Fearless columnist Natalie L. Marks is an educator, consultant and practicing Chicago veterinarian. Dr. Marks is a leader within the Fear Free movement, was a member of the original Fear Free advisory board and is Fear Free Certified Elite. She passionately believes that all veterinarians should be committed to the physical and emotional health of their patients.Read Articles Written by Natalie Marks
Pet adoptions have exploded. A Rover.com survey found that 60% of first-time pet owners had never been inside an animal hospital, which suggests an overwhelming number of people lack quite a bit of information about the physical and emotional health of their puppies and kittens. While the amount of education that veterinary professionals need to provide seems substantial, now is a prime opportunity to look at what makes your practice different and how you can turn that initial appointment into the first of many.
If the past year taught us anything, it’s that your digital presence is as important as your physical presence, if not more so. This includes your website, social media pages, online reviews, and community groups and chats. The core is your website. According to a 2021 MARC Research survey of pandemic pet owners, the use of web-based resources was higher among first-time pet owners than experienced owners.
Your website should be modern, user-friendly and tell your story. Some of the best money I spent as a practice owner involved hiring a vendor to build and optimize my website. A great website gives you a creative license to feature your differentiators, get personal, connect with current and future clients, and promote your brand. Given all the types of veterinary practices today, brand awareness is critical. Your logo should be on everything a client sees, especially if the artwork is proprietary.
Social media platforms represent your practice daily and are central to the average pet owner’s everyday routine. A Mars PetCare study revealed that 65% of U.S. pet owners post something about their pets twice a week on average, 16% post more than four times a week, and 1 in 6 started a social media profile for their pet.
All this virtual space can be free marketing space for you — a way to educate and engage clients and build community and trust. It’s also where you can perfect the art of storytelling. For instance:
- Post videos and before-and-after photos to promote what makes your practice different and how you reduce patient and client stress.
- Create a hashtag unique to your clinic and then encourage posts about happy patients at the practice and home.
- Ask for positive feedback about clinic team members.
- Talk about your practice’s successes, inviting clients inside a bit.
Review Your Reviews
Your shoulders probably tense a little when you hear these two words: online reviews. While I used to fear them, I’ve learned to work with them. So many of us cringe on opening a new review but instantly relax when we see something positive.
What about the critical, negative or wholly inaccurate and rude reviews that keep us up at night? Here are a few recommendations:
- Don’t respond immediately. We know that allowing emotions to guide our communication at that point will create nothing of value and might harm us in the long run.
- Wait a day and refocus your goal to either getting the review removed, or even better, amended to something positive.
- Try to reach the disapproving client by phone at first. It’s often easier for the writers of negative reviews to blast critiques from the comfort of their couches than have a rational, direct conversation. If I can discuss an issue one on one, the client often feels supported and will amend or remove the negative review.
- If the client refuses to respond, consider crafting a respectful response highlighting your hospital’s features and your willingness to acknowledge concerns.
- If the review is belligerent or profane, contact the holding platform and request the review’s immediate removal.
Welcome to Our Clinic
Let’s move into the pre-appointment “call” involving new clients. I use quotation marks because, even five years ago, the phone would have been the primary form of communication. A client’s initial contact now might come from a website request, text message, email or even mobile app. Whatever the channel, document the preferred method in the medical record.
Did you know, according to a 2019 study, that the text open rate is 99% among clients and that 95% of the texts are read within three minutes? Why, then, do we spend excessive time calling landlines and leaving voicemails? It’s time for veterinary practices to use and embrace texting.
During this touchpoint, succinctly provide as much preparatory information as possible. It can be done. While embedded information is preferred if you email clients, a text message can link to your website. For example, you might want to send text recipients online for a “How to Get Your Cat in a Carrier” handout, for tips on reducing travel stress, for parking information, and for digital signature platforms such as SnoutID, JotForm and DocuSign.
Time Will Tell
Finally, as we prepare to schedule new patients for exams and other hospital visits, remember that in the same MARC Research study, 41% of new pet owners thought their veterinarian was too busy to answer their questions, and 49% said long wait times had deterred them from visiting. The traditional 20- to 30-minute appointment slots don’t necessarily work anymore given current caseloads, the team member shortage and pet owner desires. Let’s think creatively and consider efficiency and everyone’s emotional health.
For appropriate triage and behavior cases, telehealth is a great starting point. The same study showed that 48% of pet owners would “probably to definitely” use telemedicine in the future for a faster and convenient alternative. One aspect of telehealth I find very valuable is seeing a patient in a relaxed emotional state. When patients feel fear and anxiety, we know that painful responses and behaviors can be masked, especially in the exam room, limiting our ability to identify the primary problem and create a specific treatment plan.
While telemedicine appointments can lead to in-person appointments, many pet owners are fond of drop-offs. Find a way to fit drop-offs into your practice workflow. Make sure to provide the same pre-appointment information outlined above, including any pre-visit pharmaceuticals that worked before.
As for cats, consider feline-specific hours. Many practices offer them on Wednesday afternoons and evenings or a “Caturday” afternoon.
Whether the patient’s visit is successful or needs to be postponed due to emotional reactivity, document in the medical record certain other things — treats that worked well, how the patient liked to be handled and where the best handling occurred (on the floor or in the owner’s lap?). Also, note whether pharmaceutical intervention was or is needed. This makes the next visit, in theory, much more efficient.
A 2019 white paper, “The Positive Impact of Fear Free Certification in Veterinary Practices” — read it at bit.ly/3iGlW2V — demonstrated that clinics certified in reducing fear, anxiety and stress outperformed benchmark practices across almost all revenue categories. That included overall growth, drugs and medications, and exams. When your practice does what’s best for your patients’ physical and emotional health, your business’s health improves, too.