Debbie Boone is the owner of 2 Manage Vets Consulting and the 2022 president of VetPartners. She has worked in the veterinary profession for more than 35 years as a practice manager, consultant and speaker. She enjoys improving both workplace culture and the well-being of veterinary professionals. She hosts “The Bend,” a vodcast that invites guests to share stories of resilience over adversity. Learn more at dboone2managevets.comRead Articles Written by Debbie Boone
The pandemic severely limited my usual travel, giving me time to do some much-needed office cleaning. Sorting papers and folders, I ran across the American Animal Hospital Association’s first client compliance study, done in 2003. The publication showed a whopping $630,000 a year in potential revenue lost per veterinarian in preventive and wellness health care. I was managing a practice when I attended a roadshow event where the findings were shared. Happily, our practice was one of the exceptions. At that time, our client compliance rate was over 85% on vaccines and preventives.
Although the veterinary market was less fragmented then, low-cost clinics, feed stores and shelters were applying pressure. One AAHA practice five blocks away held a low-cost vaccine clinic on Thursday evenings, yet few of our clients used it. Why? Because veterinary medicine is a relationship business. We serve our clients and patients. The level of service we provide and the trust we build has more to do with compliance than price.
As a manager, I led practices through multiple recessions and 9/11. Clients had financial challenges, but most chose to spend their limited dollars with “trusted advisers” rather than less expensive “unknown strangers.” Humans are emotional spenders even when they think they are being practical.
For fun, I asked a class I taught, “How many of you have bought something you couldn’t afford?” A universal “yes” show of hands included mine. So, we know the reason full-service veterinary practices lose revenue to alternative providers is not all about the prices.
When Shoppers Look Elsewhere
An article in the June/July issue of Today’s Veterinary Business explored the potential loss of clients to a Walmart-based veterinary practice. The Diggo survey revealed that 44% of pet owners would consider Walmart for annual exams and vaccines but that only 12% of veterinarians feared losing a client to Walmart. The primary reasons for opting into Walmart were convenience — clients shop there two or three times a month — and Walmart’s branding as the source of inexpensive products and services.
The consumers surveyed also believed that Walmart’s hours would be more flexible and a better fit with their schedules. They believed that the medicine practiced there would be just as good because all veterinarians “have the same education.”
Convenience, quality medicine and personalized service are where traditional practices should place their focus.
Don’t Be a Vanilla Practice
Expanded clinic hours seems impossible for a profession on the verge of exhaustion, but we can do other things to provide convenience to clients and simultaneously enjoy a balanced life.
During COVID-19, veterinary teams have learned to manage both medical care and the risk using very different protocols. Offered parking lot drop-offs, many clients were thankful for not having to come into clinics, and many staff members were happy to skip face-to-face encounters. Teams discovered the efficiency of working cases without clients in the building. What lessons can we take from this?
Years ago, running a five-doctor practice with a client base of businesspeople, I found morning drop-off services to be a big business boost. When we opened at 7 a.m., clients had time to leave their pets for routine care, pick up food or medications, drop off boarded pets, and still get to the office on time. Our team took patient histories, the veterinarians called clients at prearranged times to discuss findings, and 10-minute discharge appointments were scheduled to accommodate clients heading home from work.
For greater convenience, our practice provided a “limo” service. We picked up pets living within a certain radius of the hospital and brought them in for care. It was a big hit with the owners of skunked dogs and helped us differentiate our practice from the five clinics operating within a mile of us. The ride fee wasn’t much of a revenue generator, but the goodwill the service spawned was priceless, not to mention what the rolling billboard accomplished as it traveled up and down the busiest streets in town.
Don’t Hide Your Fees
Transparency is important for any veterinary business. Part of the work I do for practices is to call competing hospitals and review their front-desk communication skills. You’d be surprised how many practices refuse to disclose the prices of vaccinations and other simple procedures over the phone, and you’d be shocked by the number of customer service teams that are poorly trained at communicating the value of their clinics’ veterinary care.
The lack of price surety creates consumer fear. Veterinary clients often have no concept of how much things cost and will overinflate fees in their minds. When practices do not share prices, clients seek out those that do. As someone who coaches client service, I believe that knowing the cost upfront gives clients a feeling of security and builds their confidence in the hospital, especially when a well-trained customer service representative is able to build a rapport and share the value of the services.
A friend of mine who owned four Kentucky hospitals did something that was unusual but effective. He charged nothing for vaccines, only an exam fee. When people called for prices, the customer service representatives would say, “Our exams cost ‘X,’ but any necessary vaccines are included, and they’re free.”
On the other hand, a practice I worked at in the mid-’80s promoted free exams with a purchased vaccine. This overvalued something that was available at a feed store and undervalued the veterinarian’s intelligence and education. By flipping this model, my Kentucky friend valued the most important service, the exam.
Other Ways to Build Loyalty
When it comes to retaining clients, subscription services are a great tool. Wellness plans that charge a monthly fee have existed for years, yet few non-corporate hospitals use them, often because of the perceived difficulty of setup, cost calculations and team training. But have no fear: Many practice management information systems can get you started, and standalone software is available, too.
If the thought of managing a subscription wellness service is overwhelming, the “Veterinarian’s Guide to Healthy Pet Plans,” by Dr. Wendy Hauser and me, provides step-by-step instructions and includes team training tools.
Another way to keep moving clients through the doorway is a good reminder system. I’ve known practices that send a single reminder and then are done with it. The AAHA compliance study found that clients appreciate multiple reminders. Notices should be sent before services come due and periodically when patients lapse.
Today, we have portals and apps that send email, text and postcard reminders, but clean client data is necessary for these digital systems to be effective. I suggest calling clients for whom you have no email address. Explain that you are “cleaning up our database” and want to confirm the information you have. Asking about any new, rehomed or deceased pets is a personal touch and will impress upon clients that you care, especially when you alert them that a pet is overdue for a vaccine.
Finally, think outside the box. Diggo discovered a strong interest in in-home veterinary care, especially for cats. Could you reserve time slots for home visits? Could you partner with a mobile veterinarian to serve your clients? Could you leverage your licensed technician team to make home visits and use telemedicine for a doctor-directed hands-on exam? Could you leverage wearable technology and pet journaling apps to connect with patients more than once a year?
These ideas might not be easy to implement, but we need to serve today’s patients and clients in creative ways. To retain clients, we must embrace change as fast as clients change their habits.