I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie with Mel Gibson where after a freak lightning storm he ends up with the power to hear the thoughts of every woman he passes. For him initially it was a curse because suddenly he had insight into what woman really thought of him, which definitely deflated his ego. But cleverly he soon uses it to his advantage. Wouldn’t it be great as a livery yard owner if you could read the minds of your clients? Or would it! What would you do with that information if it were possible? Only you can answer that but your answer will be the reason why your yard is, or is not, a successful venture that generates the level of income you feel you deserve in return for your efforts.
In fairness Livery yard owners have a lot to put up with and theirs is not an easy work or lifestyle choice when you consider the long hours in all weathers, dealing with a variety of clients and their quirky requests and demands. Unfortunately, unlike many other professions where you can take time out - a duvet day now and then to rejuvenate the soul - horses don’t take account of the weather, that its Christmas Day or that you have the flu. They still need to be fed, hayed, turned out and cared for in a consistent and routine way in order to create harmony for the animal and their owner.
Just because you have a bit of land and a few stables is not a good enough reason to kick off a livery venture unless you have an understanding of what is expected in return for the livery fees your clients pay you. There are many yards that were opened to liveries in order to subsidise other aspects of the business, such as training or breeding. This is great business planning, but only if you treat it as a business and not as a venture you simply take money for but don’t deliver any service. When any business takes the money of a customer in return for service, then service is what is expected. The best analogy someone once said to me was comparing it to your electricity for instance. Your electricity supplier can’t charge you for 24/7 service if you aren’t getting 24/7 service. If on a regular basis they switch off your electricity for three hours because they didn’t feel like flicking the switch you wouldn’t be long complaining and switching provider. The same applies no matter what your business. If you’re charging for a service, then you must deliver that service or risk losing customers.
So what do liveries want?
For those that don’t have the luxury of having land themselves the only option is to employ the services of a livery yard to look after their animal(s). I use the word employ because that’s exactly what the relationship is – a service agreement whereby the livery client pays a fee to the yard owner who in return delivers the services agreed upon (whether that’s full, DIY or grass there is always a level of service associated with the fee paid).
Owning horses is meant to be fun….. right? Horse ownership is a very expensive pastime for most, whether you’re a happy hacker or a serious competitor, and the expenses that go along with horse ownership are rarely met without significant sacrifices being made. Horse owners rarely spend the kind of money they do to own an animal in order for it to add stress to their lives. Generally, the intention is for it to be something they do to relieve stress – something to do at the end of a hard day at work, school, college etc that calms the mind and relaxes the soul. Horses have the ability to make the worst of days seem insignificant with one whiney when they see you coming up the yard or when they trot across the field to greet you at the gate. That is all that’s needed to make the stresses of the day fade away.
That all sounds lovely but what can change that sense of serenity? Walking into a stable that hasn’t been mucked out very well, having to fill an empty water bucket, discovering there’s no hay to greet your horse when they come in from the field, or if they’re already in that they have muck up to their knees and are standing in a dripping wet rug kicking the walls because they haven’t been fed. For most they have already put in a hard day at the office, or equivalent, and don’t want to have to put in another hour at the yard doing the work that they thought they had paid for in their livery - and that's before they can get to the fun bit. It’s this divide between client and yard owner’s expectations of service that causes the most friction and while as a yard owner you can’t possibly be all things to all people, the consistency with which you run your yard can make or break your reputation – a reputation that greatly affects the sustainability of your business into the future. It’s this consistency, or lack of, where a client is won or lost and where yard reputations are made for better or for worse!
But remember the relationship between yard owner and their client is a two-way street. It’s just as important for the livery yard to agree a level of service for their clients while also ensuring there are a clear set of rules and regulations. Providing a framework where clients know what is, and is not, acceptable on their yard, and where clients know what service they are receiving in return for their livery fees, makes for a much more contented environment for everyone.
Bear in mind however that the rules shouldn’t be unwelcoming or inflexible but should set guidelines for how you expect your clients to behave while on your yard. Insisting all the forks are lined up at precisely 90 degrees to the wheelbarrows, or not allowing so much as a blade of hay outside any of the stables, is probably a little over zealous and won’t have the desired affect. However, creating rules that are in everyone’s best interest will only enhance the sense of harmony on the yard.
If you managed to create this idealistic environment you’d have the Utopia of livery yards. It probably doesn’t exist and never will – but finding a happy medium is key. A happy livery client will be the person who leaves the yard each evening feeling relaxed and content – not annoyed and frustrated. A happy yard owner goes to bed knowing they’ve done a good job, have happy customers and that their business is building and their reputation is growing – for the better!
So how does a Livery Client decide who they can trust with their horse? Here is a list of the top 12 things livery customers are concerned about when deciding on a livery yard
Since I spent a recent Blog discussing the importance of branding and reputation here’s a relevant example of how it affects people’s decisions – the first thing most people check is the reputation of the yard/yard owner – people do their research and will know someone that knows someone that’s been on your yard;
Their first impressions when they visit your yard counts for a lot – ie. is the place tidy, do the horses look happy and healthy, does the land look well maintained, is the owner friendly and welcoming;
The knowledge of the staff and how they interact with you;
Stables – are they kept clean, have rubber matting, are an appropriate size;
Facilities available – arena(s), wash bays, tack room, box and car parking etc;
Access to the facilities – it’s all well and good having a lovely arena if your liveries can’t access it at the most convenient times of the day for them due to lesson schedules etc;
Land & Procedures for turn-out – are paddocks well maintained, well fenced, individual, small or large herds grazing together, how are new horses coming onto the yard introduced;
Worming and vaccinations procedures;
Relationships with farriers, physios, vets etc;
Trainers – are outside trainers welcome;
Quality of feed and forage and availability of choices to suit individual horses;
Current livery type and whether they will be surrounded by like-minded people active in the same equestrian pursuits as they are.
So you’ve passed the inspection process and you now have a new livery client on your yard. How do you keep them? It’s simple really and the 7 reasons below are the fundamentals of what keeps any customer of any service happy. Keeping these in the forefront of your mind will ensure your new livery client turns into a loyal and long term customer, who will promote your yard far and wide:
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency (so important its worth stating three times) – you need to provide a consistent level of service day in and day out – beyond the honeymoon period.
Trust – they need to trust you to have theirs, and their animals, best interest at heart.
Honesty– they need to know they can rely on you to be truthful (ie. was their horse turned out when you said it was, was it fed the way they asked etc).
Involvement– your clients want to feel like you care and that you’re emotionally invested in them and their horse
Courtesy– how much money would you spend in a shop if the salesperson was rude and unhelpful every time you visited the shop? Not very much, right! Clients don’t expect you to put on a song and dance for them but they do expect you to be polite and respectful.
The little extras– Customers expect ‘little extras’ at no extra charge. If you penny pinch for every little thing, they’ll quickly decide that you’re only interested in taking their money. By adding value to the service at no charge you could develop competitive edge and increase your customer base. This could be something as simple as picking out hooves or not charging for worming or adding supplements to the feed.
Appreciation - who wants to spend their hard-earned money with someone who doesn’t appreciate their business? Make sure that you offer a sincere ‘thank you’ now and then so your customers know you value them.
While operating a livery yard is hard and probably sometimes a thankless task, if you want it to succeed and to ultimately pay you sufficiently well to justify continuing in the business, then treating it like any service you yourself pay for will greatly improve your chances of success. Some customers you will never be able to keep happy but for the majority a little goes a long way to making the relationship a fruitful one for both parties.