Karen E. Felsted
CPA, MS, DVM, CVPM, CVA
Take Charge columnist Dr. Karen E. Felsted is the founder of PantheraT Veterinary Management Consulting. She spent three years as CEO of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues.Read Articles Written by Karen E. Felsted
Providing cost estimates to clients isn’t new, but it sometimes gets sloppy when veterinary practices are busy or do things the same way for years. If your clinic hasn’t reviewed and updated its estimating process recently, now is the time. After all, the cost of veterinary services jumped by 10.3% in the 12 months ending February 2023, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, so communicating the cost of care in advance is more important than ever. No consumer likes surprises at checkout.
Effective communication of an estimate goes a long way in increasing the likelihood of a pet owner accepting your recommended services. Therefore, the most critical thing a practice can do to support its fee schedule is to provide value to the entire client experience. It starts before an estimate is put together and discussed.
What Value Is and Isn’t
Value encompasses everything from a clean, safe parking lot and friendly, efficient receptionists to on-time appointments and answering a pet owner’s many questions. Did you notice that I excluded the quality of medical care? Medical care is critical to the client experience, but pet owners assume yours is good. They can evaluate their experience, but many of them don’t know how to judge the quality of care. While that statement might discourage you, it tells you that you should provide both a superb experience and outstanding care.
Unfortunately, providing value to pet owners and appropriately presenting an estimate doesn’t mean clients suddenly have the means to pay for recommended care, even if they desperately want it. Most practices offer payment options besides cash, check and credit cards, but many pet owners don’t realize it. Therefore, combining an estimate with a discussion of payment alternatives can persuade clients to agree to your suggested care.
Educating pet owners about payment options should start early in their relationship with your practice. Talking to them about money can be awkward, but we do clients a disservice if we don’t help them understand from the start how they can best plan for the care of their furry family members.
While hospital owners don’t want themselves or their team members to function as insurance salespeople or credit card vendors, clinic staff regularly recommend products and services not stocked or provided by the practice. Examples include a variety of dietary goods, obedience training, boarding, grooming and pet sitting. Doctors and staff members should take the time to understand and become comfortable with those products and services to help clients take better care of their pets.
Do It More, Not Less
Ideally, a pet owner is aware of at least the general cost of a service or product. Still, I recommend providing an estimate to every client before you do any work, whether it involves preventive or sick care. That step doesn’t always happen when practices get busy, and hard and fast rules don’t apply to every practice and client.
However, at a minimum, cost estimates should be presented before the start of a non-wellness service, such as a dental cleaning, surgery or non-routine diagnostic. Obviously, if a hit-by-car dog is rushed in for immediate care, the pet must be stabilized first, but some kind of communication with the owner is needed as soon as possible. Such an approach might start with a verbal estimate of the initial costs, followed by an extensive written estimate. It all depends on the situation, but variations shouldn’t be an excuse to get sloppy about providing estimates.
In some cases, a verbal estimate noted in the patient record might be adequate, but I believe, in most cases, that any service outside the wellness care scope or considered “expensive” by a client should have a written estimate before the care starts.
“Expensive” can mean different things in different practices and to different clients, and I’m not saying your team needs to know what it means to each pet owner. It does mean, however, that each practice needs to set parameters regarding which services and the dollar amounts they present in an estimate. Err on the low end of your definition of expensive. There isn’t any harm in giving an estimate to a client who doesn’t care much about the costs, but you can damage a relationship when you perform an unannounced $300 worth of work and the client isn’t expecting such an expense.
Know Your Clientele
Providing estimates for wellness services can be more complicated and time-consuming, given the volume of those cases. But again, how a practice handles an estimate depends on the client base. For example, estimates might not be needed for clients who bring in their pets regularly for wellness services but might be very important to new clients who aren’t familiar with your fees and the types of services typically included as part of an annual visit.
Start by asking your receptionists about pet owners who respond, “Wow, I didn’t know it was going to cost that much.” What types of clients or services provoke such a remark? Does the comment come from primarily new clients? Does it occur mostly with dental cleanings? Wellness care? Knowing those answers will help you decide how to improve your estimates.
I’ll delve into that subject in the next issue.
WHAT WILL IT COST?
A 2021 Veterinary Hospital Managers Association survey found that 10% of practices presented a written estimate for wellness visits. Just under half provided one for sick visits, and about two-thirds did it in surgery cases.
Over the past year, nearly 40% of clients have grown more concerned about the rising cost of veterinary care, according to a Veterinary Hospital Managers Association survey.