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Opportunity knocks

Millennials spend more on veterinary care and pet services than any other generation, so what are you doing to embrace them?

Opportunity knocks
The bond PetGeners share is remarkable. As they leave their parents’ homes, they are getting a “fur baby,” for whom they provide the very best in food, holiday gifts, veterinary care and beyond.

For decades, baby boomers have been a dominant force in our profession both as consumers and colleagues. No longer.

Millennials — hereafter referred to as PetGen (you’ll see why) — are now the primary pet-owning demographic. Thirty-five percent of U.S. pet owners are members of PetGen, which grew up with the internet and smartphones and who make up the majority of our work family. Baby boomers comprise 32 percent of pet owners, according to the American Pet Products Association.

I’ve set out to examine PetGen from two perspectives here: technological trends and their relationships with pets. I unearthed recent survey data that highlight how our PetGen consumers and colleagues are highly centered on both.

PetGen and Technology

  • PetGeners check their smartphone 43 times a day.
  • PetGeners have more pictures of their pets on their smartphone than their two-legged family.
  • 65 percent would rather lose their car than their smartphone or computer.
  • 90 percent are on social media.
  • 69 percent are open to using new technology, compared with 33 percent of boomers.

PetGen and Pets

  • 6 million will become pet owners between now and 2020.
  • 82 percent feel that getting a pet is part of preparing to have a family.
  • 60 percent own clothing for their pet.
  • 86 percent are more likely to splurge on their pet than themselves.
  • 41 percent say money is no barrier to pet care.

Pet numbers are up, pet life spans are up, pet spending is up, euthanasia is down. And more good news: PetGen spends more on veterinary care and pet services than any other generation. So the ever-pressing question is how can our profession best adapt to meet PetGen’s needs?

First, let’s step back. Those of us who track professional trends were wringing our hands in fear just a few years ago. The demise of boomers and the emergence of PetGen was expected to put a big hurt in the growth of our profession.

Recall the formula that has driven the pet profession for preceding generations: Go to school, get married, buy a house, have kids, get a pet. PetGen, on the other hand, is not getting married, is not buying houses, is not having kids and has significantly less discretionary income. We feared that even if this generation were to be pet owners, they wouldn’t be spending nearly as much.

Much to our surprise, PetGeners have launched a completely new boom in our profession. They’ve created their own path. Frequently, a pet is the first thing they get when they leave their childhood home. PetGen gets a first pet at age 21 and boomers got theirs at 29.

The bond PetGeners share is remarkable. As they leave their parents’ homes, they are getting a “fur baby,” for whom they provide the very best in food, holiday gifts, veterinary care and beyond. What has become increasingly evident is that veterinarians are no longer competing for PetGen discretionary dollars. PetGeners will find a way to provide care for their four-legged family members. It is not discretionary. The “fur baby” economy is here.

Let’s dive a little deeper. The two major categories of PetGen that our industry must consider are clients and our colleagues. The PetGen demographic includes new graduate veterinarians and comprises the bulk of the teams we work with as well as the majority of team members at my practice, WellHaven PetHealth.

The PetGen Client

These clients are true digital natives, as the statistics above show. Our industry should be keeping up, but our technological prowess surely leaves something to be desired. But first, a caveat: I write this column with a smirk on my face knowing that my kids are going to mercilessly mock me should they ever read it. I am a boomer; a digital dummy. So, there is a steep road ahead for myself and my boomer colleagues to truly adapt to and implement technology into our practices.

It’s on us to disrupt the current client experience and embrace the tech-native PetGen. Our current model is bound by finite hours, is trapped by brick and mortar, and is burning out too many colleagues. This new technology-enabled model will not replace vets and teams, but it will augment and support them to provide a collaborative, information-rich and personalized, relationship-centered practice. A fully digitized veterinary experience.

Let’s zoom in. Pre-appointment or intake currently goes something like this:

Ms. Smith, a member of PetGen — these clients often prefer to text or schedule an appointment online — calls to make an appointment with Dr. Lester because Fluffy is itchy. My receptionist happily answers the phone and questions Ms. Smith about her pet, her pet’s name and the presenting complaint, and the appointment is scheduled for the next morning. When she arrives, Ms. Smith is warmly greeted by my receptionist, who once again learns that this is Ms. Smith, her pet’s name is Fluffy and Fluffy is itchy. Eventually, Ms. Smith and Fluffy are shown into an exam room, where my veterinary nurse greets Ms. Smith, learns that her pet’s name is Fluffy and that Fluffy is itchy. Next, Dr. Lester enters the exam room and … you get it.

There’s got to be a better way. If Ms. Smith were to receive a text message the night before her appointment, she would willingly respond. The text reminder is at once personable and informational. It walks Ms. Smith through an algorithm that gathers a complete personalized history and perhaps offers the option to upload a picture of Fluffy. When Ms. Smith arrives the next morning she goes directly to the exam room, where a good portion of the medical record is already completed. Consequently, in-hospital time is reduced dramatically, compliance increases, average transactions go up, and most importantly, Fluffy receives better care.

Fortunately, this technology exists today and is continually refined. Where else can we employ technology to support and augment the veterinary team? We’re limited only by our imagination and our willingness to change.

The PetGen Colleague

A recent Merck wellness survey disclosed that a devastatingly low 24 percent of our PetGen doctor colleagues endorse our profession. They, too, have come to expect the personalization, efficiencies and communication abilities of technology. We can better support our veterinary teams by embracing these technologies, which allow a more digital and personalized relationship with the consumer while guarding our free time. Tech can help us set the boundaries necessary to provide better balance.

Embracing a digitized client/veterinary team relationship can better support us thanks to advancements like 24/7 outsourced triage services, text communication and the like. This way, we help more pets in less time and enjoy better compliance. In short, our teams work smarter, not harder.

Anecdotally, as a proud father of two remarkable young women — one a member of PetGen, the other in Gen Z — I predict the upcoming Gen Z will be equally or perhaps even more apt to care for their pets’ wellness and happiness than their millennial counterparts. When we adapt to best communicate with PetGen and Z, our profession will continue to thrive.

PetGen is the new sheriff in town — a digitally-native sheriff who will insist on communicating differently, disrupting client flows, setting boundaries, and educating clients in a dramatically different and better way.

Creative Disruption columnist Dr. Bob Lester is chief medical officer of WellHaven Pet Health and a founding member of Banfield Pet Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. He serves on the North American Veterinary Community board of directors.