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Competing in a world of disruption

Independent practice owners who diversify their business model can better respond to the younger generation’s demand for different types of veterinary care.

Competing in a world of disruption
Change means catering to a client’s needs for convenience, immediacy, internet reliance, price sensitivity and less pet anxiety.

We’ve all witnessed the migration of consumers from traditional brick and mortar to online. In early 2019, CNBC reported that the total market share of online U.S. retail sales was higher than general merchandise sales for the first time in history. While veterinarians are unlikely to learn a magical way to perform online medical procedures, consumer demand is forcing a change in where pet owners obtain at least some veterinary care. The “W” word comes to mind. That’s right, Walmart.

Just five years ago, consumers seeking veterinary care at a retailer could take their pet to Tractor Supply Co. for preventive care or to PetSmart for Banfield’s full spectrum of services. A 2015 survey conducted by Trone Research and Consulting found pet owner demand for veterinary care from retailers that didn’t offer it, like membership warehouses such as Costco and mass merchandisers such as Walmart. While millennial pet owners were the primary drivers of this demand (31%), the desire was present among nearly a quarter of Generation Xers and baby boomers.

The cold reality is that independent brick-and-mortar clinics will continue to face greater competition, particularly as the older generation ages out of pet ownership and the younger generation drives a new normal.

While the private practice will remain the preferred provider, the new pet owner will drive demand for diversification. In fact, two out of 10 of your clients might already be seeking additional veterinary care outside of your practice. Furthermore, we’ve found that nearly one-third of millennial pet owners visit more than one place for veterinary care.

Where Are They Going?

In order to capture all kinds of care, such as vaccinations, wellness examinations and sick visits, we asked pet owners about where they went over the past three years. The younger generation sought out a wide range of locations:

  • Private practice (65%)
  • Chain clinics such as Banfield and VCA (24%)
  • Mobile/discount vaccine clinics (22%)
  • Specialty veterinary clinics (21%)
  • Shelter veterinary clinics (16%)
  • In-home veterinary care (15%)
  • Clinics in a retail outlet (11%)

A Time for Change

The good news for independent practice owners is that only 6% of all pet owners claim a clinic like those emerging in Walmart as their primary provider. On the other hand, the retailer is partnering with veterinary care providers to potentially open thousands of locations inside its stores over the next few years.

Now is the time for change. Traditional brick-and-mortar veterinary hospitals have an opportunity to implement a more diversified way of delivering services that will help meet the younger generation’s growing demands.

Change means catering to their needs for convenience, immediacy, internet reliance, price sensitivity and less pet anxiety. Appealing to the younger generation is more than a single solution, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming for the independent practitioner. Younger pet owners demand a variety of options to meet a variety of needs, which means diversifying your business model. It can be done in baby steps.

Here are five things you should consider offering:

1. Telemedicine as a triage service only

Pet owners search the internet for answers when they have a pet health question, but the trust they place in veterinarians is far greater. You can encourage them to act on that trust if you enable a 24-hour resource. Consumers are becoming accustomed to telemedicine for their health care and their family’s. It’s only natural that they will expect the same for their pets. You can start by partnering with existing providers to offer seamless triage service.

2. In-home care

A study of in-home veterinary care and a pet owner’s willingness to pay a premium price for it identified not only high interest but also a 20% jump in veterinary care among cats that had not received any. In-home care doesn’t have to be a full-time offering. Consider the demand for such a service in your clinic. Start by offering in-home wellness exams one day a month.

3. Different business hours

Pet owners want convenience, but it doesn’t have to be one-stop shopping. It can mean the hours your practice is open. Pick one day a week to provide convenient evening hours, such as staying open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.

4. Financial options.

Some price-sensitive clients seek care from channels they perceive to be more affordable, so make sure your clients are aware of payment plans and other financial resources. Many pet owners aren’t aware they can finance veterinary care through companies such as CareCredit. Consider educating clients online and in the clinic, either through brochures or proactive conversations.

5. Become Fear Free certified

Demonstrate your commitment to providing pets with the best experience possible. Not only does this create a more positive visit for patients, but also for their owners. If you don’t subscribe to the Fear Free model, make sure you share your philosophy so that clients are ensured a positive experience.

Be the Champion of Pet Health

Remember that competing with non-traditional sources of veterinary care doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you begin deepening your client relationships. One of the best ways to inspire loyalty among pet owners is by continually demonstrating the value you provide as their primary veterinarian.

You can do this:

  • Acknowledge the other sources of veterinary care as an important part of their pets’ well-being.
  • Coordinate with the other providers to make sure you are aware of everything that is happening with the pet, especially in regard to medications, vaccinations and specialty care.
  • Do not discourage pet owners from seeking alternative veterinary care providers.

Not surprisingly, we found that the most common reason for changing a primary veterinarian was because the client moved (23%). The next two most common reasons were to find a less expensive practice and because of a negative experience. Interestingly, these top three reasons for switching primary veterinarians are consistent across all age groups.

Here’s a breakdown of the top reasons that pet owners went to a new primary veterinarian:

  • Moved (23%)
  • Lower cost (18%)
  • Negative experience at previous clinic (15%)
  • More convenient (8%)
  • Previous veterinarian retired or practice has new owner (5%)
  • Sought better care (5%)
  • Sought better office hours (3%)
  • Other (23%)

Here, in their words, is a sampling of pet owners who explained why they switched:

  • “My dog was completely traumatized with vet visits to the point she had to be sedated. We found a new vet who took her time with her to make her comfortable.”
  • “I like the environment better. Less barking, less craziness that affects my dog.”
  • “I felt they only cared about the money.”
  • “Previous vet did not seem interested in us and our pet.”

Switching to reduce the cost of veterinary care — 18% in our survey — isn’t cause for alarm. It’s more often about how the expenses are positioned and the relationship that develops between the veterinarian and client as partners in the care of the pet. If the only time pet owners hear from you is when they need to pay for exams, procedures or products, what might emerge is the perception that you care only about the money. Help clients understand that you are acting in their pets’ best interest. Sometimes, all they might need is communication from your clinic that asks how their pet is doing and not tying it into any educational tidbits, products or services.

Finally, make sure you address any negative experiences. If a client’s trust in your clinic was somehow damaged, repairing the relationship is critical so that the pet owner doesn’t switch to a new primary practice. Personalized regular communication is critically important when rebuilding trust. Keep in mind that personalization must go beyond the pet’s name. Consider sending a simple email or text that you might get from a friend. Something like: “We just wanted to check in on Fido and make sure he’s doing well. We’re here if you need us.” No sales pitch. Just a simple note to show you care.

Once you add a new service offering, make sure clients are aware of the change. Awareness doesn’t happen with one simple communication. You need to remind pet owners of the things you are doing to accommodate their varied needs.

Diggo is a quarterly research brief powered by Trone Research and Consulting that provides actionable market insights for veterinarians seeking to better serve today’s pet owners. For more information, visit dig-go.com. Kimberly Ness is senior vice president of insights and marketing for Trone Research and Consulting. Dr. Kim Cameron is director of research.