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Help me help my customers understand the nitrogen cycle


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I started working at a local fish store recently (yay!) and I’m finding myself struggling with explaining the nitrogen cycle to newbies. I feel like I tend to over explain things and intimidate/confuse people, so I’m trying to come up with a simple-ish explanation and diagram to guide the conversation. This is a very rough draft, and I need input before I finalize the design and actually make it look artsy and nice. 

I am usually a good salesperson, but I feel like I’m already failing at this job because people’s eyes glaze over when I begin to talk about the components of aquarium ecosystems and water quality and whatnot. Is this normal? I feel like this is vital information for the wellbeing of an animal and I find it really unnerving that people seem to not care. Any advice about this would be welcome, my confidence in my position has taken a bit of a hit because of the interactions I’ve had recently.

Copy/paste of text portion for easy editing:

Beneficial “nitrifying” bacteria grows on all surfaces in your aquarium where water flows, including decorations, substrate, plants, and most importantly: filter media. Porous media such as sponge and ceramic make excellent homes for these beneficial bacteria, which convert toxic ammonia and nitrite to much less toxic nitrate. These bacteria colonies take time to grow in a new tank, from 3 to 8 weeks, and this initial bacteria development is known as “cycling a tank.”

High nitrate levels can still harm fish, which is why water changes and/or live plants are essential to keeping a healthy tank. Testing your water regularly to keep track of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels can help you understand your tank’s ecosystem so you can keep your fish healthy and happy!

Always wash dirty filter media in used tank water. Chlorine from tap water can kill your beneficial bacteria and may cause your tank to “crash.” A crash happens when there isn’t enough bacteria present to convert ammonia and nitrite, so the concentration of these toxic compounds rises to harmful levels.

(Side note I just realized I need to write out “carbon dioxide” next to CO2 for consistency, I’m sure that’s not the only mistake I’ve made)

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Change the detail in your diagram from “fish waste” to “fish waste & normal metabolic function” (most ammonia production is excreted through the gills, as opposed to fecal/urine production), add “anaerobic bacteria” as an additional potential consumer of nitrate  and it’s pretty much spot on as far as I’m concerned.

Edited by tonyjuliano
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On 6/23/2021 at 10:51 PM, tonyjuliano said:

Change the detail in your diagram from “fish waste” to “fish waste & normal metabolic function” (most ammonia production is excreted through the gills, as opposed to fecal/urine production), add “anaerobic bacteria” as an additional potential consumer of nitrate  and it’s pretty much spot on as far as I’m concerned.

Okay you're right, but I talked about metabolic function to a customer today and unfortunately just confused the crap out of them. Anaerobic bacteria aren't going to really exist in your average plastic gravel and fake plant beginner setup, either. Idk I struggle with how to pick out the important bits to help a beginner succeed and want to learn more. It's a balance, too, because you don't want to overwhelm people and scare them off. Do you think the metabolic function bit is super necessary for a brand new hobbyist? If so I definitely will work it in somehow. 

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On 6/24/2021 at 12:08 AM, Nirvanaquatics said:

Anaerobic bacteria aren't going to really exist in your average plastic gravel and fake plant beginner setup, either.

Agreed.

On 6/24/2021 at 12:08 AM, Nirvanaquatics said:

Do you think the metabolic function bit is super necessary for a brand new hobbyist?

I think it’s more important than the illusion that fecal/urine production (which most people equate with the term “waste”) or that the decay of uneaten food  (which you thankfully did not reference, and is also a big misconception) are primarily responsible for ammonia levels.

You can change “metabolism” to something sling the lines of “the fish produce ammonia as a part of their normal biological function” if you think that’s more clear.

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In a store when you're talking to customers, the best suggestion I can offer is to just talk in layman's terms -- simplest possible. Most customers want basic information. They want the how, why, and how long. Don't go into detail like this unless they ask questions about it, because otherwise they'll be overwhelmed. Place the information into context for them, like starting up a new tank and giving their future fish a healthy and happy home.

"When you're starting a new tank, you have to start up a brand-new ecosystem so your fish can live happy and healthy. In order to do that, we need to grow a lot of good bacteria on all the surfaces and filtration in your tank. The good bacteria takes care of all the toxins in the water that will harm your fish. They eat the wastes your fish give off (ammonia) and make it much less toxic, so your fish aren't poisoned by their own wastes. It takes time to grow that bacteria!

