When Marc Elias, the top dog at New York’s Pooch Pals, talks about the incredible growth his business has experienced over the past few years, his answer has less to do with “man’s best friend” than it does with humans.

Success comes, Marc says, because his team genuinely cares about their work. “This is the type of role where you’ve really got to love customer service and working with pets.”

Pooch Pals launched in 1999; Marc joined about 10 years later as a dog walker, when he was between corporate marketing positions. But his aspirations swiftly changed: being outside and working with animals was a bigger draw than being in an office.

As he worked his way up to managing the business — while using his marketing skills to build the Pooch Pals brand — Marc negotiated with the then-owner to take over the business. He became CEO in April 2011; within the first few years, business went up by 320 percent.

How did Pooch Pals attract this kind of growth with an already established business in a market that’s as competitive as pet services are in the New York area? Marc says it comes from having the right people and the right process in place.

Building the Pooch Pals brand

Marc was surprised to see how little branding exists in the pet care and dog training industry. “That was the one opportunity I saw to really differentiate—actually creating a brand, creating an emotional experience.”

The result? Service that’s highly tailored, from matching clients with the right team members, to regular communication, to seeking new ways to provide value—even referring to other service providers if Pooch Pals isn’t a good fit.

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“We pick our customers as much as they pick us,” Marc explained. “They’re our best sales staff. We always want our customers to feel valued. Creating an exceptional experience for our customers is one of our sales strategies.”

Marc says the relationships they build go beyond just the dogs: “I know who our clients are. I know about their families. I know the ins and outs of their homes, their dogs’ personalities.”

“We provide such a personal service, where we’re in people’s homes, that it’s really key that all parties involved really have comfort and experience peace of mind as partners.”

Finding the right people, processes and tools

“The cornerstone of our business is making people happy. Not just our customers. It’s also our staff,” Marc said. Building such strong relationships consistently in a growing business requires good processes.

“Creating these systems is often trial and error,” Marc explained. “There’s no such thing as the perfect process, it’s always being enhanced. Our customers’ needs are constantly evolving, we’re constantly getting more feedback about how best to accommodate our customers, and we’re also learning how best to hire, train, and fulfill our staff.”

The hiring process

“I love what I do, and I surround myself with people who share that same level of fulfillment and excitement and passion,” Marc said. Most of Pooch Pals’ hiring process can be easily found on their website, including a detailed survey for would-be professional pet care providers.

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The process begins with a look at basic qualifications, and Marc says they’ve automated part of the screening process by engaging a vendor who processes background checks. However, he’s also learned it’s important to find out what someone has accomplished. “I want to know whether they’ve stuck with the things that they’re interested in and passionate about.”

The training process

Once the right people are in place, they’re learn how to represent Pooch Pals and why it’s unique, and take any training needed to be qualified and confident to do the work.

“There’s a process of taking online exams and shadowing senior staff in the field to create a background knowledge of positive reinforcement and behavior modification,” Marc said. “The training is also focused on safety, body language, and basic obedience commands.”

The onboarding process for new clients

Pooch Pals works throughout Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, with dedicated team members in each neighborhood. Marc says they’ve worked hard to standardize the onboarding process: an introduction to Pooch Pals, a look at the rate card and customer reviews, a review of policies, and an introduction to local team members.

“The first 30 days are the most sensitive days of that relationship, where we’re building trust and rapport,” Marc said. Structuring the early part of that process ensures new clients feel comfortable and supported.

Finding the right tools

Marc looks for tools that allow him to focus on people instead of back office systems — and Gusto fits the bill.

“I’m able to focus more on my customers and creating internal programs that support my staff and their needs. I have more time because I don’t need to worry about [payroll].”

Other tools that he relies on include Pet Sitter Plus, which handles scheduling and invoicing, MailChimp for email, QuickBooks for managing finances, and GoDaddy for their website.

With Pooch Pals thriving, there isn’t much Marc would change—but he does wish he’d learned to fail sooner. “Failing provides the greatest learning,” he said.

Marc’s passion for people and pets is obvious in the way he’s built his business! We hope his story injects excitement into your workday, too. Thanks for making Gusto part of your team, Marc!

Margot Leong Margot Leong, a contributing author on Gusto, provides actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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