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Diminishing returns

A client bonding rate of 60% is nothing to celebrate. Use surveys, mystery shoppers, reminders and other tactics to get pet owners to come back to your clinic time after time.

Diminishing returns
The normal bonding rate for veterinary practices is around 60%, which means you will again see six out of 10 clients within 18 months.

When I present seminars, I talk about all the financial information that can be gleaned from practice management software, but do you know which benchmark I consider most important? Your practice’s bonding rate — the rate of return of clients within 18 months of their last visit. It’s your practice’s success rate.

You might know how many new clients come into your practice, but do you know how many come back? That’s your bonding rate. It tells you how happy your clients are. Did you provide them with an experience that was positive and not only met their expectations but exceeded them?

Aim for More Than 60%

Think about a restaurant that opens nearby. Many people visit initially because the restaurant is new and they want to check it out. But how many come back a second or third time? This response will determine the ultimate success or failure of the restaurant.

Most practice management software can calculate your bonding rate, but figuring it out yourself isn’t difficult. Again, you want to know the return rate of clients within 18 months of their previous visit.

The normal bonding rate for veterinary practices is around 60%, which means you will again see six out of 10 clients within 18 months. This is extremely low. (Practices located in tourist, military or college areas can bet their rate will be less than 60%.) While a rate of 100% won’t happen, I do have practices at 80% to 85%.

Many practices that think they are doing a good job satisfying their clients — I hope you are — are surprised to learn their bonding rate is less than 60%. If that is your reality, what can you do about it?

Survey Your Clients

Thinking you are doing a good job isn’t what matters. What matters is what your clients think. When was the last time you surveyed them to get feedback? It’s an easy process that most software systems can handle. Something called a “smart survey” can be sent electronically after a visit. Clients are asked a series of questions and, if someone responds positively, the client is asked if the feedback can be shared on your website or Facebook page. Negative responses are forwarded to you so that you can respond. I highly recommend these surveys.

The next consideration is who you survey and how often. You probably have visited businesses that inundate you with emails and questionnaires after every transaction to the point of total annoyance. Certainly, you want to avoid this type of client experience.

The most important people to survey are new clients because they need to decide whether they like you and will return. Established clients, on the other hand, already made that decision (unless you did something to upset them) and should be randomly questioned once a year or so, especially if they come in contact with a new veterinarian in the practice or new team members.

The Secret Shopper

Here’s an idea I love: telephone and in-person mystery shopping. Most practices should do it more frequently.

Telephone mystery shopping is easy, and I’ve done it many times as a consultant. Someone posing as a client uses a script, speaks with whoever answers the phone and writes a detailed report afterward. Many practices are surprised at how their team members responded to the phone calls — some receptionists were awesome and some the exact opposite. Shouldn’t you know how your team communicates with clients over the phone? If your state’s laws permit it, you can record the conversations and listen to them later.

In-person mystery shopping can be even more fun. To accomplish this, have a friend or relative enter the practice as a client would for a wellness visit. The shopper goes through the entire process, beginning with making the appointment, arriving, being in the exam room with the doctor and technician, observing the services performed on the pet, and then checking out with the receptionist. The mystery shopper fills out an evaluation form and presents it to the practice.

One of the best mystery shoppers would be an employee from another practice who has a critical eye for detail and knows what to look for. Many times I’ve gotten local practices to participate together and send an employee to the other’s clinic.

I invite anyone brave enough to implement mystery shopping to contact my office at www.vmc-inc.com to receive a copy of the evaluation form.

More Bonding Factors

Social media comments and online reviews can affect your bonding rate. You need to respond to all of them, both positive and negative, because people want to know that you are listening. If a number of negative reviews appear, you might need to research their validity and correct any problems.

Next, check your website. When was the last time you updated it? I can’t tell you how many websites I have seen that list doctors no longer employed at the clinic, contain old photos or discuss a past Christmas party in the August news bulletin.

Every website should offer a virtual tour of the practice, displaying the facility’s quality and excellence. Most clients never get past the exam room doors, so open the doors virtually and show off the rest of your amazing hospital and its services.

What about your reminder system? How effective is it? During the COVID-19 pandemic, many practices suspended reminders and clients put off preventive procedures. Now is the time to bring overdue pets up to date.

A practice should send three reminders to clients. I would send the first one two weeks before the pet is due. If the client does not respond, send a second reminder 30 days later. If the client still does not respond, send a final reminder 30 days after that. A 30-day interval between reminders is important because anything sooner might be perceived as harassment.

The reminder can be an email or a postcard, but the wording needs to change each time, and so does the postcard. The final reminder should state, “Because your pet is now considerably past due on its preventive procedures, we urge you to contact our practice and set up an appointment to bring your pet to a current status.”

No matter what type of reminder system you use or how often you send reminders, you should see 80% to 85% effectiveness when all is said and done.

Finally, what other marketing activities are you using to attract new clients? Every practice is going to have a certain number of clients who move, choose another veterinary practice or experience a pet’s death. You need a constant supply of new clients.

By visiting other animal-related businesses in your area, you can form relationships that greatly benefit both parties. One of my clients who offered boarding and day care visited all the local hotels, talked to the general managers, and left brochures and business cards. The practice’s boarding and day care grew by 39%!

Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc.