Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She combines her practice experience and business expertise to help veterinarians communicate better with their teams and clients. She is the author of “Leading and Managing Veterinary Teams: The Definitive Guide to Veterinary Practice Management.” Learn more at amandadonnellydvm.comRead Articles Written by Amanda Donnelly
For as long as I can remember, our profession has stressed the importance of communicating the value of our services and products to pet owners. Dad and I talked about it when I was growing up and working at his veterinary hospital. Practice management speakers discussed it with my senior veterinary class. In 2011, the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study reported that one of the reasons for declining veterinary visits was that pet owners didn’t understand the need for routine examinations. Today, some practices are still experiencing a decline in patient visits and new-client acquisitions.
The conclusion continues to be that veterinary teams need to do a better job of communicating the value of our services. If we could just do that, pet owners would surely say “yes” to treatment recommendations. Right?
While conveying the value of our services and products remains highly relevant, we need to look at the big picture: What has changed with respect to what pet owners value in their relationship with veterinary providers? What do clients value today that’s different from years past?
It’s no longer enough to talk about the value of a particular treatment recommendation. Today, practice teams need to communicate and deliver to clients the value they want.
Here are five ways to communicate value to today’s client.
1. Adopt a Holistic Approach to Pet Health Care
The human-animal bond has never been stronger. I recently stayed at a Ritz-Carlton and was surprised to see how many people brought their dogs. As part of its five-star service, the hotel chain clearly recognized that one way they needed to cater to guests was by allowing them to bring their pets on vacation.
So, if pets are important to people, why don’t they come in regularly for preventive care and say “yes” to all our recommendations? One possible answer was proposed by Banfield’s 2015 State of Pet Health Report, which found a disconnect between how pet owners and veterinarians define preventive care. While veterinarians primarily focus on vaccines, spays and neuters, and parasite control for preventive care, pet owners considered a pet’s diet, exercise, play and emotional well-being as part of preventive care.
Since pets are an integral part of the family, it’s important for veterinary teams to discuss all aspects of the animal’s life. Not only will these conversations reveal critical information about the pet’s health, this holistic approach will reinforce the role of the veterinary team as a trusted adviser.
Here are action steps designed to provide more value with your client communications:
- Have clients fill out a survey asking about their pet’s lifestyle, exercise, toys, treats and diet.
- Make topics such as nutrition, obesity management, pain management and supplement use part of every preventive care visit.
- Give clients a list of trusted websites and other health care providers you recommend, such as trainers, groomers and pet sitters.
2. Educate Clients About Quality Medical Care
First and foremost, providing outstanding client education is paramount for all veterinary teams. Clients want detailed information about medical conditions, preventive care, services and products. Be mindful to not assume what clients know. Instead, ask open-ended questions about their knowledge and then tailor the education accordingly.
Build trust and enhance the value of client education with these action steps:
- Train team members to give consistent messages aligned with the hospital’s medical standards.
- Use visual tools and technology to augment verbal messages. Examples include brochures, videos, anatomical pictures or models, and graphs.
- Tailor all conversations for care to the client’s pet. One way to do this is to reference the breed and the pet’s lifestyle when discussing medical conditions and recommendations.
3. Empower Pet Owners
Today’s clients want to partner with the veterinary team and be fully empowered to make decisions they feel are best for their families. They want to be an active participant in their pet’s care rather than a passive listener of recommendations. Younger generations in particular find value in health care providers that ask questions and create dialogue about the pet. Remember, many pet owners have spent time talking to friends about pet care or researching on the internet before they visit your practice.
These skills can be used to communicate your value as a trusted adviser:
- Jump-start conversations by asking open-ended questions rather than just providing educational messages. During exam room observations, I once heard my veterinarian ask a client, “Tell me what you know about living with a blind cat?” How wonderful that she asked this question rather than launching into a lecture of what she thought the client needed to know.
- Invite clients to tell you what they’re thinking or feeling by using reflective listening statements such as “I sense you’re frustrated by Tigger’s response to medication” or “It appears you may have some concerns about Jake’s treatment plan.”
4. Focus on Cost Savings
Veterinary care can be expensive, and today’s consumers are looking for the best value for the money spent. Given that pet owners have many choices for pet care services and products, veterinary practices need to have proactive financial discussions with clients. Help clients save money by presenting your financial policies and all payment options.
These action steps can serve to increase the affordability of care:
- Make sure your staff is trained to present third-party payment plans, monthly payment plans, recommended pet insurance options and preventive care plans. Ask your vendors to present training seminars or webinars to your team.
- Discuss drug costs. Inform clients of the benefits of in-hospital purchases and the value of promotions or complimentary doses. Offer the convenience of an online store, and when appropriate, be willing to write scripts to low-cost providers.
- Use a mobile app branded to your hospital that includes a client loyalty program. These programs offer added value and can enhance client retention.
5. Use Technology to Provide Convenience, Personalized Service and Enhanced Engagement
Our society has a love-hate relationship with technology. We can’t imagine being without our smartphone, and we love the convenience of services such as online banking and home delivery of groceries and clothes. We love staying connected to family and friends through Facebook, Instagram and video chat apps.
On the other hand, we get frustrated when checking out at self-service registers at big-box stores and we despise automated telephone trees that never connect us to a person.
Veterinary hospitals can communicate value by using technologies that help pet owners stay connected to the practice, receive customized service and save time. When considering a technology solution, be sure to evaluate whether it helps the client and gets the pet the care it deserves.
Here are examples of technology solutions that pet owners are sure to love:
- Online scheduling of appointments.
- Texting of reminders, food or prescription requests, and targeted messages.
- Completing pet histories and forms before the appointment.
- Tracking medication usage and activity levels.
- Using social media to post photos, videos and questions that engage pet owners and create a sense of community.
- Video chatting, texting or emailing with a veterinarian in a telemedicine approach.
Communicating value to pet owners goes beyond focusing on a particular service or product. Think about communicating the value of your entire team and business.
What is the value of a client coming to your practice, and why should they return? For today’s clients, think of how you provide value before, during and after the appointment.