Dr. Peter Weinstein owns PAW Consulting and is the former executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association and the former chair of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee. He teaches a business and finance course at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine.Read Articles Written by Peter Weinstein
Fleas and ticks, like cockroaches, have been around much longer than pets and people. They don’t disappear or hunker down during public health crises. They do what fleas and ticks have always done: cause irritation, infection and even infectious diseases. Because of that, veterinarians planning their seasonal or year-round attack on fleas and ticks have to consider the usual issues and newer ones.
Before 1994, flea control was performed using a combination of products in the house, on the pet and in the yard. The solutions were somewhere between toxic and ineffective in keeping the pests at bay. Flea-control products were so strong that they were called bombs and required the house to be evacuated of all living entities. Combine the bombs with baths, dips, collars, sprays, powders and exterminators and you could control the problem for maybe a month. And then it was déjà vu all over again.
In 1994, the first systemic flea-control product, Program (lufenuron), opened the floodgates to a series of safer, more efficacious and veterinary-only products to battle the evil insect world of fleas, ticks and even heartworm disease and internal parasites. From daily oral medications to monthly topicals to multimonth collars, the options offered should have made treatment and prevention easier and compliance rates higher. But with all the benefits eventually came a new challenge to veterinary clinics: online competition and segmentation of the marketplace, which created confusion and complications for the practice team.
What’s a veterinary practice to do to stay ahead and be a client’s go-to source for flea and tick products? The challenges all start with “C”: many choices; competing on convenience; competing on cost; and keeping up with compliance.
More than 25 flea and tick products for cats and over 35 for dogs are available from one source or another. Practices and pet owners have so many choices:
- Topicals: used monthly, every 90 days or every eight to 12 weeks.
- Orals: chewable, non-chewable, oral suspension.
- Collars: good for anywhere from 90 days to eight months.
- Targeted pests: fleas, fleas and ticks, mosquitoes, lice, flies, mites, intestinal parasites.
Here’s the paradox: People presented with too many choices are less likely to buy. (Read the study “When Choice Is Demotivating” at bit.ly/2XD0JwC.) This problem impacts veterinary practices trying to select products to carry, and it trickles down to the pet owner if a hospital offers a smorgasbord versus a prix fixe meal.
Practice leaders must offer a limited menu of products that meet the needs of patients and, most importantly, have been vetted by the team for effectiveness, safety, ease of use and price. A choice between topicals, oral medications and collars is great. But do you need three different topicals, or is there a best choice for dogs and one for cats? Same question with orals and collars.
How can you choose? Do your research. Know which products prevent which bugs. Ask yourself:
- Which parasites are of greatest concern given the demographics?
- Do your clients travel with their pets? Do they go hunting or fishing?
- With which distributors or manufacturers do you have the best relationship?
- Have the products been tried on your pets or your staff’s pets?
- Which products are most affordable per unit?
- Would your clients have difficulty administering a topical or oral?
- Would an extended-action collar be safe for the pet? The household? Easier for the client?
- If the effectiveness is too long, will clients remember to apply the next dose, change the collar or come back for treatment?
By simplifying the options, choosing a product will be much easier for your inventory team, staff and clients.
In this era of expediency superseding almost anything when it comes to the client experience, how can you make your hospital’s flea and tick prevention program more readily accessible? Despite what you might think, clients don’t want to negotiate a trip to your practice to pick up a preventive when they can get one easier online or at a superstore or pet store. Even though you are the expert on preventives, clients want a convenient source for these products. Sorry to say, you aren’t always the most convenient.
So, make yourself convenient by:
- Operating an online store.
- Auto-shipping products so that clients don’t run out.
- Emailing, texting or calling to remind clients that their product is about to run out.
- Offering home delivery from your practice.
- Having a staff member make house calls to apply a topical, change a collar or administer a monthly oral. (Yes, charge for it.)
- Dispensing a year’s worth of product. This is great until the client forgets to give it. Can you push-notify a reminder through an app?
Convenience to a client is not having to visit your practice. Convenience is your practice visiting the client directly or making contact by technology or mail.
It’s a jungle out there when it comes to the cost of preventives, both for practices stocking the product and pet owners buying it. The difference between your cost and the price the client pays is the margin or net. If a client purchases from a source other than you, your cost still exists. You lose money until the product is sold. If your margin is $1, isn’t that better than nothing?
So, how do you compete on price when it feels as if some online sources sell the product for less than you pay to buy it? Work with your distributors, many of whom offer coupons and other discounts to lower the unit price to the client and keep your margins strong. Use an online store to allay some of your expenses since you won’t need as much inventory.
Price competitively online and in the practice because:
- You are the expert.
- You and your sources will stand behind the products you sell.
- You want to maintain the relationship with your clients as the trusted source for veterinary products.
- A margin of $1 is better than nothing and keeps the client bonded to your practice.
When it comes to cost, the cost per month is an interesting way to look at things. For example, for the same dog:
- 12 months of a topical that costs the client $120 is $10 a month.
- 12 months of an oral that costs the client $180 is $15 a month.
- 12 months for a collar that costs the client $144 is $12 a month.
Use your website, exam room, online store and team to help clients understand that price is deceptive until it’s broken down to the lowest common denominator and that you are there to support the products. Let clients know that cost can come at a cost if a pet has an adverse reaction or if a product purchased online doesn’t work.
If you provide finite choices, convenience and a competitive cost, why isn’t compliance at 100%? In my humble opinion, you haven’t emphasized the importance of ongoing prevention. We can no longer just say, “This is what your pet needs, take it.” What’s more and more imperative is to explain why flea and tick prevention is important to your patients. With apologies to motivational speaker Simon Sinek, you have to “Start with why.”
Compliance is enhanced when a client recognizes the multitude of risks that non-treatment can bring. The issue is not simply the prevention of fleas and ticks, it is what happens when you don’t prevent fleas and ticks.
To remind you, this is what happens:
- Flea allergy dermatitis
- Flea/tick anemia
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever
- Lyme disease
The list goes on.
Add the fact that clients who aren’t compliant increase the risk of having their pets bring fleas and ticks into the house and into the bed where they all sleep. This alone should persuade a client of the need for year-round protection, even in a community that has freezing winters.
You and your team need to choose from the buffet of products you want to stock, recommend and trust. A combination of oral medications, topical medications and collars will provide you with an armamentarium for your clients.
Your role is to offer products you vetted using your pets and your staff members’ pets and through education and your manufacturer and distributor reps.
Your role is to say, “This is the product we feel is best for your pet,” and why.
And it is your role to offer products at fair and competitive prices both online and in your hospital.
What’s integral to your practice’s success is to be convenient and meet or exceed the needs, wants and desires of clients by using the plethora of resources at your fingertips.
If you follow all the C’s, you can get fleas and ticks to flee and prevent clients from fleeing to lower cost, more convenient sources.