Know what you sell
Develop a brand identity
Be committed to honesty
Hire the right people
Understand your employees and manage them with instinct-awareness
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Camilla Gray-Nelson.
Camilla Gray-Nelson is a best-selling author and award-winning entrepreneur with a company consistently listed in the Top 15 Women-Owned Businesses in Northern California. Raised and living on a farm, Camilla credits her business success today to the lessons she learned from Mother Nature in her childhood.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you for having me. Mine is a long life-story of many challenging subplots that eventually came together successfully at one glorious point in time. Here’s the short version:
I was brought up in the country, on a ranch with all manner of animals: cows, horses, dogs, cats, and the occasional goat, sheep or stray turtle. As a result, I learned animal-speak before I ever learned English, and my closest friends, even through my school years, had four legs, not two.
After high school, I left the farm to go to college and grad school and after my “proper education”, spent the next ten years trying to build a career in the business world. I was full of ego and pride. I was woman …and I roared. Failing to succeed there to my satisfaction, I then took the leap into entrepreneurship where, after many trials, more costly mistakes and eventual soul-searching, a new awareness set me on the trajectory for success. My animal expertise, personal passion and business education unexpectedly came together.
For the past 25 years, I have been on a “good to great” journey and have built a 5-star canine resort in the heart of California Wine Country, featuring “nature-based leadership training” as well as luxury boarding and daycare. What began as a 1-woman traveling office in an old red pickup, has grown exponentially to a 7-figure corporation with over 20 employees and a months-long waiting list of clients.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Being raised as a farm girl, one thing you learn early on is that there is no such thing as “giving up”! No such thing as, “It’s too hard.” There is nothing that overrides responsibility.
The idea of creating my own company had always appealed to me. I love the exhilaration of success that is hard-won, and I felt I was smart enough and clever enough to go it on my own. Unfortunately, at least four of my brilliant business ideas failed miserably and each failure was costly, both in monetary and personal terms as along the way I failed at not one, but two marriages and the personal toll was devastating. At my lowest point, I was alone, confused and so broke that I unplugged the phone so I wouldn’t hear the creditors calling and I lived off one baked chicken for almost a week, because I didn’t even have money for food.
It was at that low point I had what I call my “Come to Nature Moment’”. I was living back on the farm and watching how all of the animals seemed to be happy, how the leaders ran their “organizations” and how the cleverest animals down the line accepted their situation yet still got what they needed, regardless of their lower place in the hierarchy. That was my lightbulb moment! Yes, I was woman — but no one needed to hear me roar. The animal leaders I watched led with quiet power. The animals without authority built respectful alliances with those who did, to their advantage. Both found conflict unnecessary in pursuit of their personal goals.
What unfolded for me were three glorious revelations. I realized:
- What I’d been doing wrong in my personal and professional relationships
- What I needed to change
- What I wanted to do in my next business venture — offer an entirely new perspective on leadership training — using animals as a platform and women as my target audience!
Working with dogs was second nature to me, so I got in my truck and started creating leaders, one dog-owning household at a time! Turns out, women wanted what I was selling. They had a problem, and I had a tailormade solution. Demand grew, I started a school and rest is history.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
It’s not really a funny mistake, per se, but something I found particularly humorous as I began to work with clients. Invariably, the clients that had the greatest challenges controlling their dogs had the worst behaved children! I could tell what I needed to work on with them even before they brought me the dog, by simply noticing how they related to their kids. Hearing their yelling, frustration, endless warnings with no follow-through and the like, I would laugh to myself, thinking, “If you only knew what you’re revealing right now…”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are many things that make my company stand out from others in my market. We are the only training company that focuses on helping women control the family dog. Instead of typical sit-stay obedience, we teach leadership and relationship skills that solve behavior problems but which, it turns out, do not require masculine size or strength. This is not available anywhere else in the dog training market to my knowledge. To underscore this point of difference, I wrote LIPSTICK AND THE LEASH: Dog Training a Woman’s Way that quickly became a best-seller.
Another way we stand out is our brand clarity: We don’t sell dog training; we sell Help and Hope.Every employee is hand-selected for their eagerness to help others and their interpersonal skills for supportive client contact.
