This is one of those classic questions in our industry:
"What's the best way to charge for my dog walking and pet sitting visits...by time or service?"
Well, the great news is that you can be very successful doing it either way. There is no right or wrong answer. How to charge for your services just depends on what's best for you.
In this article though, I'm going to make the case why charging by TIME is going to be better and easier for you, your staff, and your clients.
I'll also make a few points about why charging by SERVICE can be beneficial, in case you think that this may be the way you want to go.
Before we go any further, let me also say that everything mentioned in this article assumes that you and your staff are doing a great job. I will assume that you are a caring and dedicated business owner and pet lover, no matter what method you choose to bill your clients.
With that said, let's define what each of these mean in more detail.
By charging by “time”, what I mean is that you offer people a price for your services based on how long you’re with their pet. So, no matter what the service is, 15 minutes of time may cost $15 while 30 minutes of time may cost $20.
For example, let's say your client wants you to spend 30 minutes with her dog, Spot, today and to spend that time on a walk. But, tomorrow, she also wants you to give Spot a pill, bring in the mail, and throw the ball to him, all within a 30-minute time window.
In charging by time, both days' activities will cost the same thing because you specifically stayed for 30 minutes, despite the difference in what you actually did with Spot.
On the other hand, you could charge by the “service”, meaning that you're charging for each activity you perform and the rate is not dependent on how long you perform the activity.
For example, dog walking is $15, pet sitting is $18, weekend pet sitting is $20, dog running is $22, giving a pill is an extra $2, and bringing in the mail is another extra $1. You're doing all these things regardless of how long they may take you.
The bottom line is that charging by time is more tangible. It's easier for you, your staff, and your clients to comprehend and understand.
Does this mean that I think your staff and your clients are dumb and need things simplified? Certainly not.
It's just that, of your two options, time and service, time is going to be easier to explain and manage.
Here's an example: When you go and get a massage, you decide what type of massage you want (like Swedish or Deep Tissue) and then you decide how much of it you want (50 minutes or 80 minutes).
This can be applied in your pet business. Your customers decided what service they want (dog walking or pet sitting) and how much of it they want (15 minutes or 30 minutes).
I've found that customers, especially new customers, can understand a pricing structure easier when it's based on time. They know what they're getting and specifically how much of it they'll receive.
One of the most common complaints of sitters and walkers from customers is that they didn't stay long enough or didn't stay for the entire time. With a time-based system, the length of the visit is measurable and agreed upon between sitter and customer.
If you and your customer agree that the visit should be 15 minutes, then you both know exactly what the expectations are.
So, when the customer's nosy neighbor is secretly watching you and tells your customer you only stayed 15 minutes, you can rest assured knowing that your customer won't be surprised or disappointed because you both agreed on that amount of time.
By the same token, if the nosy neighbor sees your new dog walker duck out after only 8 minutes when she should have stayed for 15, you can give your staff member a specific expectation that you're providing 15 minutes of service. This eliminates any guesswork and improvisation by your staff and systematizes the excellent experience you give your customer over and over again.
Because this time-based system is very specific, it's excellent for accountability and setting expectations for you, your staff, and your customers.
If you're a solo sitter/walker, then perhaps accountability isn't that big of a deal to you since you know that you're going to do whatever it takes to give your client a great experience. But what about when you start getting staff?
When you get to 15 or 20 or 25+ staff, there's no way they'll all have the same outlook on what a "good visit" actually is. You'll want systems in place to make sure they're all doing the same thing over and over again.
With experience in hiring and bit of luck, you'll have excellent staff members that do exactly what they should be doing. Still, giving them structure and boundaries is a good thing. And this doesn't have to be micromanaging.
And for those new employees or - eeeck...the bad hire!! - you'll be very glad to have a time-based system so that you can have a tool to say "do this and don't do that" as well as an additional guideline as to what makes for a good visit and what doesn't.
Since animals don't have concept of time, we need to decide what's best for them.
Many dogs would play all day if they could. Some may even stretch their abilities too far without knowing it. So, we need to make sure they stay safe. This is especially helpful in your dog walking and dog running visits.
The owner knows the pet's limitations best. Having a time-based structure for dogs walks and runs is an excellent way to control the activity level of the dog.
If customer Jane says that her dog, Spot, shouldn't walk too far during the summer because of the heat or Spot's physical condition, time is an excellent way to gauge this since you're not likely to have GPS on you saying how far you went.