Now, you can grow that bacteria quickly by borrowing an old sponge from another tank that's been running for awhile -- don't clean it in anything but conditioned, dechlorinated water, because chlorine will kill all the good stuff and you'll be back to square one. You can also start it from scratch by dumping in a bottle of bacteria, 'feeding' your bacteria with something toxic for them to eat (decomposing fish food, a few drops of ammonia, etc.) and testing your tank water with a test kit or with test strips to watch your waste levels go up and down. At first, you'll add the toxins to the tank--"

I think you get the picture. The biggest tip I can tell you is to simplify, simplify, simplify and talk in generalities. Give customers easy-to-understand snippets of information, and let them open the doors to more by letting them ask questions. When you talk in water chemistry terms right out the gate it's a lot of information and very overwhelming, and I know I felt that way when I was first getting started. It was much easier for me to understand once I got my hands wet and started to watch the process in action.

My brother is a surgeon in residency and definitely has to challenge himself by talking in layman's terms to patients, so it's the same kind of deal. Hope this kind of guideline helps you reach your customers better!

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On 6/23/2021 at 11:31 PM, laritheloud said:

simplify, simplify, simplify

Agree 100%. I've been a technical and proposal writer for 15+ years, and all the knowledge and wisdom you pour into this will mean nothing if you don't know your audience. Whatever density of information you think your customer can handle, cut it in half. And then keep cutting it until you have something that will help the customer understand the utmost important facts in just a few sentences. e.g.: "Aquarium stuff has bacteria on it. It helps make the water not kill the fish, and it needs time to establish." - and maybe another sentence or two in form of actionable advice, like "don't put too many fish that the bacteria can't handle" and "don't clean your filters too much." If they want to know why, they'll ask or they'll research it themselves. You can ease them into the stuff like testing water, being patient through a stress-free fishless cycle, etc. 

Do what you can to improve the visual. Personally, I'm a visual learner, and because it's late, I skipped all the text you wrote and went straight to the diagram. It's the simplest, most pleasing way to impart just the essential information. Even better if you impart the basics in a few sentences and a refined diagram, and direct them to your LFS's website or YouTube channel for a reasonably paced video that expands on it. 

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I agree with @laritheloud I've worked with the general public all my working life- while I say yes, keep that version of it for the ones that don't have the glazed over look otherwise--- have a dumbed down version. Who cares if they think it's the fish poop that causes ammonia we all know that peeing in a pool isn't good for anybody. It's just the simplest terms. I love Cory's video with the M&M's that explains the Cycle- it's definitely the best and the one I link for most people trying to understand it. Everybody understands M&Ms 🙂 

 

Edited by xXInkedPhoenixX
Typos are lame
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I always just explain it as:
1 Fish poop, processes and decaying matter creates ammonia (very bad for fish)
2 Bacteria buddy 1 eats said ammonia and produces nitrite (very bad for fish)
3 Bacteria buddy 2 eats said nitrite and produces nitrate (bad in big quantities)
4 Your plants eats nitrates and produce growth, and you also do water changes to reduce them, then the cycle repeats. 

There's also much more stuff to consider, like how plants can also consume ammonia, etc. But I feel simplifying it enough is best for new people, you don't want to overwhelm them and discourage them by making it look to technical.



 

Edited by HenryC
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The people who need that information are most likely getting their first fish ever. If you drop a ton of information on them before they even get their own fish, it will definitely discourage them from getting one - because you'll be focusing on the negative rather than on the positive, which is enjoying a new pet.

It's like telling the parents of child, while they are getting a puppy, that the dog will require lots of attention, walks, etc. Plus, within a few weeks their child, like most children, will lose his motivation for caring for the dog and the parents will end up waking up early in the morning to take the dog for a walk. Obviously parents know that, but not many will still buy a puppy if this is all they are being reminded of.

Now, are you trying to make sure the sold fish stay healthy, or are you trying to sell more fish?

If it's the former then you should think about all the people who get a fish, realize it's not as easy of a task as they originally thought, and then they either end up returning/selling their fish or the fish end up dead. Inevitably, many fish will die in the hands of a new owner, so yes you should educate them, but I believe it's a part of the process. People learn best from mistakes I think. If a fish gets sick or not eating or dies early, it is much more likely that the owner will start learning willingly about fish keeping and their next fish will be in much better hands.