I write two blogs about natural leadership; one that focuses on dogs and dog training and the other that teaches people how to recognize the Inner Animal in their human relationships and how to influence through instinct instead of coercion. That is the focus of my newest book, CRACKING THE HARMONY CODE — Nature’s Surprising Secrets for Getting Along While Getting your Way. It’s required reading for every one of my company managers, as a leadership guide that ensures our brand of positivity and inspiration carries through the entire organization.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Try creating “Mini-Me’s” and delegate to them.
In the small-business sector, burn-out is an occupational hazard. It comes with the territory, I think. Entrepreneurs start a company on their own, based on their particular skill or personal knowledge. But when the business grows, they hesitate to delegate or share the reins, believing that no one can do it as well as they can. We all know that trying to do it all yourself is a sure-fire recipe for burn-out.
I was definitely one of those burn-out candidates, as my unique life experience with animals and uncommon philosophical perspective WAS the business and not a skill or knowledge base that I could recruit. The answer for me, eventually, was to hire people with a personality like mine: friendly, outgoing, responsible and loyal. Once I had the right raw materials in an employee — the right hard-wiring — I could teach them what I knew. You can’t teach personality, but you can teach skills. With the right personality to start with, they not only learned the necessary skills, but became as passionate about my particular message or my special product as I was. You could say I created a “Mini-Me”. At that point, it was less of a gamble to delegate to them.
Delegating those tasks within a growing business that you, as the owner, are NOT good at is equally important. For example, when my business got to a point where notepads and pens were no longer adequate to manage things and we needed tools like Excel spreadsheets, I found I was terrible at reading and understanding them! I hired someone else to do our bean-counting, while I focused on what I do best: brand building, client relations and new product development.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m glad you mentioned gratitude. I believe living in a state of gratefulness is a key element to sustainable success. I shed my old ego and pride. I am now grateful every day for whatever success has come my way. I never take anything for granted. Blessed with my early experiences, Nature as my classroom, a drive to help others and a personality that loves challenge, I was already teed up for success. I just needed a couple of key mentors.
My father was probably the most influential figure in my business life. From him I learned positivity, belief in yourself, to love what you do and do what you love, courage to be an innovator, honesty and fairness. That’s quite a list!
My father was an Irish immigrant and arrived in America with his family just as the Great Depression hit. With no welfare or unemployment benefits or family there to help them, he and his parents scraped out a living. Dad worked odd jobs and as a teenager, bought his first calf and grew a dairy empire. In his long career, he introduced the revolutionary rotary milking barn to California and even developed his own breed of cattle. He also tried other things that were colossal mistakes, but he always rose from the ashes, undeterred. I never saw him depressed nor remember him saying anything negative about another person.
He loved his work so much that he never wanted to go on vacation, so my mother and my siblings did a lot of things on our own. The one time we talked Dad into camping with us for a week at Yosemite, I remember waking up one morning and he was gone. He had left in the middle of the night and walked to the Greyhound bus station to go back home to the ranch he loved! For him, work was his vacation.
My other important mentor was Bessy, one of our Jersey cows and the Queen of the Herd at our dairy farm. I witnessed in her the purest form of leadership: calm, focused, unafraid and fair. I now pattern by own leadership style after her to this day and use her as my “Leader Archetype” in classes and coaching sessions. Bessy is featured as a key figure in Cracking the Harmony Code.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A ”good” company gets things done. They meet customer expectations. They do the best they can with what they have.
A “great” company doesn’t just get things done; they look for ways to do them better, or ways to do more. They are forward looking, spotting trends and thinking about how they can be at the forefront of what is coming in their industry.
A “great” company doesn’t just meet customer expectations; they strive to exceed them.
A “great’ company pays as much attention to who they hire as they do their product. Employees are the company. They are responsible for the quality of the output behind the scenes as well as the direct client experience . The employee that answers the phone is just as important as the General Manager. In fact, if you are a service business, I believe a bad receptionist can do more harm to a company’s good will and reputation in a short period of time than an underperforming GM over a quarter.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know what you sell
- Develop a brand identity
- Be committed to honesty
- Hire the right people
- Understand your employees and manage them with instinct-awareness
Here’s an example of what I mean by an honesty policy, and why it is so vital.