This is especially helpful when you have staff. If Spot has a bad hip but your new staff member didn't know that and took it upon herself to do a "good job" and spend an hour of time with Spot on a walk even though 15 minutes is all his hip should really endure, this could do more harm than good. Again, time is a great way to control what's going on and keep the pet's health in mind.
This is a business. As such, time is money. Literally.
Charging by time gives you the ability to make more when you do more.
In our business, 15-minute visits are roughly 30% of our business, 30-minute visits are about 50% of our business, and 45 and 60-minute visits make up the remaining 20%.
If we charged by service and said that dog walking is a 20 to 30 minute visit for $20 (just as an example price), we'd generally be capped at revenue of $20 for that visit.
However, we charge by time and add $5 more for each additional 15-minute increment in time. So, a 45-minute visit is $5 more than a 30-minute visit, etc.
If we charged via service, we'd lose all that additional income that people are paying for the difference between a 15 and 30-minute visit. More importantly though, we'd lose the additional revenue for the extended visits that jump from a 30 to 45-minute visit and from a 45 to 60-minute visit.
From a revenue perspective at our volume of business, this equates to tens of thousands of dollars a year in additional income because we use a time-based system!
Let me remind you here that, as I said above, I am assuming that every visit is done extremely well by very caring people. I am not implying that a longer visit or a more expensive visit is "better."
All I'm saying is that there is a specific subset of people that, for whatever reason may be important to them, want a visit that's a longer duration (more than 30 minutes). For those people, it is good business practice for them to pay more for more of your time and effort.
Have you ever received something of value for free? Did you feel good about it?
More specifically, has someone you loved ever received something of value for free? Were you happy for them?
Another reason I like the time-based system is because you can give your clients "free" time.
If your customer expects a 30-minute visit and you let them know you stayed for 40 or 45 or 50 minutes "just because", that's a warm fuzzy for them. They especially love it because their four-legged friend just got some extra lovin' (for nuthin').
Pet owners love that!
I wouldn't play this up to your client at every visit to the point where they expect it and/or they start to get a guilty feeling that you're trying to bilk them for a few extra bucks.
But, some extra time here or there "for free" just because you wanted to do it for your fuzzy friend will benefit the relationship you have with your customer and their pet in a variety of ways.
There are some times when charging by time paints you into a corner.
What about when you need to stay longer when there's an unexpected issue, like cleanup of a mess?
I don't think you should charge more if Spot has an accident in the house and it takes you "longer than your agreed upon time" to clean it up. Them's just the breaks, kid. Sometimes you just gotta do the right thing and do what it takes to make things right, even if you're not getting paid for your time.
What about visits that should really be longer or shorter?
Sometimes clients try to maximize what they can have you do in a visit. Like for pet sitting, sometimes they'll ask you to do a gazillion things and fit them all into your cheapest block of time.
If this happens, let them know that you just can't fit all their requests into that short amount of time and request a longer duration. If they insist, see if they'll split up the visits, like 2 visits that are your shortest amount of time and 1 that is a longer duration.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, what if a visit should be shorter? Sometimes, like with cat visits, the very caring owner wants you to stay with Garfield for 30 minutes but the only thing that happens is that you give him some food while he stares at you from under the bed for the other 29 minutes. You can suggest to the owner to shorten that amount of time. If they don't want to, just do your best to try and be entertaining, loving, and caring while you're there.
I've made my case as to why I like time. However, a service-based system can also be a fit for you.
Charging via service eliminates a lot of the structure that is imposed by watching the clock.
Especially if you're a sole operator and every activity in the visit is under your care and control, you get to decide when the "quality" has gone into the visit.
So, for the cat visit where Garfield does nothing but hide under the bed, perhaps staying for 10 minutes is truly all that is needed and you can increase your efficiency by moving on to the next visit instead of staying for another 20 minutes doing nothing but waiting.
For that crazy-busy day where everything goes wrong and you have to be at 4 places all at once, not being constrained by time can be very helpful so you can move on and make sure that every visit gets made and every pet is safe and comfortable (of course, I don't condone "shorting" clients of quality, so you should somehow make up for any visits that don't live up to your normal standards).
As a way to be different, you can let your customers know that, since you don't charge by time like your competitors, a service-based system means that you treat every visit individually and can do "whatever it takes" on every visit to make their pet happy. This boundless visit approach will appeal to some customers.
Both time and service-based systems can work well.
I like time because:
A service-based system can work because:
Do you charge by time or service? How does it work for you? Let us know in the comments, OK?
John loves animals and business. He put the two together and built a multi-million dollar dog walking/running and pet sitting business with hard work, systems, and great people. He now teaches everything he's learned in the Pet Business Masters! community.