Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is the president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc., director of veterinary practice management at Mission Veterinary Partners, and founder of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association. His column won first place in the Florida Magazine Association’s 2020 Charlie Awards.Read Articles Written by Mark Opperman
The climate is changing at many veterinary hospitals after many months of unprecedented demand for services, a pandemic period when clients experienced long wait times for their pets’ outpatient appointments or surgeries. Today, some practices are seeing an ebb in demand and fewer visits. According to the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association, patient visits in October 2022 were down 3% compared with the previous year. In November, year-over-year visits fell by 4.3%. In December, they dropped by 7.3%. The other disturbing trend seems to be that not only is the number of visits going the wrong way year over year but the percentages, too — from a 3% decline to 7.3%.
In talking to practice managers and owners nationwide, I found that only some are aware of the decrease. Although revenue continues to rise or hold steady at many practices because of increases in professional client transactions and average client transactions, clinics might not track patient visits closely. Of interest is that many of those practices are seeing new-client numbers hold steady or rise, so the decrease in visits might be linked to the number of times established patients return.
What is causing the decline in patient visits? Respected individuals in our field have many opinions. Some point to the economy, but the veterinary profession fared very well during the last recession and was even considered recession-proof. Others blame the pandemic. As people acquired more pets, the need for veterinary care rose. Once the pandemic subsided, however, some pets were surrendered to animal shelters, breeders and nonprofit organizations as their owners went back to work.
Another prevailing thought is that clients were put off by long wait times for outpatient and inpatient services during the pandemic. Many pet owners also were prevented from entering clinics and had to wait in their cars. Meanwhile, some practices refused to see new clients and reduced the hours of operation.
Lastly, some people say that much of the marketing that practices routinely did in the past, such as reminders and social media, were suspended during the pandemic, further dampening patient visit numbers.
What You Can Do
Regardless of the reason for the decline, or even if you haven’t seen it at your practice, we cannot dispute that the numbers are down. I, therefore, suggest that now is an excellent time to evaluate your marketing activities. Here’s how.
Make sure to link client reminders to the appropriate services in your practice management software. Many hospitals use vendors to handle reminders, so ask about the number and frequency of the reminders sent. I suggest a reminder go out 30 days before a service is due. If you get no response, send another 30 days later and, if needed, a final reminder 30 days later.
Emails, text messages and postcards are all forms of reminders. Unfortunately, some practices send too many reminders, aggravating clients.
During the pandemic, many clients didn’t respond to reminders. I recommend sending reminders for patients that are one year and sometimes two years past due. You can run a PIMS report to see how many patients fall into the category.
I love to ask team members, “Who has a knock-down, amazing website?” Few, if any, hands shoot into the air. Everyone has an opinion about what makes a website great, but, in general, it must be up to date and easy to navigate. The more photos you have, the better. Visitors don’t want to read a novel on your website, but they like to learn about your services and doctors. I love seeing video tours. Clients also should be able to schedule appointments online and obtain information about their pets. Take a close look at your website and fix it if it doesn’t represent the quality and excellence of your practice.
Social media was and is a strong and effective marketing tool for a practice. When was the last time you posted on Facebook? A practice should do it daily because clients love hearing what’s happening at their veterinary hospital. Facebook has 2.74 billion active users, YouTube has 2.29 billion and WhatsApp has 2 billion.
Remember Pet Dental Month or Feline Health Month? With the number of patient visits down, now might be the time to revisit target marketing. A successful program has four components:
- Identify the group with whom you wish to communicate.
- Educate that target group about the necessity of the services you are promoting.
- Offer a package of services that will satisfy the need.
- Incentivize the client to take advantage of the offer.
For example, you might identify all the dogs and cats that visited over the past year and had Grade 2 dental disease. You then send their owners information about dental disease in pets and the need for cleanings. Finally, you might offer a package that includes a dental cleaning, radiographs, polishing, a sealant and a home dental care kit.
The last part can be tricky. I oppose discounting, so I don’t want to incentivize the program using a discount. Instead, I might offer a free additional service, such as complimentary grooming, a day of boarding or microchip implantation.
“Thank you for the referral” is one of the most successful programs I have seen to increase patient numbers. The graduated campaign is relatively easy to set up, and the rewards are high.
To initiate one, choose the thank-you gifts. I usually pick 10 items that people will value and appreciate. For example, you might start with a gift certificate to Baskin-Robbins or Carvel. Then, on the next referral, you gift a $10 Amazon card, a complimentary pet grooming, a free day of day care or boarding, and so on. The final reward could be a dinner certificate to a nice restaurant.
Next, you need to track the referrals. Your practice management software should do it, but you must make sure your CSR asks new clients who referred them and then documents the information in the computer. You’ll be amazed at how many referrals a client can make. The psychology is basic: An action is more likely to occur if you reinforce it.
Should you inform clients about the referral program? Absolutely not! Surprise them, which makes the program even more effective.
I hope patient visits aren’t down at your practice, but don’t let your gross revenue fool you. You must monitor the number of visits. You don’t want to be caught by surprise or find out too late that your client base has shrunk. At times like those, practice revenue is sure to follow.
OUT OF JUICE
According to the independent website Not a Tesla App, the automaker once offered a $250,000 Founders Edition Roadster in exchange for 55 referrals. One participant, Andy Slye, drove away with two free cars. “Tesla ended their referral program not too long after I became the top referrer,” Slye posted on Twitter.