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How to pawsitively engage your employees and improve retention, Pets at Home style

Most businesses will tell you that employee engagement and retention rates are important. It not only makes an organisation more productive and profitable, but it also means you are not continually losing key staff after putting them through rigorous training. For Pets at Home People Director Ryan Cheyne this also stands true.

“It not only makes for a better working environment having engaged employees, but it also makes commercial sense,” said Cheyne.

This is because the more bought-in colleagues are, the better they will be at selling Pets at Home products and the better they will be at fostering greater customer loyalty, he said.

The past

Cheyne, who has been at Pets at Home for 10 years, joined an organisation with 160 stores and an attrition rate of nearly 80 per cent.

“We had all this good training and yet we weren’t retaining our colleagues,” he said.

Today the retail chain, which offers veterinary and pet grooming services as well as selling pets and pet accessories, has 400 stores across the UK and an attrition rate of 18 per cent. It has also been named Number 1 in the Sunday Times Best Big Companies to work for in 2013, which in itself has bolstered its brand in the candidate market.

Most businesses will tell you that recruitment is fundamental to their organisation and that people are their number one asset. For the Pets at Home People Director, recruitment is not only fundamental to ensuring the company’s success, but it is also one of the three cornerstones on which the retailer can attribute achieving its high employee engagement and retention rate. Its learning & development programme and reward and recognition policy are the other two, he added.

Recruitment is fundamental

Cheyne takes recruitment extremely seriously. During his tenure recruitment spend has steadily decreased from £300,000 to £30,000. This reduction in spend has been gradual and has resulted from an unwavering focus on hiring and retaining the right employees from the get-go.

When Cheyne first started working at Pets at Home, the cost of recruitment could mainly be attributed to agency spend and advertising. Today, the business only uses agencies for a very limited number of positions. Instead the majority of applications come through the organisation’s career website and social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. The company also continues to use one job board to post vacancies, which are then picked up by various other online job aggregators.

All candidates then go through a robust screening process to determine if they are the right fit for any Pets at Home store vacancy including an assessment day to test for personality and culture fit; spending time on the shop floor with other Pets at Home colleagues and giving a presentation; as well as an interview. All store colleagues take part in the recruitment process and are involved in the selection of the successful candidate.

“This also means greater employee engagement because everyone is involved. Some retail organisations’ recruitment practices just involve a 20 minute interview with the store manager and then he or she makes a decision whether or not to hire the candidate.”

At Pets at Home the interview stage is more of a formality and about sorting out the technicalities involved with the role, such as travel to and from work, rather than assessing for fit, said Cheyne. This is a far cry from the way things were done in the past, when the interview was the determining factor in whether or not to hire a candidate, he admitted.

“After the first two stages we already know the person has the right personality and skill to do the job,” explained Cheyne.


One of the first things Cheyne put in place when he joined Pets at Home was an Applicant Tracking System. The technology has not only revolutionised the way the organisation is able to track and manage the huge volume of applications it receives but it also ensures a better candidate experience.

The ATS is so embedded into the business that all stores have access to it and each store manager has the control to raise his or her own requirements.

Training and Development

Once a store colleague has been hired, whether that individual will be working on a part-time or full time basis, he or she undertakes a mandatory Two Step training programme which takes about nine months to complete. This is because Pets at Home prides itself on delivering “pawsitively outrageous service to our customers” and to achieve this, all its colleagues must undergo the same training, which is assessed and signed off by more senior colleagues who have already been through the process.

The Two Step training programme ensures that every single pet store employee is fully equipped to answer customer queries about the store’s pets and products. In fact, unless a colleague has completed Step 1 of the training programme, which involves basic pet knowledge, he or she is not allowed to sell a customer a pet.

Step 2 of the training programme involves acquiring more comprehensive knowledge about pets and animal care which is covered over a series of textbooks and lessons by more senior Pets at Home colleagues. Once Step 2 has been completed all store colleagues are expertly equipped to handle any customer queries and are considered fully trained Pets at Home employees.

According to Cheyne there is a third step to the training programme which is not compulsory. This step involves short courses and more in-depth learning into certain areas of a colleague’s pet interest, for example aquatics or reptiles.

The way the training programme has been set up not only ensures that Pets at Home is providing a great service to its customers but it also creates greater buy-in from its own colleagues who are keen to learn more about pets and thrive in their personal learning and development.

“At the end of Steps 2 and 3 they also get a pay rise,” said Cheyne, which acts as an extra incentive.

Another training programme that Pets at Home offer is the Fast Track store manager training. This programme involves training deputy store managers on how to be store managers without a vacancy being available. This means that once a vacancy does become available, that deputy manager can slip right into the role and already has the skills to do so.

“A lot of organisations promote their employees and either offer training after they’ve been in the job, or they don’t offer any training at all and leave them to it and expect them to manage,” he said.

Moreover, Pets at Home has a policy whereby no deputy can be promoted to store manager in the same store without first having completed the fast track training.

Reward and recognition

Cheyne said the third cornerstone in enhancing greater employee engagement and retention is ensuring that colleagues are made to feel valued and recognised for their work.

“And by this I don’t mean money,” he said.

In fact monetary reward is often low down on what employees’ rate as important compared to being valued by their managers.

To show colleagues how much they are valued and appreciated, everyone at Pets at Home is encouraged to give out ‘thank you’ notes to their colleagues for displaying behaviours that demonstrate their company values and show they have gone that extra mile. Examples include helping out with a difficult customer or going out of your way to help a colleague with extra tasks.

At Christmas and Easter these thank you notes act as raffle tickets and are put into a big draw for five or six gifts. Although the chance of winning a gift is small, that is not the point of the exercise. Instead it’s a celebration of team work and Pets at Home colleagues’ working together.

The initiative is so successful that during a four-week period over Easter 10,000 thank you cards were distributed by Pets at Home colleagues to other colleagues across the UK.

“At Easter we had 10,000 such notes put up on the wall,” said Cheyne.

“It creates a really great feeling among colleagues.”

Cheyne said the importance of improving employee engagement and retention is an issue not only faced by Pets at Home but by any organisation.

The People Director said he will often hear from other professionals that Pets At Home have pets which make implementing employee retention and engagement strategies so much easier. However he is a strong believer that the aforementioned principles are applicable to any organisation, you just have to figure out how to apply them, he said. Besides, Pets at Home always had pets and 10 years ago they didn’t have quite so many engaged employees and their retention rate was four times as high, he concluded.