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
After graduating from veterinary school and entering a small animal practice as an associate, I recognized a change. One of the more common marketing approaches was to offer a free exam with paid vaccinations. The focus of my four years in veterinary school, the full physical exam, had been demeaned to a free service so that vaccinations could be administered.
And then it got even more challenging. Professional associations had been running rabies clinics to provide affordable rabies vaccinations as a community service. Although this wasn’t always accepted by the local veterinary community, it was good for public relations and was tolerated.
Then it all changed:
- Vans parked at shopping centers to provide vaccinations from the back door.
- Feed stores sold pet vaccinations.
- Big-box and small mom-and-pop stores hosted vaccination clinics.
These clinics became an opportunity for pet owners to wait in line for cursory exams and competitively priced vaccinations. The clinics were held inside and outside, and on weekends and weekday nights.
What did they offer? Convenience and competitive pricing, and the pet owners didn’t have to pay for the “Do I really need it?” exam. From what I understood, to be able to give a vaccination you needed to establish a veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR). How did this meet those criteria? What about the medical recordkeeping regulations?
Over the last few decades, the vaccination business has been commoditized to the point that you can purchase virtually every vaccination from a source that isn’t a veterinary hospital. The vaccination protocols have been reviewed, discussed, published and republished.
What’s a veterinarian to do?
Why It Happens
Convenience: In today’s world of immediate gratification, Doctor Google and shop online for the best price, consumers aren’t always looking for a relationship as much as a solution. Clinics, feed stores and the internet provide an option that doesn’t require making an appointment and going to a veterinary hospital.
Cost: The demeaning of the physical examination by offering it for free has made charging for one in conjunction with a vaccination very difficult. Since the clinics don’t charge for the examination, why should consumers pay for one at your practice? Plus, why not pay $8 for a rabies shot at the clinic when a veterinarian charges $20? Cost is a huge factor in the commoditization of anything.
Compliance/confusion: I love this quote, which applies so perfectly to vaccinations and the veterinary profession: “If you are not consistent, you are non-existent.” What is the flavor of the month regarding vaccination protocols? And why don’t any two veterinary hospitals agree what a pet in the same community needs? Inconsistency breeds confusion. Confusion leads to non-compliance.
What to Do?
There has to be a way to take control of the vaccination world and direct it away from the clinics and other sources. Before I make recommendations, please note that there are pet owners you will never capture and maybe you don’t want to try to capture. However, your client base — the people truly bonded to your practice — is the group you need to make sure is not seeking options elsewhere for basic core vaccinations.
You can try a few things.
You can compete on price. Think about it. If you provide a vaccination at the same price promoted by the local walk-in clinic, you will make something (net the cost of the vaccination, syringe, paperwork, time, etc.). If you let clients go to that clinic, you make nothing. That’s one approach.
Think differently. Instead of the free exam in conjunction with paid vaccinations, why not consider free vaccinations in conjunction with a paid examination? Your education should be compensated for. And with a pet owner in the room, you have the opportunity to communicate, educate, impart knowledge, teach and bond with the client. The physical examination will help you identify dental disease, obesity, skin and coat conditions, and parasite issues. How much does it cost you to give away a rabies shot? Distemper? How much can you gain by bonding with a client and educating them while doing a thorough physical examination?
If clients do not want an examination and free vaccinations, I am guessing that the importance of the examination has not been fully imparted to them. That is your primary goal. Change the mindset of clients through your various resources — your staff, website and social media. It is a must going forward to have the examination be the most important part of the visit and the vaccination secondary.
Before I dive too deeply into this, you must know, understand and comply with the practice act in your state regarding the VCPR and administration of vaccinations. In some states, only veterinarians are permitted to administer a rabies vaccination. In others, anybody can administer them as long as a veterinarian is in direct supervision.
If you have performed and documented a full physical examination, in many cases you have established a VCPR. Depending on your practice act and the mandate under which you work, that VCPR might allow you to vaccinate a pet at another time without conducting and charging for another full physical examination. In fact, in some cases you may have technicians administer the vaccinations if the veterinarian is on the premises.
If your practice act allows the above, you can essentially run a vaccination clinic each day, every day, for clients whose pets had a qualifying full physical examination and met the VCPR. They can call ahead and see a technician for the vaccinations. The technician can be trained to ascertain the health of the pet and the appropriateness to vaccinate based upon guidelines you set and then go ahead and vaccinate. From a rabies standpoint, the veterinarian still must have his or her signature on the certificate as the practitioner overseeing the procedure.
Finally, you can run a vaccination clinic just like the big-box store does. Minimal examination, quick shots, in and out. Wham, bam, thank you, client. Set your prices competitively and develop a system to make it work from a profitability standpoint.
Note that when I did this at my practice, I frequently found my best clients at the clinic. That was not what I had in mind, which is why I shifted to the everyday vaccination clinic described above.
Using your website, office visits, social media and marketing, help your clients understand the lack of consistency from practice to practice. Explain how and why you chose the protocol you provide for their pets. Focus on risk factors and lifestyle and create what might be considered a personalized vaccination experience for each pet.
There is nothing wrong with explaining the difference between what happens at a vaccination clinic and what your practice is offering. Don’t spend a lot of time dismissing the vaccination clinics. Spend more time explaining why you do what you do.
What you are looking to build in your practice is a relationship between you and the client and patient. If they are going to a vaccination clinic, you are missing out on the chance to strengthen that relationship. If they are going to a clinic, they are doing so because of cost, convenience or confusion. If they are going to a clinic, you have a chance to refocus them on your practice by educating them.
You can’t capture and won’t capture every pet owner. However, retaining your clients and their pets is imperative. The only way to do so is to give them what they want and get them into your practice.
You can compete with the in-store vaccination providers because you have something they don’t offer: a relationship.