Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is the president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc., director of veterinary practice management at Mission Veterinary Partners, and founder of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association. His column won first place in the Florida Magazine Association’s 2020 Charlie Awards.Read Articles Written by Mark Opperman
What would you say if I asked about your veterinary practice’s strengths and weaknesses? Hundreds of hospital owners, managers and associate veterinarians over the years usually responded to my question by describing the quality and excellence of their medicine and surgery. That’s great. Next, people told me about their team members — the wonderfulness of their “10” employees and the problems with their “1s” and “2s.” It amazes me that most practice owners and managers have excuses as to why their “2s” are still employed. The discussion then moves on to the clients.
Most practice leaders think they’re doing a good job on client service but aren’t sure. For example, I normally get a blank stare when I ask about a practice’s bonding rate. The bonding rate measures the return of clients within 18 months of their last visit, which is an important gauge of how satisfied they really are. I also inquire whether the practice obtains client feedback through questionnaires and online reviews, for example. Naturally, some do those things, and others don’t.
Next, I ask team members about their practice’s strengths and weaknesses. Do I get the same responses as I did earlier? In most cases, the answer is no.
Determining the culture of a practice is very important. Every clinic has one — some amazing and nurturing, others toxic. It’s said that culture drives revenue and that anything that destroys culture affects profits. When you determine the culture of a veterinary hospital, you cannot ask only the practice owner and manager. They have their opinions, but so does the health care team. Many times, the opinions conflict.
When I talk culture at practices, I like to start with a discussion of niche marketing. The best way to understand niche marketing is to look at the hotel industry. Almost any city has several hotel chains. The two I like to focus on are Marriott and Motel 6.
A night at a Marriott hotel, for example, might cost $200 to $300 or more. The hotel interior is beautiful, the exterior is attractive, and the landscaping and overall aesthetics are excellent. When you enter a Marriott, you usually see a spacious lobby nicely appointed with marble and granite, glass elevators, and a friendly desk clerk who will register you and hand over a room key. Your room is spacious and nicely decorated. The bathroom might be luxurious. The Marriott also will have a restaurant, pool, and fitness and business centers.
Down the street is a Motel 6 charging perhaps $49.95 a night. You won’t see a lot of landscaping, and the building is designed simply. Upon entering, don’t be surprised if you must ring a bell to get someone’s attention. The lobby will be basic and maybe contain a few chairs. After getting your key, you’ll find a small room containing a bed and TV, and perhaps a remote control bolted to the nightstand. The bathroom will be stocked with paper-thin towels and a bar of soap so small that you might not find it again if you drop it in the shower. Motel 6 normally doesn’t have a restaurant, pool, or fitness or business center. It’s a basic motel.
Choose Your Niche
Here’s an interesting fact about both hotel chains: They’re each very successful and frequently sell out. Travelers who want a Marriott go there and spend $200 to $300 a night. Those who want Motel 6 go there and pay $49.95. There is no right or wrong, no good or bad. It is simply the way of the world and is called niche marketing.
Every day, consumers choose which niche on which to spend their money. The concept applies to hotels, restaurants, hair salons, optical stores and so on. And guess what? The concept also applies to veterinary hospitals.
So, let me ask you a question. If I explained niche marketing to your team members and had them rate their practice as either a Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Holiday Inn or Motel 6, what would they say? I ask the question of team members all the time, and I love to hear the responses. The team members often agree with each other, and sometimes, they’re far apart.
My next question, and maybe the most important one, is, “How do you, the practice owner or manager, view your clinic? Does your hospital best equate to a Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Holiday Inn or Motel 6?”
It’s important to understand two things here:
- There are two sides to niche marketing.
- There is no right or wrong.
Marriott and Motel 6 are successful hotel chains serving different clientele niches.
The Client Experience
The next question, and possibly the most important one, is if you and your team think your practice is a Marriott, how is it portrayed to clients? How does the exterior look? What about the reception area? How does your team greet clients when they enter? What special things make clients think they are treated like Marriott customers? The same holds if your practice is a Motel 6, Ritz-Carlton or Holiday Inn.
The key takeaway is this: You must understand your niche and be true to it. You can’t be everything to everybody.
Now, here’s what I suggest. Schedule a meeting and explain niche marketing to your team. Then, ask everyone to submit a secret ballot identifying the niche that represents your practice best. Next, share what you, the owner or manager, wish your hospital to be. If a misalignment exists, discuss it with your team and figure out the disconnects. Then, once there’s agreement on your niche or what it should be, determine how to portray the niche to your clients.
If team members want a Holiday Inn and the practice owner and manager desire a Marriott, the practice culture will suffer. An employee yearning for a Holiday Inn clinic when you’re operating a Marriott needs to find another practice.
The fees you charge will impact your niche. If you charge at the low end in your area, especially on shopped and exposed fees, you’ll be considered more of a Motel 6. If you charge at the high end, pet owners will see you as more of a Marriott or Ritz-Carlton. Make sure your fees match the expectations. You can’t be a Marriott charging Motel 6 rates or a Motel 6 charging Marriott rates. Remember that you can’t be everything to everybody, so identify your niche, be true to it and try to exceed your clients’ expectations.