Donie Yamamoto of Vital Pet Life: “Be authentic”

Be authentic. Vital Pet Life’s origin story resonates with our customers because it’s real and comes from the heart. We understand what it is to love our pets and want only the best for them. In addition to that, our core values include clean, sustainable products formulated by a compassionate and socially aware team of […]

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Be authentic. Vital Pet Life’s origin story resonates with our customers because it’s real and comes from the heart. We understand what it is to love our pets and want only the best for them. In addition to that, our core values include clean, sustainable products formulated by a compassionate and socially aware team of pet lovers. Having grown up in the Philippines, my heart ached to see homeless dogs ignored on the street, with no hope of being rescued.

As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Donie Yamamoto.

Vital Pet Life is a certified WBENC woman-owned business, based in California featuring a curated line of clean and sustainable pet wellness products. Donie founded Vital Pet Life in 2017, after moving to the US from the Philippines six years earlier, and in 2019 was named a Tory Burch Foundation Fellow for outstanding entrepreneurship. Her mission is to build an environmentally-conscious brand, help families and their pets thrive while giving back to rescue shelters in her neighborhood, throughout the US, and overseas.

Thank you so much for joining us! 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?

Although I’ve always been entrepreneurial, my current career path was purely accidental. My husband and I noticed our dog Tuxedo was having dry, itchy skin and fur issues, which we attributed to him being a wire-haired terrier with very coarse hair. After trying products from big-name companies and not being able to pronounce half the ingredients, I began researching my own solutions, starting with adding a specific Wild Alaskan salmon oil to his diet. Miraculously, his fur became very soft, and all his dry, itchy skin problems resolved. Vital Pet Life was born. I’m a true animal lover and healing our dog Tuxedo planted the seed that grew into my passion to heal animals with clean and sustainable products as well as give back and work directly with our local animal rescue shelters.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

When I started my entrepreneurial journey, I made the mistake of opening my swimwear store during the monsoon season in the Philippines. It was a challenge as no one was buying swimwear plus my store was located in a newly constructed hotel whose pool was closed, due to construction issues. I tried to make lemonade out of my lemons by encouraging customers to buy my swimwear and a day pass to use the pool of the nearby hotel. Looking back, I’ve encountered so many challenges but it never hampered my spirits of selling and creating great products.

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 wouldn’t be where I am today without my husband Kyle and our dog Tuxedo. Kyle has always been there to support me on whatever ideas/business that I wanted to do. We built Vital Pet Life together and he’s integral support both personally and professionally. Together, we’re a team and the nucleus of Vital Pet Life. Kyle is responsible for our technology and infrastructure and is always strategizing and gleaning new ways to improve our business. Because our roles are complementary, we’re interconnected without overlapping. Tuxedo is our inspiration for Vital Pet Life and without him, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

As the founder of Vital Pet Life, a pet wellness brand, and a devoted pet owner, I understand fur-babies are family and value the brand-loyalty and trust our customers show when choosing our products over a competitor’s. We take that responsibility very seriously, which is why we measure our success through our customers’ experience.

Upon purchase, our customers are immediately welcomed into our tight-knit VPL family & community with all the benefits and support. To support our loyal community, we offer a VIP Facebook Group, newsletter, exclusive discounts, early access to new products, the latest research and data as well as meeting new pet friends via our VPL social media.

Open and frequent communication is a priority, especially now during Covid-19. Being mindful and actively listening is essential in retaining and fostering customer relationships.

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in signups, reconfirming taking time, energy, and compassion to foster customer relationships fulfills our mission of building our customer base and Vital Pet Life community.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

I’ve always prioritized my customers’ experience because as a pet parent to a dog with many skin issues, I’ve been on the receiving end of poor customer service. I think the disconnect for many companies is forgetting what it is to be the customer. Brands may focus more energy on marketing and sales than on customer service. As a small, family-owned business, we have always relied heavily on our customers’ reviews and feedback.

We focus on customer engagement and diffusing a negative experience with immediate feedback about the issue or concern. Being able to listen and respond to your customer and imagining yourself in their situation is critical. It’s frustrating during Covid to hear that a customer’s order was delivered broken because a delivery driver, not wanting customer contact, threw our box onto a porch, damaging the product. It comes down to owning all issues; positive and negative. My job is listening and thinking about how that customer was affected and what can I do right now to fix it.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

I look inward, focusing on our customers and their experience rather than taking cues from others in the industry. This tenet has always been the core belief of our brand. Because our products are for pets, precious family members, we feel our bar is always high to deliver an excellent customer experience. We all know the stress when you’re trying to find a product to soothe and relieve your fur-baby’s health issue.

