In the face of unprecedented competition, the veterinarian and his/her team must provide their patients and clients with the best scope of medical and surgical care and also a variety of services and products related to their pet’s wellness.
Most pet owners expect these services and products to be provided by the veterinarian. They wish to find all necessary advice at the veterinary practice, but also products and animal health services. It is therefore mandatory that veterinarians know, and try to match as closely as possible, their clients’ expectations. For some veterinarians these services and products are not considered to be ‘ethical’ or part of their responsibility. However, in the eyes of the owners, the veterinarian is the expert, so it is quite normal that he or she would fulfill these needs – the ‘animal doctor’ is expected to propose such services or products. However, it is well known that there is a potential cultural conflict. Many veterinarians will proclaim that they have not studied medicine and surgery to “sell dog food, or shampoos”. In such a case the barrier is the veterinarian, not the owner.
People’s expectations include what is assumed, desired, wished and hoped for. In the word ‘expected’, one can perceive the necessity and potential for dissatisfaction if this expectation is not, or no longer, fulfilled. In other words, clients may be initially impressed because a service was beyond their expectation. However, it then may become a need and is requested. This is the continuing challenge of trying to achieve excellence in client service by exceeding client expectations. A few years ago, when you called a veterinary clinic, or any consumer service oriented business, you received the typical welcome such as “Hello”. Today, a correct welcome would be along the lines of, “Welcome to the Samaritan Animal Hospital, Gail speaking, how can I help you?”, to the point that when we don’t receive such a type of personal greeting, one wonders if he or she did not dial the wrong number? There are several kinds of expectations. Those that are expressed by clients, so-called ‘explicit’ expectations, and those that are not expressed, so-called ‘implicit’ expectations.
It is quite important to know what our client’s implicit expectations are since, by definition, these will not be mentioned by people. A perfect example is the fact that people expect the personnel and staff in a veterinary clinic to have a ‘professional, medical look’ (white or medical types of clothes). If it is not the case, people may be surprised or even upset but they will not mention it - it is implicit for them. Veterinarians specifically need to have a good understanding of this category of expectations.
Some classic implicit expectations of clients include:
- Availability (no waiting, flexible hours, easy access and parking, sufficient stock etc.)
- Transparency (prices should be clearly marked, invoices should be itemised etc.)
- Choice (various products and services, ‘freedom of choice’ etc.)
- Environment (comfortable, neat, clean, odourless, friendly, modern etc.)
- Clarity of the offer (prices listed, estimations, badges etc.)
- Services (various services adapted to their needs as pet owners)
Clients cannot judge the level of medical and surgical care you give, but they can and do judge the level of service they receive. In the client’s eyes, this may be only major factor that distinguishes you and makes you unique from other practices. Therefore, striving for excellence in client services is essential.
Various surveys have shown that what clients were looking for in a veterinarian was by order of importance his or her: kindness, availability, capacity to listen and, only after all these, his or her competency! Why does competency only rank in fourth position? Simply because all veterinarians have the same diploma and therefore the same level of competency to treat pet’s common medical problems. Don’t we react the same way with our family doctors?
A survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2006 revealed what factors influenced people’s choice in selecting their veterinarian:
- - proximity (65%)
- - recommendation (42%)
- - prices (39%)
- - hours and availability (31%)
- - road signs (7%)
- - others…
What is quite remarkable in this study is the fact that proximity is the major factor, but recommendation has a very strong influence. I believe that, for this part of the world, ‘pricing’ is overestimated in this survey - it is an American study and in the US pricing and ‘tele-shopping’ is a much more sensitive issue and part of the American culture. One also notices the paramount importance of ‘recommendation’. This is our best (and only?) marketing tool. Everyone knows that there are good and bad recommendations. These are very powerful. It has been said that one dissatisfied client will talk to 10 people, while it takes five satisfied people to obtain one good recommendation! Measuring client satisfaction in a practice can help maintain a more stable, satisfied client base.
Satisfaction will often be a measure of client perception of quality. The highly satisfied client will feel they have received a high quality service, whereas the dissatisfied client will be disappointed by the quality of service. Client service is the ability to meet client requirements. Services are experienced and veterinarians, as service providers, have to manage the client’s experience as well as provide technical expertise.
The first law of services, proposed by David Maister, one of the world’s leading authorities on the management of professional service firms, summarises this concept:
- Satisfaction = Perception – Expectation
In other words, if the client perceives services as better than expected then satisfaction is high. We are all consumers at one time or another and this is indeed the way we also, as consumers, analyse the services that are provided to us. The aim of a veterinary team is that every client who comes to the practice goes away satisfied with the services they have received. This is the way the business should be built.
Another survey in France (STIV, 1994) has shown what clients’ expectations for pet services given by veterinarians are:
- - Health (74%)
- - Preventive medical care (63%)
- - Nutrition (60%)
- - Behaviour advice (44%)
- - Emergency services (30%)
- - Animal training (15%)
It is quite important to realise that people expect veterinarians to provide non-medical or surgical types of services. The veterinarian is expected to deal with the healthy pet and no longer solely with the diseased animal. Clients expect the veterinarian to advise them what is the best nutritional regime, the best food for their pet. This is again an important client expectation. As Geoff Little, of the UK’s Veterinary Practice Management Association, once said: “Any business that wants to succeed must be aware of its customer’s requirements. Failure to do so is a missed opportunity to satisfy client needs and to maximise profits.” Many practitioners are focused on the medical and technical issues. They do not realise that their services do not match necessarily what their clients expect and do not listen to them.
How to create a loyal client base
As US veterinarian Marty Becker states: “In the face of unprecedented competition, veterinarians and their team must fight back with better skills, increased attention to detail and a commitment to exceed client expectations”. Today veterinarians may still value their business by evaluating their client base. Loyal clients are those pet owners that, when they think of animal health, product, care, service and advice, think veterinarian and not any other place (pharmacist, drugstore, supermarket, pet-store, grooming, dog trainer etc.). There will always be people that will use other sources for certain services and products and this is normal. However, in our society, people’s time is so valuable that many customers are looking for a onestop purchase (no need to travel somewhere else to get the food or the flea product). Also, clients are often looking for specialised and customised services and high quality products, this is again the reason why they select premium products and services provided by a professional - their family veterinarian. This is the basis for establishing a loyal and faithful clientele. This clientele will use the practice service, not only for the sick and injured pet, but more so for the healthy one.
The Americans have even invented a new term for their dictionary: “wellness veterinarians”. In order to make loyal clients, veterinarians and their team need to do everything possible that is required for people to be happy and to come back as often as possible. This is more than meeting clients’ expectations - it is exceeding clients’ expectations. Marketing surveys have shown that a loyal client visits his or her veterinary practice about 2.8 times a year and spends about $140/year (E105), excluding pet food. Therefore, as it is rewarding and motivating to work with clients that follow your suggestions, there is indeed a direct economic impact, as well as an emotional one. I believe that this is an important reward in our busy days of labour - a form of work satisfaction. I like the following statement that came from one of my favorite artists, Walt Disney: “We will do what we do so well, that the people who see it will want to see it again and bring their friends”. Isn’t this an excellent way to summarise what veterinarians should achieve when it comes down to creating a loyal client base?
- Moreau, P (2010) Clients’ needs and expectations. Irish Veterinary Journal 60(5):
- Shepherd, AJ (2008) Results of the 2006 AVMA survey of companion animal ownership in US pet-owning households. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 232(5):695-696