Are You Delivering and Communicating Value?
According to the November 2009 issue of Money magazine, veterinarians were ranked fourth on the list of jobs likely to grow in 10 years in the United States, and pet ownership has increased 17% in the past 10 years. Thanks to recent national surveys, as well as materials made available by management experts and associations such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Animal Hospital Association, National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues, Veterinary Hospital Managers Association, and VetPartners, veterinary practices are much better informed than they have ever been on how to educate and charge their clients appropriately for services. Let's face it, high-quality care and excellent client service cost money. Americans are willing to spend money on their pets where they see value. According to the American Pet Products Association, it is estimated that US owners spent $45.4 billion in 2009 on their pets. The question is: Are they spending it on veterinary care? Are you communicating and delivering value to your clients so that they say "yes" to your recommendations?
Veterinary medicine dates back to the 17th century. The human–animal bond dates back to the beginning of time. However, in recent years, both have dramatically changed. Not too long ago, when pet owners went to their local veterinary practice, the routine wellness visit included vaccines and, possibly, a cursory physical examination. Today, the average companion animal practice offers its clients a myriad of services and products for their beloved pets. These often include a physical examination every 6 months, numerous vaccines based on the pet's lifestyle and age, multiple routine diagnostic tests, premium diet recommendations, oral health care, and preventive products for heartworms, fleas, and ticks. Pets also now receive advanced veterinary care such as root canals, DNA testing, dialysis, and chemotherapy. In the past, these services were only available in the human medical field.
It is amazing to see how the veterinary profession has changed its approach to educating pet owners about health care. But has the pendulum swung too far to the other side? Are we giving pet owners too much information? The endless list of recommendations given to pet owners during a clinic visit can seem overwhelming and costly. Has your team lost sight of the owner's perspective, especially in these difficult economic times?
Be proactive during our economic slump and fine-tune your team's client communication skills with these four steps:
- Step 1. Be Consistent.
Nothing is more frustrating for a consumer than confusing or contradictory information. Deliver consistent, concise messages to your clients by setting standards for communication in your practice (BOX 1). Team members should use these standards as guidelines to help clients understand why routine services are essential to improving the health of their pet. Having standards to follow teaches each staff member how to take personal responsibility for educating clients about the needs of their pets, enabling them to market services and products while gaining the owner's acceptance.
Internet resources can also be powerful client education tools, but only if the information they provide is accurate and trustworthy. For example, the Pet Portals offered by Vetstreet give pet owners access to veterinarian-reviewed client handouts and Care Guides. These short, easy-to-read materials can be recommended to your clients to reinforce the recommendations communicated by your staff during their pet's visit.
Start with your practice's routine services such as physical examinations, vaccine protocols, wellness testing, and parasite prevention. Once you have created standard recommendations for these services, train your team to communicate the value of your recommendations to clients. Unless they understand the value to their pets' health, your clients may believe that you and your team are promoting unnecessary services and products purely to generate revenue. However, it is important for all team members to remember that your standards are not meant to be a rigid policy and that clients should not be made to feel guilty if they do not or cannot comply.
- Step 2. Develop a Relationship.
Consumers define exceptional customer service as service that consistently exceeds their expectations. One way to achieve superior customer service is to get to know your clients. When doctors and staff focus their message only on the medical care and treatment of the pet and neglect to connect with their client emotionally, the client will be less likely to comply with their recommendations. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care." At All Pets Dental and Hometown Animal Hospital in Weston, Florida, the staff and doctors have set client service standards that make developing relationships with their clients a priority. For example, when a new client visits the hospital for the first time, doctors and support staff are trained to spend the first 2 minutes talking with the client about anything and everything, except the reason for the pet's visit. They ask the client questions about work, family, whether he or she is new to the area, and whether he or she has other pets. Their goal is to know their clients beyond just providing medical care to their pets.
The veterinary profession is one of the most trusted professions in our country. However, we live in a society where many people are concerned about being taken advantage of financially. Creating trust through good communication and developing an emotional connection with your clients is essential for improving client compliance. Jacquelyn Taylor, DVM, a communication coach for the FrankTM Veterinarian–Client Communication Initiative (a Pfizer Animal Health–sponsored workshop developed with the assistance of Jane Shaw, DVM, PhD, and Suzanne Kurtz, PhD) knows this well. She says,
The typical style veterinarians use when communicating with their clients is the "shotput" approach, which is one-sided communication: "I know best, and I will tell you what to do." The better style of communication is the "Frisbee" approach, which is back-and-forth communication that leads to shared decision making. When decisions are made within a collaborative partnership between the team and their clients, the process allows clients to feel involved with the issues.
