Dr. Wendy Hauser is the founder of Peak Veterinary Consulting. She writes extensively and speaks frequently about hospital culture, communications, leadership, client relations and operations. She represents the American Animal Hospital Association in the American Veterinary Medical Association’s House of Delegates.Read Articles Written by Wendy Hauser
The American Veterinary Medical Association reported late last year that 24% of dog owners and 35% of cat owners don’t seek regular health care for their pets. The primary reasons were the expense and the lack of the perceived value of routine care. So, what can veterinary hospitals do to communicate to clients the value of proactive pet health care?
Veterinary professionals understand why pets need preventive care. For example, studies have highlighted how a healthy body condition score and regular dental cleanings can extend the canine lifespan. We know that vaccinations and parasiticides protect dogs and cats from infectious diseases and support longer, better-quality lives. But why don’t clients appreciate those things?
The answer lies partially in earlier research on what matters most to clients. Banfield Pet Hospital’s 2015 State of Pet Health report revealed that pet owners defined preventive care as what they fed their cat or dog, how much exercise the animal received, and the love and attention they gave it. They thought those actions were responsible for 81% of their pets’ preventive care needs.
This article is the last in a three-part series on cultivating client trust, promoting the human-animal bond and alleviating client concerns.
Compare that to what happens during most preventive care visits, when the owner is inundated with all things medical. How often do you have meaningful conversations about a pet’s body condition score and nutritional needs? Do you ask all clients to describe a day in the life of their pets, including exercise and family interaction?
Because pet owners perceive preventive care to be largely self-driven, is it any surprise they think the veterinarian’s contribution to the proactive health of their pet is a mere 19%? Veterinary teams that take the time to elicit the client’s perspective by asking, “What are your short- and long-term goals for your pet’s health?” and “What are the barriers to good health for your pet?” can tailor the appointment to meet the needs of the pet owner. The result is a client who feels heard and understood. The outcome of the interaction is a partnership that strives to provide excellent health care.
Beyond preventive care, the veterinary team can avoid mismatches by becoming more client-centered. A webinar hosted by Cornell’s Center for Veterinary Business and Entrepreneurship recommended randomly asking clients in the exam room, “What do you need from us that we are not delivering?” Listen carefully to the responses, look for commonalities and take action to create more value for pet owners.
Learning to Communicate Effectively
The amount of information conveyed during visits can overwhelm clients and practice teams. Effective communication is about sharing information rather than exchanging data. It requires active listening. Both sides give and take.
“Knowing and confirming the client’s presenting concerns and goals for the visit and addressing those specifically is critical to relationship-building and client buy-in,” said Colleen Currigan, DVM, the medical director at VCA Cat Hospital in Chicago. “All clients want and need to know that the veterinary team cares about their pet and their bond with the pet.”
When the connection fails, ineffective communication becomes a primary driver behind the lack of perceived value of routine veterinary visits. A disconnect also occurs when veterinarians make treatment recommendations. Clients are more likely to accept the suggestions when the value of the diagnostic or treatment is explained in terms of how it would benefit the pet’s health and well-being.
“It is important to advocate on behalf of the pet by verbally reviewing and taking the time to explain recommendations to clients in layman’s terms, along with the ‘why’ behind those recommendations,” Dr. Currigan said.
According to multiple studies, clients expect various treatment options and want to choose the one that best fits their beliefs and values. They want their decisions respected and don’t want to be judged or made to feel guilty.
“Pet owners will decline our recommendations for reasons beyond our control, but our job is to gently advocate on behalf of the pet without being inappropriately pushy or judgmental,” Dr. Currigan said. “If we’ve done that, we have accomplished what we can.”
How can veterinary teams help clients understand the value behind clinical recommendations? Kristi Kruger, the practice manager at San Tan Animal Hospital in Queen Creek, Arizona, said her doctors “do a great job explaining the why and the value of the recommendations.”
Once San Tan clients understand the benefits, a technician presents and discusses the treatment options and costs.