I think testimonials, reviews, and star ratings are a helpful way for customers to share their experience with a brand and their products. Vital Pet Life would not be a multi-million dollar business without our loyal, committed, and passionate customers and their thousands of 5-star reviews. As the founder, I will always view my success through the lens of our customers’ experience. I am an empathetic person, who personally and professionally puts myself in others’ shoes. I truly care that you have the best experience and our product ease and solve your fur baby’s issue.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

We’re fortunate to have passionate and committed customers who share their heartwarming success stories and testimonials on our website, social media, and even via handwritten letters. I love reading about our products solving a multitude of problems; a Shetland pony’s lack of mobility, a makeover for a 14-year-old grumpy and matted kitty, an itchy Lakeland Terrier service dog, and countless other pets with skin allergies, hair & joint issues. One particular customer shared their gratitude that their beloved dog with terminal cancer lived his last few months with renewed energy from taking our Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil.

This year in particular is humbling when I speak to customers about order and they share about a job loss, a pet dying or caring for a sick family member. We’re all struggling right now and need to support each other. A simple customer service call is so much more during this time. Covid-19 is a real lesson and opportunity in listening to and hearing our customers.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

I think the Wow! Customer Experiences are a daily reminder of why we do what we do. They keep our bar high, even during these daunting and challenging times. We have a channel on our company’s Slack that posts all our customers’ 5-Star Reviews in real-time. They pop up all day long. At our last weekly company meeting, we all laughed that if anyone is feeling blue or down because of all that’s happening in the world, head over to the 5-Star Review channel for an immediate mood boost with proud parents posting the cutest pics of their fur babies and happy, buoyant comments that immediately lift your spirits.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Be authentic. Vital Pet Life’s origin story resonates with our customers because it’s real and comes from the heart. We understand what it is to love our pets and want only the best for them. In addition to that, our core values include clean, sustainable products formulated by a compassionate and socially aware team of pet lovers. Having grown up in the Philippines, my heart ached to see homeless dogs ignored on the street, with no hope of being rescued. I’m grateful to give back and personally work with animal rescue shelters in our neighborhood and throughout the US. All animals deserve a forever family, starting with kindness, compassion, and the willingness to help.

2. Exceed expectations. Instead of just a transactional relationship, our customers become family after their purchase. We bring you into our inner circle where we check in on you, provide the latest research about what’s best for your fur baby and ask your opinion on new products you’d like to see us formulate.

3. Stay agile and nimble, for the moment you will need to pivot. 2020 was the year we were launching two new products. I’d been researching clean and sustainable ingredients, collaborating with suppliers and formulators in preparation for their release. Then Covid hit. Our focus immediately shifted. My new normal is now overcoming COVID-related supply chain obstacles while communicating daily with my customers about changes to their orders. In this new Covid time there are very few pumps to buy, which creates a problem if our best selling hero product includes a pump. Pivoting without losing customers is now my daily focus, in hopes of turning obstacles into opportunities.

4. Share ways to become a more Eco-Friendly pet parent. I’ve always been sustainably-minded so when I started Vital Pet Life, my goal was to be a responsible citizen of the planet with our products as well. I think people assume that sustainable products cost more to make, are less profitable, or have a slower market growth. In 2020, we’ve seen steady growth even as COVID continues into 2021.

With this goal in mind, I’m thrilled that Vital Pet Life’s hero product Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil is now 100% certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), helping to keep oceans protected and healthy. The renowned MSC blue fish label is only applied to wild fish from fisheries that have been certified to the MSC Fisheries Standard, a science-based set of requirements for sustainable fishing. Our bottling facility is also MSC certified, for a full circle of sustainability. It’s a gamechanger and win-win for our brand and eco-conscious consumer. No one should have to compromise or choose between what’s right for them, their pets, or our planet.

5. Show your gratitude. Making authentic connections with our customers’ matters now more than ever as everyone continues to understand and adapt to the “new normal” together. I love surprising customers by sending a cute gift for their fur baby with a note expressing my gratitude.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

We often reach out to our 5-Star review customers and ask if they’d like to make a video review that we’ll share with others about their experience. More often than not, they’ll accept and it’s fantastic to see funny and playful home videos of the cutest pets and their parents!

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. 🙂

My life has simplified so much over the last seven months of Covid isolation. Being more resourceful with less has brought comfort to me as I’m home with Kyle and Tuxedo. I’ve come to appreciate the minimalism of it. It resonates with me in the same way my mission of sustainability does. Less is more. My movement would ask people to make do with less, especially with their pet’s wellness choices. No fillers, no coloring, etc. We’re so mindful of what we eat, so let’s start that movement for our pets too.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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