is difficult. So how do you get there? While intention drives action, some simple steps can eventually reboot your staff’s mindset so the “welcome!” vibe becomes second nature – even if it feels odd at first.

The 10-4 Rule

How often have you gone into a place of business or other public setting and felt snubbed and disgruntled when you were ignored? Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet in Austin, Texas, makes sure her staff practices this rule:

  • If another human being is within 10 feet of you, make eye contact with him or her and smile
  • If another human being is within 4 feet of you, make eye contact, smile and verbally acknowledge him or her

The Complaints Rule

All of Emancipet staffers also follow this formula, any time and every time they’re faced with an unhappy visitor:

  • Take the time to fully hear and acknowledge the complaint
  • Apologize genuinely and sincerely, no matter what
  • Thank the person for sharing the complaint

The Most Important Person

Nothing is more important than the person who just walked through your door and is standing in front of you – not the phone that’s ringing, the emails that are popping up, or the chat you’re having with a co-worker. So be completely present with big smiles and soft eyes – and make those connections count!

At Wisconsin Humane Society, changes that helped visitors feel more welcome and eliminate barriers to adoptions included:

  • Volunteer greeters in the lobby to welcome visitors and direct them as needed
  • Addition of evening and Saturday hours
  • Beepers handed out at busy times so visitors can explore the shelter until an adoption counselor is free
  • Staff circulating among visitors rather than waiting behind a desk

Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society replaced its "one-size-fits-all" adoption criteria with an open adoption program where communication with potential adopters is congenial and collaborative rather than bureaucratic and rule-bound.

Hire a Welcoming Staff

Taking the long-range view of a welcoming shelter includes hiring with that in mind. The bedrock of your day-to-day is compassion: for animals, for the people who want to adopt them or have to relinquish them, for colleagues. So as you look for new staff members, watch for these attributes:

  • Happiness indicators: smiling, laughing
  • Learning indicators: asking open questions, leaning forward
  • Communication indicators: eye contact, starting conversations
  • Empathy indicators: nodding along, engaged facial expressions

The 10-4 and complaints rules are two of Emancipet’s Golden Rules for happy customers. Mills also urges shelters to consciously eliminate nasty names and negative language about people and clients from their vocabularies. To do that, attributes of your staff must include:

  • Genuine interest and curiosity about other people
  • Happy people who get energized by being around others
  • Highly empathic and compassionate people

Once your staff’s on board, empower them! Make sure they know whether they can offer a refund or free product, move someone up in line, provide a coupon for future visit or follow up with an email or note of apology.

More Resources

Webinars by Amy Mills of Emancipet:

Webinar: Smile You’re Saving Lives: Help More Animals by Serving People Better

Video tips to watch with your staff on communicating with adopters
Blogs, How-to tips and more on Open Adoptions