Train your team to interpret each client's behavior style and body language, as well as the relationship they have with their pet. Teach them to ask your clients open-ended questions to better develop the "Frisbee" approach. Resources such as the Frank workshops can assist you in these teaching and training efforts.a Work with your doctors and team members to develop "relationship standards" for client communication, such as introducing themselves, shaking hands, and using the client's name during conversation, and empower them to find ways to meet their clients' needs.
- Step 3. Keep It Simple.
Although today's pet owners are more educated about their pets' needs, the average pet owner typically doesn't have the same knowledge base as veterinarians and their teams. As a result, it is easy to overwhelm owners with technical information during their visit to the veterinary clinic. Team members should be attentive to clients' body language and adjust their communication style if a client looks "lost" or uncomfortable. For example, I work with a practice that video records its team members while they educate clients in the examination rooms. This particular team has standards in place to educate clients regarding the medical care recommendations for their pets. In one video clip I watched, a nurse described a treatment care plan for oral health procedures for the client's cat. The client was an older woman, and her adult daughter accompanied her during the visit. The nurse was very knowledgeable and explained all 20 items on the treatment care plan in great detail. However, as the nurse explained all of the recommended services, I noticed that the client became fidgety and lost focus on what the nurse was saying. I could see her eyes starting to glaze over. The daughter seemed uncomfortable as well and began to pat her mother on the back. Not only did the nurse overwhelm the client with so much information, but the client seemed concerned about the costs and whether all the services were necessary. At the end of the visit, the client declined the treatment care plan.
To avoid information overload, tell your clients what they need to know in simple, understandable terms. Help your team develop short value statements about the services and products your practice routinely recommends. For example: box
In the case of the video clip described above, if the nurse had been more observant of the client's body language, she would have been able to shift her style of communication to short, simple value statements, such as in the script below. Then perhaps the client would have stayed engaged and complied with the plan.
Nurse: Mrs. Jones, Buffy's gums are red and inflamed. Clearly, she is uncomfortable and suffering pain. We want to help her feel happy again, and once we perform the oral health procedure, her pain will be eliminated. I would like to go over the plan and costs with you so we can get started on Buffy's procedure…
Client: Wow. $475 is a lot of money to spend on a dental cleaning.
Nurse: Yes, Mrs. Jones. We take dentistry seriously here at our hospital. Veterinary dentistry has advanced significantly, and now the procedures include full-mouth digital x-rays and advanced procedures to save and protect the teeth. Our overall goal is to help Buffy live a longer, healthier life through better oral health.
Our treatment care plan is extensive, and I want to explain it to you by breaking it down into four components: (1) preanesthetic testing, (2) the services we perform before the procedure, (3) the actual oral health procedure itself, and (4) the aftercare and what you can do at home.
The Internet can also help you avoid giving clients too much information all at once. Client handouts are excellent resources that owners can read at their own pace, and companies such as Lifelearn (www.lifelearn.com), Animal Care Technologies (www.4act.com), and Vetstreet (www.vetstreet.com) produce and maintain databases of reliable client education materials. E-mail is also an effective way to communicate with your clients, especially about seasonal concerns (e.g., ticks, mosquitoes, holiday hazards) or general topics, like oral health. Automated, personalized e-mail services exist to help you reach your clients without taking up valuable staff time.
Also, consider that most pet owners base their decisions on emotions. Owners' attitudes toward their pets range from "Just feed it, give it water, and it will be fine," to "My baby has a sniffle; I need to see the veterinarian now!" When communicating and delivering value, it's important to identify the emotional dynamics between the client and his or her pet.
- Step 4. Make It Personal.
Every client is different. Some clients want the "bottom-line" information, and others want to understand every detail related to the medical care being recommended. The goal for your team is to listen to your clients and understand how to deliver value to each one specifically. It's important to focus your training on explaining your services in layman's terms that are clear, concise, and consistent. Clients will see value when they see you care about them and the relationship they have with their pet.
- [Tracy Dowdy, CVPM, is the managing director of MRG Consulting, LLC, a Dallas, Texas-based consulting firm focused on assisting veterinary practices with growth, management, and profitability. For more information, visit www.mrgconsult.com. By Tracy Dowdy, CVPM]
- Best jobs in America. Job growth. Money 2009. Accessed April 2010 at money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/bestjobs/2009/jobgrowth/index.html.
- Most job growth. 4. Veterinarian. Money 2009. Accessed April 2010 at money.cnn.com/galleries/2009/moneymag/0910/gallery.bestjobs_jobgrowth.moneymag/4.html.