At any dog boarding facility, things happen like scrapes, colds, upset stomachs, etc. Let’s say we notice a dog has an upset stomach for a couple of days. Of course, we know it will clear up and the dog will be fine by the time he checks out a week from now. But we call the owners anyway, just to keep them in the loop and let them know what is happening and that we are on it for them. Or let’s say a cold develops in our facility and a handful of dogs are catching it. Even though it may mean cancellations, we proactively call all clients with upcoming reservations to let them know the potential risks of coming in and let them know we understand if they want to cancel their reservation with us. This type of transparent honesty can be scary for a company because lost business will affect immediate cash flow. The real result of this honest transparency, however, is increased trust, and trust is what sustains and builds a business in the long run.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Here is where seeing human beings in terms of their Inner Animal can really help guide a company toward a “purpose”. Whether client or employee, all humans are driven by their deepest survival instinct to join together or “flock” and “group” with others that seem similar to themselves. In lower animals these flocking and grouping instincts are most often associated with appearance, which can indicate family ties, but in the human animal it can be shared values that draw us together.
Establishing a company purpose toward a greater societal good with wide appeal can be that unifying factor that binds both employees and clients to a company with greater loyalty.
From my perspective, this explains why purpose-driven companies do so well. It’s instinct!
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
What I often see happen is that a business that has driven hard and finally hits a period of success sometimes puts their engine into “neural” instead of leaving it in “drive.” They coast for a while and enjoy the profitable good times. Too late, they see sales beginning to stagnate, but the market has moved on and now they must struggle to catch up. Sometimes they cannot.
A sustainable business can never stop evolving or keeping up with what is happening in their market. Their customer base is transforming every year, with established clients aging and younger consumers coming of age to take their place. With these new consumers come new ideas, new values, new needs, new demands, etc.
I’ve seen this in my own business. As our client base has become busier with less free time, we’ve incorporated video classes, Zoom instruction and the like, to accommodate these new demands or expectations.
One of the most critical responsibilities of management is to look ahead and spot trends. Some will be courageous enough to be innovators, but being the first can be risky, too. More than one great idea has failed because it was too far ahead of its time. The risk of waiting for someone else to try a new idea first, however, is that the early gambler that hits it right will then own the space and everyone else could end up an also-ran. Either way, however, evolving a product or service to keep up with the changing market is always better that resting on your laurels while the others win the race because you are too far back to catch up.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
2020 posed the greatest challenges for us financially, as it did for most small businesses. Our typical revenue stream was 60% boarding, 30% training and 10% daycare. When the Covid shutdown happened, travel ceased and with it, the reason to board a dog. As a result, we went from an average of 60 dogs/night to 2 or fewer. People were sheltering at home with their pets, so they did not need daycare, either. Overnight, our revenue was down by 70%. We needed to depend on training for income, but the “secret sauce” of our training program is teaching owners their new leadership skills in hands-on classes before they take their dog home. Stay-at-home orders meant we could not hold those classes.
The old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention” proved true. We rolled up our sleeves, got out the video camera and created a full video course of Owner Classes that we sent home with graduating dogs to hold clients over until we could restart our in-person classes. The unexpected serendipity here is that we are now able to use these home-study videos to cut our in-person class times in half, resulting in a reduction in trainer payroll hours. And the clients love having a video to refer to whenever they need a refresher. 2020 was definitely one of those lemons to lemonade situations.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I would have to say hiring decisions. In the end, your employees are your company, be they on the production line or at the front desk. They affect your product and your company’s public perception. It does not matter how skilled an applicant is if their attitude is bad. A bad employee can be a cancer inside an organization, spreading discontent, ill-will, challenges to management, and more.
We hire attitude and teach skills. Hiring any warm body to fill a critical vacancy can also be a bad idea. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about hiring was this: “Hire thoughtfully; fire quickly.”
Although the process of firing, rehiring and training the new replacement is expensive for a company, I would advise a small business to compare the cost of firing a bad employee to the real cost of keeping them. That should help make the decision clearer.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
We don’t think about “conversion” in the classic sense. We never try to convert; we focus instead on my favorite sales formula: Like Me. Trust me. Pay Me. It has never let us down. Job #1 for us is to be likeable to every potential and existing client and relate to them in a way that earns their trust. The rest happens naturally.
