Kristi Fender is a freelance writer and editor in Shawnee, Kansas, with a long history of covering animal health and veterinary medicine. She is the former news channel director of dvm360.com and editor-in-chief of dvm360 magazine.Read Articles Written by Kristi Fender
Many veterinary practices pride themselves on their ability to provide excellent medical care to pets. But without an equal, if not greater, emphasis on communicating effectively with pet owners, those same hospitals will struggle to find success. The good news is there are more ways than ever to communicate in a way that resonates with pet owners. Here’s how forward-thinking veterinary teams are doing just that.
1. Up Your Social Media Game
Facebook, Instagram, Nextdoor and other social media platforms are fantastic opportunities to build community with current and potential clients and showcase all the wonderful features of your veterinary hospital or practice. However, it’s time to stop doing social media just because you think you should, says Caitlin DeWilde, DVM, who practices in St. Louis and offers consulting services as The Social DVM (thesocialdvm.com). If all you post is cute pet pictures and funny memes, sure, you’ll generate some warm fuzzies among the pet-owning public, but you won’t do much for your business.
Instead, get laser-focused on what your objective is with social media, whether it’s attracting new clients, keeping current clients from switching to the corporate clinic down the road, or driving revenue through online store purchases, Dr. DeWilde says.
Also important is including a call to action in the post. “A lot of practices will say something generic like, ‘We offer vaccines for dogs of all ages. Give us a call!’ — and that’s it,” Dr. DeWilde says. “Do you really think people are going to shut down the Facebook app, launch Safari, Google your phone number, click ‘Call,’ and hope you’re open? If you’ve captured their attention with the post, you need to give them direction.”
This call to action can take the form of a “Book now” button in the post, a link to the practice’s online store or a link to a Google form that allows users to request an appointment.
You probably know it’s important to include an image in every social media post, and veterinary hospitals have an ongoing supply of source material in the form of visiting pets. However, here’s a helpful hint from Dr. DeWilde you may not have heard before: While posting pictures of cute patients is great, showing your team member in the shot is even better. When clients see a face they recognize and have a “Hey, I know that guy!” moment, it stops the scroll more effectively.
It also distinguishes you from every other veterinary practice that also has endearing patients, state-of-the-art equipment and the latest parasite prevention product. “Really, our people are the only thing that we have that’s truly different,” Dr. DeWilde says.
Finally, the best social media strategy in the world is useless if you don’t monitor whether it’s achieving your goals. For example, your new client form likely asks how pet owners heard about your practice. If you follow that with a blank line, they’re likely to write, “Online,” which is not helpful.
“I recommend having a box for Facebook, a box for Google, a box for Instagram, a box for Yelp, a box for Nextdoor — all of it,” Dr. DeWilde says. “And then a box for ‘Other’ where they can specify something different.” Getting specific like this can help you identify trends (Dr. DeWilde was surprised over the past few years to see how much Nextdoor was driving visits to her own practice), which will guide decisions about where to focus efforts and spend money to boost posts. And it’s much more helpful than many of the analytic measures social media platforms offer.
2. Use an App
These days, if you don’t exist on someone’s cell phone, you might as well not exist at all, says Amanda Donnelly, DVM, MBA, a veterinary conference speaker and communications consultant based in Nashville (amandadonnellydvm.com). That means an app branded to your practice is a must-have for client communication purposes. But with what seems like a new veterinary practice app launched every week, how do you choose?
Besides the ability to send push notifications, Dr. Donnelly says an effective app should include a built-in client loyalty program, as these programs are essential for driving client visits and revenue. Other nice-to-have features include the ability for clients to request appointments and prescription refills.
“The challenge is to look at all the companies that provide the apps, look at the other services they offer, and figure out how all of the services work together,” Dr. Donnelly says.
3. Enhance the Human-Animal Bond
Innovative veterinary teams today are finding new ways to become a vital part of the relationship between pet and owner. As discussed already, social media that builds a sense of community is an essential aspect of the bond, and so is a clinic app that allows you to be visible and instantly accessible on your client’s most important communication device.
Dr. Donnelly says medical questionnaires can also be an important bond-building tool. She recommends that practices hand one of these forms to every new client and have all clients renew the information on an annual basis. The questionnaire should not only include medical history information but also ask about topics such as lifestyle, activities, mobility, nutrition and the role of the pet in the family.
