Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” Learn more at drernieward.com
If you have a question about practice life, personal well-being, leadership or veterinary careers, email firstname.lastname@example.orgRead Articles Written by Ernie Ward
Q: I thought postcards were outdated. Our software company persuaded us to stop using postcards a few years ago, saying clients didn’t respond to them anymore. If that’s true, why is my mailbox full of them from online pet stores? What’s your opinion on postcard reminders in 2022?
A: Reports of their death are greatly exaggerated. Print marketing has the potential to cut through the overwhelming digital static that our clients sift through daily. As competitors increase their digital advertising, print marketing has been somewhat forgotten, which offers you an opportunity.
Studies conducted by Canada Post and the U.S. Postal Service demonstrated that 75% of individuals receiving print mail pieces could recall the company names a week later compared with only 44% who viewed digital ads. Other researchers have found that printed materials create less cognitive load than digital materials. The lower the cognitive load (the mental effort required to understand a stimulus), the easier the memories.
In addition to better recall, science shows that printed messages elicit more emotional responses than digital does. The hypothesis is that the physicality of direct mail generates more emotionally vivid memories and emotional processing.
My advice, unchanged over 30 years, is to keep mailers in your marketing mix. You can hire companies that specialize in print and digital marketing and whose algorithms maximize results by sending timely and targeted combinations of physical and digital materials. Also, adding QR codes and incentives can boost your response rates and revenue.
Long live postcards!
Q: A person we’d never seen called to make a feline appointment. We told her we weren’t seeing new patients. She blew up at our receptionist and then posted awful social media comments, such as “You’re killing my pet by refusing to see her” and “You want me to execute my cat.” I fired off a response on our accounts, explaining how overwhelmed veterinarians are, the suicide epidemic and staff shortages, and how we offered to euthanize her cat if it was that sick. However, she kept posting and left one-star reviews everywhere. What’s wrong with people?
A: For starters, there’s plenty wrong with our species, and everyone could benefit from more empathy and civility. But before we start solving humanity’s faults, let me begin with this credo: Never respond in anger.
After you’ve slept on a hot take (or given it a few hours to cool), ask yourself a couple of questions before smashing “Submit.” First, is everything you wrote indispensable? Each word is potential fuel for a further retort and might end up as legal fodder for an attorney. Also, did a trusted colleague review it? Asking an uninvolved co-worker can ensure that you’re projecting a thoughtful, measured and professional response. I’m also a fan of utilizing private veterinary groups or platforms to get additional perspectives and advice. Finally, is your response compassionate and reasonable? A key objective of any business’s public reply should be to demonstrate concern, care and a willingness to help. Most reasonable people perusing a heated thread aren’t interested in a tit for tat or even the specific accusations or excuses. They know that the truth lies somewhere in between, and they are curious whether a medical professional remains poised and polite or starts slugging it out online.
Try a simple response like this: “We’re sorry we were unable to accommodate your appointment request, but we must prioritize our existing patients and clients with whom we have a trusted relationship. As we explained during your call, we are unable to accept new patients at this time. If you’d like further assistance finding a veterinary clinic, visit our website’s list of local emergency hospitals. We hope you get your cat the medical care it needs.”
No matter what counterpunches she throws, a casual scroller likely will conclude that you weren’t taking new patients (a common issue these days), that you tried to help (being nice), and that was all you could do (case closed).
We’re entering an era in which online bickering is viewed as normal and will lose some of its power. After all, if everyone complains all the time, civil discourse has a chance to rise above the raucous. So, keep your reply simple, run it by a trusted colleague and stay positive. Most importantly, always respond in kindness.
Q: We’re struggling with more veterinary appointments than we can handle. A client we hadn’t seen in two years called and became irate when told we were seeing only active patients. One of our associate veterinarians pointed out that the caller’s cat had received three-year vaccines. We’re now questioning what an “active client” should be.
A: Welcome back to 2005! That was when the United States’ first three-year core vaccine was approved, and we squabbled like Team Peeta versus Team Gale over whether extended-duration vaccines would mark the end of the annual exam and ruin the profession as we know it. (Spoilers: They didn’t, and Peeta always.) Back then, I urged veterinarians to stagger vaccines and continue scheduling yearly checkups for pets receiving three-year immunizations. I advised clinics to avoid inactivating clients who failed to return within the traditional 13-month “active client” period. I understood that some clients would wait until shots were due, and I didn’t want to risk losing them or leaving their pets vulnerable to preventable diseases. Regular reminders could help maintain a professional relationship and encourage annual exams and other preventive services, especially in older pets. I also pointed out that the definition of an active client was as much of a business construct as a medical imperative or regulatory requirement, particularly with scheduling priority. Sometimes we need to go back in time to move ahead, which brings us to the present day.
Due to a multitude of practice pressures propelled by the pandemic, I understand your reasoning. However, I think the issue might involve how you’re communicating (or not) to clients. Proactive emails, social media posts and a website FAQ or blog explaining your scheduling priorities, hours of operation and other accommodations might benefit your clients and team.
For example, begin by explaining that life-threatening emergencies receive precedence, followed by patients examined within the past 12 months. A list of common emergency conditions or symptoms and what to do when your clinic is closed can aid panicky pet owners. Next in line, as soon as you have an opening, are currently vaccinated pets with non-emergency needs and patients with exam lapses greater than three years. Encourage clients to book yearly exams and vaccination visits a week or two in advance. Establish scheduling criteria and a prioritization model that meets your needs, and then train your team to communicate everything to clients.
I’m working with a couple of online scheduling services to incorporate prioritized patient-level appointment filters and automate those choices further. Of course, such strategies won’t avert all client conflict, but clear communication goes a long way in reducing your staff’s stress and tilting the odds in your favor.