24 tips to endear clients to your veterinary practice


If you make clients want to come back, you won't have to worry about the veterinary practice down the road

Even the smallest act of kindness says, "I care," ... says, "You matter," ... says, "I thought of you." — Jenny Devries

All we hear about is the recession, declining client numbers, falling client visits, rising ACTs (average client transactions) pushing clients away and the emergence of frugal and savvy veterinary clients. Yet, some veterinary practices are thriving and are even seeing increased ASPPs (annual services per pet). How can this be?

For success—no matter the business—you need to give clients a reason to find you over and over again. A key to doing that is filling a void. So what is the void in your community?

With abbreviated text messages replacing face-to-face discussions or phone calls and our go-go-go society pushing us to get clients in and out of the exam room as quickly as possible, the void to fill might just be civility. Here are two dozen relatively simple niceties that keep clients coming back.

1 Answer the phone. Yes, have a real person answer it within three rings. Some businesses can function better with electronic phone systems, but veterinary clients want a human voice.

2 Make the facility smile. Let clients know what to expect before they get into the building. A tidy, clean and attractive building and grounds show pet owners that the folks inside the practice care.

3 Greet clients like guest in your own home—with a smile. Clients are guests, and we should treat them as such. Whether they are here for a routine issue or a life crisis, the visit goes much more smoothly when the first staff member they encounter asks, "How can I help you?"

4 Keep the wait to within 15 minutes. Clients are comfortable when attended to within 15 minute of their appointed time. In recent years, I have had the opportunity to work with, be a patient of, visit with or interact with a dentist, an orthopedic surgeon, the Mayo Clinic's transplant and orthopedic teams and a periodontist who consistently take their appointments at the appointment time or as much as 10 minutes early. I ask them how they do it—their response: It is hard work. Make the effort.

5 Offer fresh coffee. It is a little gesture to have fresh coffee, water, tea, hot chocolate, cookies and candies in the reception room. It is a little gesture that is greatly appreciated and makes a visit a bit nicer. An example of this is the airport car park that I frequent. The checkout is fully automated, and you get a fresh bottle of chilled water.

6 Tidy the restroom. The word on the street from those who inspect restaurants is that the bathroom is as tidy as the kitchen. Clients take note of these things. Your hospital is judged by your restroom.

7 Enter the exam room prepared. Take a moment to review the record, the patient's history and the reason the client is visiting before entering the exam room. Clients appreciate it when you know what is going on. Today's client with a dog with geriatric vestibular syndrome in the right ear appreciates your unprompted recall of the same issue in the dog's left ear two years ago.

8 Sit and listen. Body language is everything when it comes to drawing out client comments and concerns. When clients are relaxed, they are more likely to provide a tidbit of information that will give away the diagnosis. "Well, yes, she did get into the neighbor's garage recently," the client might say. A quick call later, you learn that the neighbor's box of rodent poison shows signs of having been tampered with. Make sure each room has a stool for the veterinarian to sit and face the also-sitting client.

9 Solve the presenting issue. It's not just coffee and cookies; you must also fix the problem. Get second opinions, check the latest textbooks, or post a question online. I personally have a three-visit rule. If by the third visit, the pet's issue isn't conquered or on its way to resolution, start over and convince yourself that things are on the right track.

10 Avoid the hard sell, and don't give guilt trips. Clients have their own moral compasses and personal values, and no two people face the same issues and problems. Give clients the facts, educate them on the issues at hand and then give them an opportunity to make their choices within their boundaries.

11 Give clients options. Some omnipotent veterinarians think they know best. You can find them in exam rooms and on veterinary blogs spouting off statements like "It's my way or the highway," or "I'm the veterinarian, so I know best." Hmm, I say. With diverging opinions in many areas, it really becomes the veterinarian's and his or her practice's responsibility to present clients options for care with the prognosis and cost attached to each.

12 Address money complaints. Remember that most money complaints come from the client's inability to understand the cost structure. Specifically, clients must be provided sufficient information to understand what is happening and what happened. Invite them to watch a surgery and an ultrasound—then they begin to understand the costs. Additionally, make sure your prices are based upon your variable cost to produce those services, so your prices reflect value.

13 Keep an ear to the ground. Keep an ear to the ground and an eye on the body language of all who enter your facility, including staff. Remember that all teasing contains a secret message and that most questions are, in reality, comments in hiding.

14 Give clients personalized, written home-care instructions. Just say no to generically produced templates. In your instructions, make sure the pet and family are identified and the issues are addressed in first person and specific to that pet. Keep the message simple and legible. Handwritten instructions can be nice.

15 Give them an N. It means the next appointment. When you go to the dentist, the orthopedic place or the Mayo Clinic, the receptionist schedules your next appointment before you leave. Do it for your clients, too. Make sure your appointment book is coded at least three months out to permit the next appointment. Schedule the next appointment when the invoice is printed, and give clients a handwritten appointment card, as well.

16 Give clients your e-mail address and cell phone number. It makes a great statement to the client when you say, "Call me at any time." or "I am very good about responding to e-mail." You expect them to trust you, so trust them with this access to you.

17 Say yes. We can't say yes to everything. But we can say it to many things.

18 Questions? Bob Levoy, an icon in marketing, told a story of a sign on the door of an exam room that said "ITATETYWLTAMT." It means: Is there anything else that you would like to ask me today? Try it, and be amazed at the outpouring of questions.

19 Keep the veterinary practice clean and odor free. Keeping the inside of a clinic clean, free of odors and uncluttered is not easy, but clients notice the effort.

20 Make euthanasia peaceful. It's one of the most important interactions you will have with your clients. And every clinic needs a quiet room.

21 Send a cookie bouquet. Keep track of the happenings in your neighborhood, and send clients who are getting married, grieving a loss or recovering in the hospital a cookie bouquet. Then watch for the smiles.

22 Show your appreciation. As a shy, young veterinarian, I found a nearly universal way to thank clients: chocolate. Each visit at Northwest Animal Clinic & Hospital ends with a chocolate candy for clients and kids and treats for pets. Silly yes, but for 50 cents, it puts smiles on faces.

23 Hand out gift certificates. Have a collection of $5, $25 and $100 dollar gift certificates to give to clients, staff members and whoever else might need a special thank you, a sorry-we-are-running-late treat or a gesture of kindness. Start by earmarking 1 percent of the clinic's annual gross for certificates (we budget 2 percent), and give them to staff members for use as they would like. Expect to see smiles.

24 Give free baths. Last but not least, send the pet home clean and free of that smell. For dogs that means a bath; for cats, it means preened. Yes, we could charge for this service, but most clients will decline it and then complain about the odor, so we just do it.

Dr. Riegger, dipl. ABVP, is chief medical officer at Northwest Animal Clinic Hospital and Specialty Practice. Contact him at (505) 898-0407, riegger@aol.com, or northwestanimalclinic.com.

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