In a way, this Like Me. Trust Me. Pay Me sales formula is itself based on Nature’s secret of influence through instinct. In sales, the client is in the power position with situational advantage. They have the money and business we want. We are in the subordinate position, at the situational disadvantage. Subordinates or those at situational disadvantage in Nature do not push for what they want. Instead, they build alliances with those that have the power. Their goal is be liked and trusted. Once they are, their superior’s willing cooperation comes more frequently and without undue effort. For us, that means conversions come more frequently from new clients once they like us and trust us.
As long as what a company is selling truly solves a client problem, a Like Me. Trust Me. Pay Me strategy should lead to sales, naturally. Being positive, helpful, honest and friendly will result in a sale if your product is the appropriate solution for that client. If it is not, you don’t want that sale. Why? Because if your product does not solve a problem or meet a client’s need, it will not delight or satisfy and the downstream of that is it could actually damage the client’s trust in your company. When you think of sales in those terms, certainly a short-term gain like a sale is not worth the long-term damage of a dissatisfied client.
Another adage I share repeatedly with my staff as they work to bring in new business is this: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In other words, I advise them never to try and talk someone into a sale. It rarely turns out well and often comes back to bite us. (Pun intended!)
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Being friendly, treating clients like they’re the boss and building those alliances with them through trust and kindness is so effective, often we find customers opening their wallets before we even bring it up. In over 25 years, I have never advertised nor taught my people to “sell.” What I do teach is how to treat every potential client as a friend and how to offer them the help they seek. Not only do our sales continue to grow, but when the product delivered meets and exceeds customer expectations, word-of-mouth grows as well. And that’s free advertising!
Never oversell. People admire a company that seems to have their customers’ best interests at heart over of their own. Success in sales is always about helping a customer solve a problem in the best way for them. For example, if I’m talking with a potential client about solving an issue with their dog and I sense money is tight for them, I will tell them about all of our options, but will suggest they consider one of our less expensive packages or services, just “to see if they like our approach.” I know they will. If they are still hesitant, I might even give a little free advice over the phone and ask that they call us back and let us know how it works for them. Invariably those low-level sales or freebies pay off in spades down the road, with additional services ordered and incredible word of mouth. Trust is everything!
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
- Personalize client communication
Whatever a company can do to personalize their client communication can build that sense of “family” and loyalty. Of course, at my own company we are always looking for ways to streamline and increase our efficiency behind the scenes, but we strive to keep our client experience old-fashioned and personal. Especially in a service business like our own, clients must never feel we value profits over people
2. Under promise and over deliver
This is the essence of client satisfaction — meeting and exceeding expectations.
In order to do this, we must manage client expectations from the beginning. It’s hard not to brag on your own product because you are proud of it. But the fact is, every product has limitations. It likely won’t cure cancer or bring about world peace. When we are not afraid to balance our product benefits with its realistic limitations, we have under promised and set the stage for “exceeding: our clients’ expectations. We’ve increased our odds of delighting that client and creating another “fan” of the company.
3. Follow up after the sale
I think sales are kind of like dating. Once you’ve convinced a client to go out with you, if you don’t call them the next day, they could feel a bit used. Do you only want them for their money? All kidding aside, one of the strongest ways to build client loyalty is to have a system for following up after the sale.
There are many ways to do this, from a personal phone call to a personalized email inviting the client to call with any questions or requests for additional help, to a regular newsletter full of helpful free tips or helpful articles.
We like to say, “Welcome to the Dairydell family!” to our new clients and let them know we are always here for them. After the sale, we strive to develop and maintain a relationship that is more friend-based than business. We want to build their instinctive sense of “belonging”. That is the “Wow! Customer Experience.”
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
There is no doubt about the power of social media (SM). Bad press can spread like a virus, so my approach is to inoculate our company against potentially damaging SM by proactively developing a positive reputation on it. If we are successful in building trust and an alliance with our audience proactively, any negative slings or arrows are more likely to be deflected, because the audience has already made up their mind that they like and trust us. Loyalty inoculates against lies.
