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The power of early adopters

Harnessing a select group of clients can help you meet the needs of the next generation and not alienate long-time pet owners.

The power of early adopters
Once you have identified potential early adopters, invite them to develop a deeper relationship with your practice, and establish what it entails. By setting expectations, you will ensure that you have a committed and engaged group.

I received two emails less than 24 hours apart from two very different veterinary clients. One raved about how excited she was about the new program her veterinarian had implemented that would give her 5% off the invoice at each visit. She had gotten a new puppy, the costs were adding up and the discount seemed like a great solution. The second email was from a client exposed to the same program. The idea of saving a bit of money at each visit struck her as “dollar store-esque.” Two very different reactions about the same thing.

Who was right and who was wrong isn’t the question. Instead, what can be learned about how different people need to be treated differently? When we put a bit of effort into it, we can start to bring together different groups of people who have a common set of needs. From there, we begin to understand how groups of clients can and should be treated differently based on their different needs. That’s what I’ll answer here: How do we find the right groups to help us evolve our practices and meet their needs?

Who’s First?

Let’s start with a thought exercise. What was the first iPhone or smartphone you owned? Perhaps it was the fourth-generation iPhone, or maybe you recently purchased your first device. This year, the iPhone turns 13 years old. In some ways, the device’s ubiquity in society given the short time frame is both impressive and surprising. It’s an example of customer segmentation and, in particular, the importance of early adopters.

The speed of adoption of new technologies has accelerated over the past 100 years. The time needed to reach 1 billion users has gone from decades to less than 24 months. Check out the Global Change Data Lab chart at http://bit.ly/2VjkF6E for an example of the speed of adoption across different technologies.

What is an early adopter? It’s a market segment that uses a new product or service very early in the life cycle. At this stage, the product or service is often incomplete and might lack certain key features. In some cases, what the business eventually becomes might look very different from how it started. Long before Facebook was available to everyone on the planet, it was limited to students on a few college campuses. Amazon started by selling books before branching out to every product you can imagine. Uber was a replacement for black cars and private limousines.

However niche the original businesses were, they ultimately solved a problem for a specific group of people and then used the traction to accelerate toward a broader vision. To build something big, they had to start small.

Segment and Learn

The adoption of new technologies isn’t uniform across a population, but there’s a ton of information about people who jump on board early. Every market has early adopters, and they play an important role in helping to guide a new technology’s development. Segmenting customers into early adopters and late adopters will help us understand how the market is evolving and how we should change with the market.

Veterinary clients are not uniform. The needs of a new pet owner who arrives with a 16-week-old puppy are different than those of a multipet household that has been coming to your clinic for five-plus years. Just like the medical needs of those patients isn’t one-dimensional, neither is the relationship you have with the owners. Identifying, inviting and engaging the needs of your different client segments is critical when you consider how to implement new solutions to grow your practice.

The point here is that finding a new solution isn’t enough. With a tsunami of new solutions available to veterinary practices, it can be daunting to know “what” to choose or how to distinguish between “winners” and “losers.” In a perfect world, we would love for all our staff and clients to be onboard with every proposed change. However, that isn’t possible. In fact, by setting that as the bar to give yourself and your team the confidence to move forward, not only will you likely move slower, but you are unlikely to get the degree of consent necessary to begin at all. The result is a practice that feels stuck. You know that you need to change or do something different, but a fear of failure and conflict in the practice limits your ability to move forward.

Veterinary practices are motivated to avoid conflict whenever possible, so knowing how to implement solutions becomes difficult. The startup mantra to “move fast and break things” doesn’t sit well with medical professionals. No one likes having clients complaining at the front desk or yelling at the staff over the phone. A consequence of “not wanting to rock the boat” manifests itself in a clinic not wanting to try new things because they might upset the status quo. Transitioning away from a 15% discount during pet dental month? Switching from phone calls to text message follow-ups? Pushing clients to book online? Regardless of the “what,” a certain degree of tension and anxiety will exist when you consider implementing or adjusting how you practice and how you support clients.

What if you had a way to solve the “what” and “how” problems? By leveraging your practice’s early adopter clients, you can reduce the risk of selecting a solution that doesn’t offer value and that might disrupt your relationship with team members or clients who aren’t yet fully persuaded.

Here are three ways to work with early adopters to ensure your practice doesn’t get stuck between not meeting the needs of your next generation of clients and not wanting to upset long-time clients who are happy with the way things are.

Choose Early Adopters

Certain characteristics of your client base will help you identify potential early adopters in your practice. For example, clients who frequently visit or have higher than average annual spending on veterinary care are likely to be more committed to your practice. Another approach is to list clients who participate in other initiatives, such as your online store. Reach out to the 100 to 200 clients with whom your practice has an active and engaged relationship.

Formalize the Relationship

Once you have identified potential early adopters, invite them to develop a deeper relationship with your practice, and establish what it entails. By setting expectations, you will ensure that you have a committed and engaged group.

Here is a way to frame an email or conversation with a potential early adopter, giving you permission to leverage the relationship toward future initiatives: “You are one of our most important clients. We wanted to reach out to you about joining our Paw Pack. Over the next year, we are going to introduce new ways to improve your experience as a client while we provide even better care to your pet. Click here to join our mailing list and stay on top of all that is new or existing at our clinic. You will receive early access to some of the programs we are going to provide.”

Here are a few important points about this tactic:

  • You create a sense of community and personalization, which includes a feeling of exclusivity and value. You don’t want people to feel like guinea pig testers of new ideas. As valued clients, you want to use their opinions and perspectives to shape the care their pets will receive.
  • You empower the client to say “Yes!” and opt in to participate. This way, you avoid pestering the wrong clients or making assumptions about who wants to be part of this select community. At this step, your original 100 to 200 potential early adopters will be narrowed to 10 to 25 clients interested in supporting your practice and trying new things.

Use Them to Grow Your Practice

Actually engaging and leveraging your group of early adopter clients is so important. Ideally, these individuals are actively contributing feedback, piloting new services and trying new products. However, the interaction works both ways. If you want high-quality participation, you first need to proactively inform early adopters what you are doing and nurture the relationship.

Here are a few tactics to engage this group of clients:

  • Send monthly newsletters and updates to create an ongoing touch point.
  • Create time during appointments to specifically discuss new projects under consideration.
  • Encourage participation by using in-clinic rewards or incentives that make these clients feel valued and heard.
  • Create a post-appointment survey to ensure you receive rich feedback after each interaction.

With an engaged group of clients, you can leverage their input on everything from new services and products to staff transitions and clinic expansion. Doing this can save you tremendous time, effort and resources and bring more clarity to your decision making.

For example, imagine you hire another veterinarian and want to quickly establish her as an important team member. At the same time, you want to learn how she is bonding with clients. You could encourage early adopter clients to book appointments with her and then ask them for feedback on their experiences.

Collaborating with your practice’s early adopters is only one component of developing a culture of experimentation. By narrowing your focus to meaningfully impact a small number of clients who are brought in to try something new — something that will benefit them or their pets — you will be in a much stronger position to ride the wave of innovation instead of being buried beneath it.

Innovation Station columnist Dr. Adam Little is a Vancouver, British Columbia-based veterinarian and co-founder of GoFetch Health. He is an associate professor of practice at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.