“How can I get owners to pay on time? By time they pay for week 1, week 2 is also overdue and week 3 is due tomorrow. Even if they pay week 1 today I am still having to keep chasing for payment for week 2, then start again tomorrow for week 3 – it’s never ending. Having to keep asking people to pay makes me feel so uncomfortable, especially when they get annoyed that I am asking again for my money.”
“I recently booked in a good job for two weeks so turned everyone else away – then the owners cancelled after a few days as a relative has offered to look after the dog. I’m left with no work and no money for the next 10 days. My own dogs need to eat too!”
“Petrol is running really low in the car with no money to fill up, but I still have to get to their dog to take him for a walk because I can’t leave him desperate for the toilet. I’m having to borrow money to keep going! Why won’t they pay on time?”
The above scenarios could be avoided by setting up a service agreement which sets out your terms and conditions before you take on any work. Your payment and cancellation terms, obligations to the client, and the client’s obligations to you, duties, rights, roles and responsibilities, what happens when something goes wrong, and if one party wants to leave, should all be covered. A booking form for the client to sign to signal their acceptance should cover you for all eventualities.
In the event you need to go to small claims court to recover your money, the terms and conditions document, and signed booking form can be produced as evidence. Please note – you cannot ask people to sign away their legal rights. Agreements made anywhere other than your own property/premises (if over a certain value), or made over the phone or by email, are subject to a 14 day ‘cooling off’ period during which clients can cancel without giving notice and without penalty. Be sure your terms give a cost of any free walks or meetings in the event of a cancellation under this legal right (you are allowed to charge for services rendered during the cooling off period).
This covers how you like to be paid - cash, cheque, bank transfer, PayPal, etc., and when payment is due for services. Traditionally services are paid as they are carried out, or in advance, but you could offer in arrears if you choose. When payment is not made or payment bounces - do you continue to provide a service, do you stop the service, are you intending to add late fees (you may need to get legal advice on what you are allowed to charge as a late fee). Also include how you will handle persistent late payers, especially if you have a discount or loyalty system that might be affected. Include how often you will review your prices.
This should include how much notice you need if a client wants to cancel a booked job and not have to pay for the cancelled booking. Different services might need different cancellation times, then cover what happens when a customer cancels after the notice period. If you can fill the space with another customer does that relieve the cancelled customer of their payment obligations? What about if the pet is ill, is lost, or dies? Or an owner gets sick and wants to cancel. You also need to include if you need to cancel a booking, for reasons such as your illness, vehicle breakdown, extreme weather conditions, etc., what your policy on finding alternative cover, refunds or crediting the booking will be.
If either party wants to terminate your services for good, cover how much notice you need them to give you, and how much you will give them.
While you are new these are usually easy to fit in, but as you grow you may have to change the plan for a whole day to fit one extra dog in. Should you have an admin charge, and if so how much, and at what stage does ‘short notice’ kick in? If a new client rings on a Sunday morning and needs you to start on Monday you have a lot of work to do and may have to change your own plans to fit in meeting the new client. Should there be a fee, and how much? If you are home boarding or visiting pets at home, and an owner is delayed on holiday (one year we had heavy snow, volcanic ash and airline staff striking, which all delayed customers from getting home) and you need to extend the booking, does that incur a short notice fee or just the usual fees for the extra visits?
When I brought in my cancellation notice, people tried to get round it by changing the day instead, and this played havoc with my schedule! I started charging £5 for short notice bookings, including if owners wanted to change the day of a walk. The £5 charge is not too high to put owners off if it is a real emergency, but costly enough that owners become more organised and book or cancel ahead of time to avoid it. If you use the phrase ‘a fee may be charged’ instead of ‘will be’, you don’t have to charge it. No one wants to penalise a good customer because they’ve had an emergency of their own, or are stuck in a motorway traffic incident and can’t get home to their pet in good time. But we want to avoid people forgetting to book until the last minute, and the extra charge usually helps their memory.
What services are included in the fees and what might cost extra? Putting the bins out on bin day, watering plants (in a large residence or home with a greenhouse this could add an extra hour per visit), bathing pets etc.
How will you collect and return keys at the beginning and end of the bookings? Sometimes owners prefer not to give you a key. Will they use a key safe, will you accept them leaving it ‘under the doormat’ and are you happy to put it through their letterbox when finished with? Occasionally clients forget to ask for their key back (sometimes they move!), how long will you keep it before considering it abandoned and what steps will you take to contact owners before disposal, if any? Do you have a specific time that owners can collect keys from you, or that you will collect keys from them? If they lock themselves out you want to be helpful no matter what time it is, but at the end of a booking, do you want people knocking at your door at 10pm or 6am to collect a key? Cover key care in your terms.
I once let an owner collect a key from me at 11pm – she’d lost her handbag on a night out, it was snowing, and she was in a taxi who was patiently waiting for her to gain access to her home to be paid. I couldn’t say no and leave her out in the cold. But I don’t want people knocking on my door at 11pm when I’m in bed because they haven’t been organised enough to plan for a key exchange at a reasonable time.
Licences for some services will dictate preventative treatments, but if not, your terms should make clear if owners have to treat their pets for parasites and/or have annual vaccinations to be part of your service.
Illness such as Kennel Cough (canine infectious tracheobronchitis) can spread between dogs reasonably quickly, so cover what happens if dogs are ill and there is a risk of contagion. Make it clear to owners what conditions you need to be informed of, including what actions you will take if you arrive at a booking and the dog is ill, and what payment, if any, might be due.
If it will be your policy to not walk unneutered dogs (male or female, or both) it should be included in your terms. Include puppies – what age they should be neutered by to continue on your service. If you will walk unneutered dogs cover bitches in season, cover what services you are able to offer, and if there are any cost implications for changes to normal service.
If you have to buy supplies for a pet on behalf of the owner, cover who pays for these, and when, if you need permission in advance, and if you will charge any fees for the time and/or travel you spend doing the shopping. Also cover if you have to spend longer time on a job that anticipated, for instance if a pet is ill, what extra fees might be incurred.
What your insurance covers and what you are liable for and what you might hold the clients liable for. Accident or illness to pets in your care, damage caused by their pet, to other pets, items, or people.
Not only their personal details but what is in their home, where they live, details of their dogs or booking.
Cover what you will do if a dog, or even a cat, appears to have aggression problems, of any kind.
We can handle dogs who don’t get on with other dogs, but our policy is on the lead walks, on their own, only, and we don’t take them to parks. That cuts down the chances of an off the lead dog running up to us and getting bitten. If the dog is a risk to people, we use a muzzle for their walks. Once a dog has bitten once and you know it (either the owner has told you, put it on your registration form, or it happened while with you), you could be considered negligent if the dog does it again in your care.
What owners expect of us, and what we expect of owners if a pet is taken ill or injured while in our care. Individual plans in writing are best if a pet is ill or elderly and left in your care, but your terms and conditions need to cover if we can seek veterinary attention and who is liable for the bills (also consult your insurance company on their policy on vet bills before finalising your policy) for any pet, at any time.