If it's the latter (which by the context of your post seems unlikely), then you just let them pick whatever they want, it will probably die, and they might come back for advice/a new fish. Therefore, it might be a bad idea getting attached to pets you are selling.

Overall, I think the best course of action is to give the absolute minimal of necessary information, so make every word count. I'd say feeding amount and frequency, preferable tank size, tank mates if they are planning on more fish down the road, temperature, filtration (only if it's something like a goldfish), and the last one should be water changes.

You should focus on how this will keep the fish healthy and happy, and therefore more colorful and active so it's more fun to watch, rather than going into details as to why they should keep up with the maintenance. You could also let them know that if they have any questions down the road they can call the shop/walk in and ask.

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When I worked in a LFS several years ago, I would explain it as simple as possible, something along these lines: "The fish waste, poop etc and excess food is first turned into ammonia, which is very toxic, then some beneficial bacteria turn that into nitrite, which is slightly less toxic, then another type of bacteria turns it into nitrate, which is the least toxic of the three."

I found that the simpler you explain to them, the better, stay away from the technical sciencey terms, most people will be lost. If someone is that into the fish keeping, most likely they are already doing their own research online and in books and can find and learn that information. 

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As a newbie who’s learning fast…. I Love corys super layman’s terms m&m video. For the glazed over peeps. Ya just can get any more simple… but I do like your visual! As I’m a visual learner and save pic of things that help me remember important info. I have comprehension issues as well so being able to read things and see the images as many times as needed  Helps burn to memory. which I have a horrible one. 
I agree having a simpler way of saying waste and metabolic function. Bc to the average jo: Metabolic function is going to confuse. Maybe saying waste/breathing just like us causes excess “xyz”.
Im half awake trying to type this. So I hope I read everything correctly and understood what y’all were saying. 

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One of the big issues for many newbies is a desire to keep the tank immaculate. They think a cleaner tank is better and will scrub the filter and even boil sponges and the like to sterilize them so the fish live in a cleaner, more sterile tank. As a general rule for aquarium keepers, dirtier is better than cleaner. We've been conditioned to believe bacteria are bad when for aquariums they're essential and vital.

The reality is our fish tanks should be more focused on keeping bacteria alive and well and the fish are just how we feed the bacteria. If we take good care of the bacteria, the fish will be fine. If you plop fish into a sterile environment, they'll be dead in short order. 

When dealing with newbies, there are two key points. One, chlorine in tap water is deadly. Two, dirtier is better than cleaner. It's very rare for a tank to be in trouble because it's too dirty, but very common for a tank to have issues with being too clean.

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Thank you all so much for your advice, I think I'm going to begin referencing Cory's m&m video regularly, since he does a much better job of explaining these things than I do 😅 oddly enough, the kids I talk to seem to grasp the higher level science information better than most adults. I have yet to have to explain salt water to a newbie, that should be an adventure when the time comes lol. I will refine and simplify my diagram and probably use that as a tool, as well. 

I'm grateful to everyone for putting things in perspective for me! I feel like I've been chest-deep in chemistry and biology with this hobby for years now, it's hard to remember how to slow down and explain it clearly to someone who isn't living and breathing it every day. 

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In late,  but a couple of additional thoughts:

* Some people immediately equate "bacteria" with only bad smelly necrotic unhealthy things.  You might want to have an alternative term like "organisms" or "biome" or something that you can substitute at the ready if someone makes the "just sucked on a lemon face" after hearing the word "bacteria".

* "Media" is kind of a charged word for different reasons these days and might cause some people's attention to wander off on you- you might want to frame your pitch backwards by talking about floss, bio rings, charcoal etc. and then explaining that they can all be referred to as "media" which is kind of an odd term.

* Bacteria can't do it all on their own (apologies to Diana Walstad).  Beginner aquarium owners need to do some level of removing waste and water changes and potentially plant trimming on a regular basis.

* While there's a bottled product to solve just about any aquarium problem,  you need to be thoughtful about when and how long to use them.   Just like with people medicines,  combining the wrong products together (medicines, fertilizers, and water treatments) can result in serious complications (toxicity, depleted oxygen levels, bacteria crashes, etc.) and consequences (broken biome, sick fish...worse).  Best course of action is always to come back to you for advice before putting any new products or new combinations of products into a tank.

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