“If you look at studies that have been done, people who are very bonded to their pet see exercise, lifestyle and nutrition as important components of pet wellness,” Dr. Donnelly says. “When veterinarians have discussions about those things with clients, not only do we gain valuable medical information, we bring the pet owner into the conversation and reinforce that we’re part of that relationship.”
4. Be Proactive with Payment Options
Veterinary practices need to offer a full complement of payment options — third-party payment plans, pet insurance, loyalty programs and possibly wellness plans — in order to help clients afford care, Dr. Donnelly says. But none of these programs will help your practice succeed if your team isn’t trained to educate clients about them, which means they need to be baked into your client communication protocols.
“You need multiple team members who can explain all the features and details of those payment options,” Dr. Donnelly says. “I find in my business that a practice may have all the options, but they don’t have team members trained to answer questions and to know when to offer which options.”
The key is to be proactive, Dr. Donnelly says. “Long gone are the days of talking [only] about CareCredit when the client has an urgent need,” she says. “Dentistry is a good example. It’s needed, but there’s not a sense of urgency for most dental care treatment plans. They tend to be expensive, and yet practices routinely present them without discussing what the payment options are. If there’s a significant cost, it’s best to immediately ask clients if they’d like to discuss payment options.”
To make sure team members are up to speed, Dr. Donnelly suggests having company representatives provide training through lunch-and-learn sessions or webinars. Then follow that up with staff meetings that reinforce how to implement the training. Finally, create a step in the practice protocol for payment option discussions: When a treatment plan is presented, the team member as a standard practice asks the client if they may review the payment options.
When it comes to pet insurance, remember that the time to talk about this tool is when pets are young, Dr. Donnelly says.
Discuss pet insurance with all owners of puppies, kittens and other newly adopted pets. “The action step is to mark in the medical record that the conversation has occurred,” she says.
5. Leverage Your Software
If all of this client communication stuff seems overwhelming, Paul Camilo, CVPM, founder of Veterinary Consultation Services (veterinaryconsultationservices.com) in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, has a solution: Let your practice management software do all the work. This means setting up a code for every protocol in your practice and tying it to a client or team reminder.
“This is something that unfortunately most hospitals don’t do,” Camilo says. “They buy the software and they use the templated codes. Well, that’s an OK starting point, but it’s not enough to run a practice.”
While reminders for vaccines, heartworm tests and fecals may be obvious, something like a thyroid function test might not be. “Your software should be set up that when you run that code, in six months, it will automatically remind the client to come in and run the test again, because typically that needs to be monitored on an ongoing basis,” Camilo says.
Other examples? Your skin scrape code could generate a team reminder to call the client in one week to check the patient’s status. It could even be set up to send an automatic email saying, “Let us know how your fur baby’s doing — click 1 through 5,” Camilo says. Or if someone buys 12 months of heartworm prevention, your software could send a monthly email to remind the client to apply or give the product.
“Little things like this — those little touch points — are what will create a stronger bond and create more visits,” Camilo says.
How to Engage with Tech-Savvy Clients
Pet owners increasingly want technological features like text updates, the ability to shop for medications online, appointment bookings via mobile app and digital medical records. Get started by implementing these tech-savvy solutions:
- Online pharmacy. Ask clients through social media and email polls how they prefer to shop for pet medications. Our industry has a huge number of online pharmacy options, so gauging your clients’ desires before you implement a solution will ensure that the rollout pleases a fair share of your clientele. Importantly, don’t forget to promote the pharmacy once it’s up and running.
- Texting. Ask new clients at registration for permission to send basic updates about their pet after it’s dropped off for care and to send appointment reminders.
- Mobile app. Using an app can do wonders for a veterinary practice and appeal to all generations of clients. Whether it’s a remote-monitoring app that engages clients in the ongoing health of their pets or an app that allows pet owners to participate in a loyalty program and request refills and appointments (or both), these software applications are quickly becoming a staple of successful veterinary practices.
- Telemedicine. Consider utilizing telemedicine to engage clients remotely between visits for services like nutritional counseling, quick checkups and other basic care. This makes accessing veterinarians even more convenient for pet owners and incentivizes clients who might be unable to visit because of logistical or personal reasons.
- Social media. Don’t just post a meme or statistic in the hope of getting a quick like. Instead, use social media to effectively engage with clients by emphasizing patient stories. These narratives can clearly showcase the importance of pet care and provide compelling opportunities for pet owners to organically interact with your veterinary practice.