Here's how to make extra services work in your favor while pleasing clients.
Your clients have probably told you more than you ever wanted to know about them. But have they ever told you what they really want when it comes to veterinary services? You might be a practice purist, insisting you only want to offer veterinary medicine. Or you might want to give clients the moon and stars but are unsure where to start. When it comes to offering such extras as boarding and grooming, extended hours, and online appointment requests, you can add value to your business (and set yourself apart from competitors) while making clients happy. Here are three ways to please clients—without losing your sanity.
What you want: To keep from adding one more task to your team's already maxed-out, never-ending to-do list.
What clients want: To request an appointment in their preferred communication format—at 2 a.m. if they like.
Seventy-seven percent of the U.S. population uses the Internet. It stands to reason, then, that a good portion of your veterinary clients are used to doing a fair amount of their business online. Have you considered offering online appointment requests to your clients?
About 5 percent of clients at Broad Ripple Animal Hospital request their appointments or prescription refills online. "It's only 5 percent, but it's really important for us to pay attention to how our clients want to communicate with us and offer that method for those who do," says Brenda Tassava, CVPM, director of operations at Broad Ripple Animal Hospital in Indianapolis, Ind.
Brenda Tassava, CVPM, CVJ, is the hospital administrator at Broad Ripple Animal Clinic and Wellness Center in Indianapolis.
Clients fill out an online form requesting an appointment, specifying the doctor they would like to see, the reason for the appointment, and two preferred appointment times. Within 24 hours, a staff member responds via e-mail with the confirmed appointment time. "Clients understand that they're not making their own appointment but merely requesting an appointment time," Tassava says. "We make it clear that they need to call us for emergencies, but if they can wait until the next day to be seen, we try our best to honor their preferred appointment time."
Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM, owner of KG Marketing and Training in Springboro, Ohio, agrees that online appointment and prescription refill requests are a great added service for clients. "This approach provides convenience clients want while allowing the veterinary team to stay in control of customizing the schedule as they see fit," Gavzer says. "Clients should never be allowed to make up the schedule themselves, but requesting appointments—and having a team member confirm the appointment with the right doctor and for the correct amount of time—is absolutely a good idea."
Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM, is a veterinary business consultant and internationally known writer and speaker based in Ohio.
The cost to add online appointment and refill requests is nominal. It may already be a feature of your practice management software. And both Tassava and Gavzer say it doesn't take any extra time to process online requests—in fact, it's even more efficient than telephone.
"Our receptionists really like the system and find it much more convenient because they can break away from the phone when the time is right for them and process the requests," Tassava says. "Also, they can copy and paste the information the client writes about the pet's condition straight into the patient record, which is much faster than typing up what the receptionist thinks the client said over the phone."
What you want: To practice high-quality medicine without running a hotel and salon.
What clients want: The peace of mind of knowing their pet is in safe hands while they're gone.
"Every square foot of your hospital, if not used for storage, needs to produce income," says Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Gary Glassman, CPA. "Boarding and grooming is a natural offshoot of veterinary medicine."
Gary Glassman, CPA, a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member, is partner with Burzenski & Co. in Connecticut.
Glassman says the comfort of knowing a pet is tended to by trained medical professionals is a big plus for boarding and grooming clients. And boarding and grooming professionals often identify medical issues while caring for the pet, which offers better medical care—and more revenue for the practice.
"From a financial standpoint, boarding makes great sense," says Glassman. "The most profitable veterinary practices I work with are those that offer significant boarding and grooming." Think about it this way: You already pay for the space, so you might as well use it. You'll pay wages and benefits for boarding staff, but the rest of the income goes straight to your bottom line.
With grooming, the numbers aren't quite so easy, but boarding and grooming do nicely go hand-in-hand, Glassman says. "No one wants to send a dog home from boarding without being bathed or groomed," he says. "And grooming as a service can lead to a boarding opportunity, as well as medical opportunities."
To make boarding and grooming work for you, you must market appropriately, Glassman says. Offer luxury boarding suites at premium rates, and you'll be surprised how quickly they book up. Always offer complimentary pre-board exams, and assign a technician to the boarding kennel each day to check for medical issues. Also consider doing a market demographic study before making any big investments in space to make sure there is a need for your services.
"A lot of veterinarians see boarding and grooming as a management headache, and just want to stick to practicing medicine," Glassman says. "But there are many great business opportunities in offering services that will benefit your clients as well. Find the right person to manage these services, and you'll reap great rewards for your practice and your patients."
What you want: To relax on evenings and weekends.
What clients want: To bring their pet in to your clinic when it works with their schedule.
What happens to the cases you miss out on after your doors are closed for the night? Those clients go to a local emergency service—or to a colleague who offers hours later than you do. Why not capture some of that business by keeping your practice doors open a couple of hours later, at least a few nights a week?
Leesburg Veterinary Hospital in Leesburg, Va., stays open till 8 p.m. during the week, which alleviates the hospital's busy Saturday schedule and captures clients who need appointments after they get off work in the evenings. "The demand is there, and it has worked really well for us for years," says practice manager Allison Tegler. "We are always booked up in the evenings, which brings in extra income for our practice."
Leesburg Veterinary Hospital also uses these later hours to alleviate the surgery pickup rush that's typical near closing time. They schedule clients to pick up patients a bit later in the evening, giving the practice more time to care for the pets and preventing a backlog during rush hour.
"It's important for practices to continue to look for ways to differentiate themselves, and extending business hours can be one of those ways," says Denise Tumblin, CPA, president and co-owner of Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates.
Denise Tumblin, CPA, a VE Editorial Advisory Board member, is president and owner of Wutch-iett Tumblin and Associates.
However, it's important not to add hours arbitrarily. First, talk to your reception staff and get a handle on what clients are asking for, Tumblin says. "But don't rely just on your reception staff, because they might not give you the whole story if they don't want to start working later," she says. "Also survey your clients, and ask them whether later hours would benefit them."
Checking out what hours other businesses in your community keep could also be a clue as to the hours you should offer. If most service businesses stay open till 7 p.m. and you close at 5 p.m., you're probably missing out on a lot of business. If you live in a community where most clients commute to work, evening hours are a must, Tumblin says.
"I work with a veterinary practice in Delaware that's had evening hours for years," she says. "The owner initially stayed open until 7 p.m., then went to 9, and now is open until 11 p.m. He was trying to capture some of the cases that were going to the emergency hospital and found that late hours are really popular with clients in his area."
Another bonus? You'll maximize your facility usage. "You're already paying for your facility, so the additional revenue will provide added coverage for your overhead costs," Tumblin says. "Greater revenue with the same (or similar) facility expenses means your building costs now represent a lower percentage of overall revenue." Your patients and clients will benefit from extended availability, and your practice benefits from stronger relationships and improved profitability.
To make extended hours work for you, Tumblin encourages you to market this change as much as possible. Post it on your marquee sign, have receptionists tell every client who calls, post it on a sign in your reception area, and print it on your receipts. Then, give the change at least six months, if not a year, to take hold before evaluating its success. "Whatever you do, commit to it fully," she says. "Don't tell staff members you'll give it a try and if it doesn't work, you'll switch back, because then they may not work hard to make it a success."
Now that you know what pet owners really want, find a compromise to make your veterinary clients—and yourself—happy.