We have made a point to do this proactive SM “inoculation” over the years, with weekly positive messaging on our kennel’s Facebook page as well as my own social media postings for camillagraynelson.com and its brand message of “nature’s wisdom for today’s woman”.
Unless a company has itself a political mission statement, I would say it’s smart to stay out of politics. Clients of your company look to you for a product or service — not political opinion or commentary. Your company message and purpose are more important than your political opinion and can stand alone. It’s safer to use SM to showcase your company’s humanity and compassion and leave politics or political correctness to the pundits.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most obvious mistake I see entrepreneurs making is picking a product or service for which there is too narrow a market or for which consumer demand has not yet grown to a point that will sustain adequate sales. Six-fingered gloves might be significantly important to those born with extra digits, but it’s unlikely that one could make a growing enterprise of their manufacture.
I was incredibly lucky to choose a service that so many consumers need and want. In the US alone there are millions and millions of households owning at least one dog, but few are expert at managing or controlling them. Add to that the fact that upwards of 73% of those dog-owning households leave primary responsibility for training and management to a woman in the house and I find myself in the enviable position of having a product with extraordinary demand but also, no excuse for failure.
Companies in their developmental stages or those entrepreneurs considering a new product before investing in development might benefit by surveying their potential market to learn if their potential product or service idea seems as attractive to the consumer as they think it will be. In the process, they could also find out what other problems their customers need help solving and how they would prioritize those needs. If there’s a big enough problem of high priority for enough people and a company has an effective, appealing solution, odds of success for that product or service are obviously higher than the alternative. In my previous business failures, I wish I had done that! It would have saved me boatloads of money.
What you name your brand or product is also important. A company cannot afford to be tone-deaf to consumer perception or feelings. For example, I could have called my dog school “K-9 Boot Camp” but that masculine, clipped nomenclature would have given the entirely wrong impression of what we do and how we do it. It easily could have alienated the very market I was after — women with pampered pets. Instead, I called my program a “Finishing School for Dogs”. I think that says it all.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
By now you know that I’m a firm believer in the wisdom of Nature and how Her secrets of animal harmony and success can transform human lives and accomplishments as well. When I look at the world today as well as our own personal relationships, I see so much conflict and growing division between us. From my perspective, it is clear that the wrong instincts (like Mistrust, Rivalry and Anger) are being stoked and unintentionally encouraged because we are focusing on our differences. Group harmony and cohesiveness in Nature is all about similarities, not differences!
I would love to see a movement that is dedicated to turning our collective focus to what we have in common with each other instead of what makes us different; a “Just Like Me” movement, if you will. The reason is this: If we want true unity, we must tap into our subconscious instinct to come together and unify around others like ourselves. (This is a powerful instinct, called Similarity Attraction.) Differences instinctively pulls us apart, but similarities instinctively draw us together. If we practice taking a broad enough view, we will find that we have much more in common with others around us than we have differences; much more that can unite us than divide us.
A “Just Like Me” movement would start at the earliest levels of our education system where kids could be taught to notice what is the same about their classmates instead of what’s different. It would acknowledge but refuse to dwell on the differences between ourselves. The curricula would, instead, focus on everything we have in common, from physical characteristics to values or life goals by scaling it through the grade levels with exercises becoming more age and intellect appropriate, K-12 .
This way of looking at life and relationships, carried forward into adulthood, relationships, and even public policy has the capacity to significantly reduce conflict and promote harmony between us all, at our deepest, instinctive level. It might even change the world.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I hope that I have piqued the interest of your readers by illuminating the nature-based path that can take them from Good to Great, personally and professionally.
If so, they can follow me and my unique perspective at www.camillagraynelson.com, where I regularly post articles revealing Nature’s wisdom for today’s world and how we can get more willing cooperation from others, without conflict, in pursuit of our personal or professional goals.
And of course, everyone should order my newest book, CRACKING THE HARMONY CODE: Nature’s Surprising Secrets for Getting Along While Getting Your Way ! It is available on Amazon at this link, and is my definitive work on the art of “influence through instinct”. A must-read for anyone interested in learning more about that.
Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!
Thank you so much for allowing me to share my thoughts!