What can a North London animal refuge, dealing with stray and unwanted cats and dogs teach businesses about customer-led best practice?  Quite a lot it turns out.

The Mayhew Animal Home is one of the most effective animal welfare organisations in London, helping thousands of dogs and cats to escape a life of abandonment, cruelty and neglect each year. More than just a rescue and rehoming centre, The Mayhew strives to tackle the companion animal welfare crisis through the delivery of a number of community-based outreach programmes. There is a great deal that can be learnt from the Mayhew’s approach to communications and customer interactions.

Lesson One: Active Listening

Listening is at the heart of everything the Mayhew does. Its team of Animal Welfare Officers (AWOs), who provide on-going support to pet owners in difficulty and respond to animal welfare issues in the community, are constantly talking to pet owners about their issues and concerns. The data they gather through this daily contact is vital to both identifying the core reasons for pet abandonment, and finding effective solutions.

We’ve all seen the ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ ads, featuring helpless pets abandoned on the roadside, as their heartless owners drive away. But just how true is this urban myth? Do pet-owners really discard their pets as easily as they would an unwanted gift? It is a fact that every year over 7.8 million cats and dogs are abandoned in Great Britain alone. However when it comes to the reasons why, Zoe Edwards, Head of Animal Welfare at the Mayhew Animal Rescue Centre in North London, thinks it’s not just about a lack of care.

“There are all sorts of reasons why people abandon their pets,” she says, adding that finding out why is the only real way to finding effective solutions.

“Many people don’t realise that kittens can get pregnant from 4 months of age and puppies from around 6 months, so many accidental and unwanted litters happen,” explains Zoe. “That is why we launched our low-cost neutering services at our Community Vet Clinic in North West London.”

The clinic was a hit. However it soon became clear that owners who really should be using the service were not turning up. It would be easy to think they just couldn’t be bothered, but a little digging revealed that financial or physical issues were often preventing them from getting their pets to the clinic.

So the Mayhew launched the aptly named Pick and Snip programme where pets are collected, neutered and returned to their owners – all free of charge.  By really listening to what their customers needed, and not just jumping to conclusions, the Mayhew was able to provide a service that really worked.

Lesson Learnt: Listening means attentively paying attention to what someone is trying to convey – i.e. fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just “passively” hearing the message of the speaker. This is a common issue in customer service centres where pre-canned scripts try to link all issues with a set of predefined solutions. The answer is not always that simple. Staff need to be trained to ask the right questions, have permission to go off script and get recognised (not punished) for doing something different if the end result is a happier customer.

Lesson 2: Looking at the whole picture.

The Mayhew is not just an animal rescue centre, it is a community support service.

“In this job you deal with a lot of situations where the owner is going through a hard time. We are often referred to as ‘Animal Social Workers’ because we are able to help and support vulnerable people in need with their animals – and ultimately keep the owner and animal together,” she says, putting paid to the myth that rescue centres care more about animals than people.

The Mayhew believes that ultimately pet and owner are both better off together…even in very challenging circumstances, as their extensive work with the homeless illustrates. Although often ill equipped to look after pets, the homeless are also those most in need of the companionship and sense of purpose a pet can provide.

Having identified this, the Mayhew has reached out to homeless dog owners not with threats or ultimatums, but with free vet health checks, micro-chipping, dog food, collars with tags and leads, and even jackets for dogs in the winter months, to ensure the animals are as well looked after as possible.

As well as reaching out to rough sleepers on the streets in many London boroughs, the Mayhew’s Animal Welfare Officers visit 15 homeless centres regularly each year and work tirelessly with organisations including The Salvation Army, St Mungo’s and Crisis to offer support and advice to homeless people.

Lesson Learnt (Take Home):  So what can businesses learn from this? Mainly that they need to help customers holistically in order to build a partnership based on trust. The Mayhew understood that in order to help animals living with homeless owners they needed to adapt to the conditions their owners were living in, and find solutions within those parameters.  To use a more businessy analogy it is the equivalent of a bank thinking in terms of selling mortgages or thinking in terms of helping people buy homes.

Lesson 3: Understanding the difference between needs and wants.

It is crucial to understand what customers really need.. This is something the Mayhew has understood intuitively through years of dealing with customers on a one to one basis.

Many people come to the Mayhew in times of crisis when, due to circumstances beyond their control, they can no longer look after their pets, although they are desperate to keep them.

“People may not be able to look after their pets for a variety of reasons including hospitalisation, rehab, detox for alcohol and drug addiction, or even prison,” explains Zoe.  “Our Pet Refuge programme (launched in 2004) allows our Animal Welfare Officers to find the best possible foster carer for the dog or cat for the duration of the crisis period. For many people facing a personal crisis, our service is a lifeline.”

Zoe remembers the case of Wully, a homeless alcoholic who was literally drinking himself into the grave. His only chance was rehab, but he could not face leaving his two dogs. When the Mayhew realized what was stopping him getting the help he needed, they stepped in and offered his dogs a place in the Pet Refuge. With his pets cared for, Wully successfully complete rehab and was duly reunited with his dogs to start a new life.

Lesson Learnt: Businesses are still too reliant on old-fashioned techniques to understand what their customers want (focus groups are a prime example of this). There are now far better tools and techniques that will help you understand the underlying needs of your customers so that you stop building fast horses and start building solutions that get you from A to B more quickly.

Ultimately, there are many more analogies that could be made between the Mayhew and the  business world. In simple terms, they are brilliant at listening to the needs of their customers, and then acting upon what they hear in a way that focuses far more on the underlying needs of society rather than just the issues of abandoned pets. Business could learn a lot from them. Heed some of the lessons and you could gain customers for life, not just for Christmas.