Erin Preston, CVPM, the owner and practice manager at Onion River Animal Hospital in Berlin, Vermont, said her doctors and technicians use visual aids so that clients see how their pets will benefit. One example is using before-and-after images of resorptive lesions to emphasize how much oral pain the pet might be experiencing.
Barriers to “Yes”
A client might decline a medical recommendation for two main reasons.
1. The Cost of Care
Veterinary teams commonly believe that a client spurns their recommendations for financial reasons only. However, one study found the assumption was true in just 20% of clients. The remainder declined because they didn’t understand how the pet would benefit or were uncertain why the recommendations were made.
Other surveys have found that clients lack a complete understanding of pet care costs. A Synchrony study, for example, reported that 45% of dog owners and 38% of cat owners thought they were financially prepared for veterinary expenses early in pet ownership but, over time, they faced unexpected costs that caused financial stress. In fact, 25% of pet owners indicated that an unexpected pet care expense of $250 would be difficult financially.
How can we help clients plan for the cost of pet care? At Dr. Currigan’s hospital, the team uses a graphic to review feline life stages “and what we recommend as far as preventive and screening care for each.” Team members also educate cat owners about the long-term cost of care by providing ballpark estimates for each life stage.
Kruger’s Arizona team talks with puppy and kitten owners about pet health insurance and how it can prepare them for accidents and illnesses. Insurance “takes the anxiety away from the staff and clients” during the presentation of treatment plans, Kruger said.
“Most importantly, we can provide the care recommended for our patients.We have also seen an increase in pets being treated by specialists because the pets are covered.”
Preston said treatment plans at Onion River Animal Hospital show itemized costs. According to a national survey, 26% of Generation X and 25% of millennial pet owners said more straightforward and transparent pricing, as is done at Onion River, would improve the quality of service.
2. Fear of the Unknown
I don’t know an owner, including myself, who looks forward to having their beloved pet undergo anesthesia. How can we help clients feel less anxious about such necessary procedures?
Preston’s team educates clients about the safeguards in place, such as preanesthetic bloodwork and protocols based on the pet’s age, size and preexisting conditions. In addition, the proactive use of antiemetics helps minimize side effects in the hospital and after discharge. All that creates a better experience for the pet and owner, Preston said.
At San Tan in Arizona, a surgery technician monitors the patient hands-on and with equipment, easing pet owner fears. The trust built with clients throughout wellness visits makes clients more comfortable leaving their pets for any procedure, Kruger said.
Because many pet owners fear the worst-case scenario, the team at VCA Cat Hospital explains the care that goes into supporting the best possible outcome. The doctors relay that they would not recommend surgery if the risks outweigh the benefits.
“We share with owners that intra-op and post-op complications are rare in our hospital but that no anesthetic procedure comes with a 100% guarantee that the unexpected won’t happen,” Dr. Currigan said.
Frequent communication is a key in alleviating owner anxiety, she said.
“We text the patient’s owner as the procedure is starting and once the patient is in recovery,” she said. “We also note that the doctor will contact them by phone once the cat is fully awake and advise when the cat will be ready to go home.”
FOUR WAYS TO BRIDGE THE GAP
1. Understand client needs. Questions to ask in surveys and face-to-face conversations include:
- What three things do you like best about bringing your pet here?
- What are three things you wish we did differently?
- If you ran this hospital, what changes would you make?
2. Have candid conversations with clients about their fears regarding veterinary recommendations. Using empathy, ask questions like:
- What happened before when your pets had anesthesia?
- What worries you about this treatment plan?
- What can we do to make the process easier for you?
- What would help you be more comfortable with the recommendations?
3. Prevent disconnects. For clients to accept your advice, they need to understand the benefits. Some ways to convey the value include:
- Avoid medical jargon. “Use language that owners can understand while reviewing recommendations,” said Dr. Colleen Currigan of VCA Cat Hospital of Chicago.
- Create client education protocols for preventive care visits. When every team member understands and follows the algorithms, clients receive comprehensive information that will help them understand and accept clinical recommendations.
- Offer a range of treatment options, talk about their value and respect the pet owners’ decisions.
4. Discuss the future cost of veterinary care. Most pet owners have no idea about the cost of routine care, let alone emergencies.