Use these strategies to position your veterinary practice for healthy growth and the opportunity to serve more clients and help more pets.
Revenue growth has been nonexistent or in decline for many veterinary practices across the country, and Well-Managed Practices haven't been immune from this trend. However, they've done better than the norm.
Need proof? The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study showed that 51 percent of veterinary practices reported a net decrease in patient visits from 2009 to 2010. An August 2011 survey of companion animal practices sponsored by Elanco Animal Health found that respondents were evenly split on whether patient visits have increased, decreased, or remained the same over the past 12 months. From 2009 to 2010, 65 percent of Well-Managed Practices experienced a decline in patient visits. However, despite this decline, Well-Managed Practices saw nominal revenue growth this year.
Denise Tumblin, CPA
What's their secret? It's not razzle-dazzle flashiness or wild Hail Mary passes. Rather it's gritty, grind-it-out performance day after day. Basically, these practices pay attention to patients' routine healthcare necessities and find creative ways to keep care affordable for clients. You can do the same in your practice by following these four game-winning strategies.
Yes, it's easy to go on autopilot in the exam room—especially when this is the sixth time today you've explained the importance of heartworm and flea prevention or discussed why it's not a good idea to delay the dental prophylaxis any longer. These days, however, you simply can't afford to coast. Every time you're about to step into the exam room, take a moment to refocus your energy on this particular client and patient. Look at the chart and note a couple of unique characteristics about this pet and owner. Then mention them during the visit.
The bottom line is that you want your clients to receive care that's relevant to them, custom-built for their pet, and different from what they can get anywhere else. Rather than talking throughout the appointment, try pausing for a few minutes at appropriate moments so you can listen—truly listen—to what your clients are saying. Make the experience about them. Being strongly present with each client and each patient creates inspiration in pet owners. Inspiration creates magnetism. And magnetism gets your clients to "yes."
Every veterinary practice owner hopes for repeat customers—clients who know the doctors and team members, are educated about the needs of their pets, and are loyal to the practice. So position your practice as a satisfier of needs, a problem solver, and an outcome provider to keep clients coming back.
For example, imagine that Mrs. Cox's dog, Winnie, has gained 5 pounds since her last visit. You explain the health concerns the added weight has created, discuss an appropriate diet and exercise program for Winnie, and provide materials for Mrs. Cox to reference at home. A technician shows Mrs. Cox how to use your online store to place her food order, places the first order, then schedules a follow-up phone call in three days to ask how Winnie is adapting to the changes. The technician also schedules a one-month follow-up visit for a progress weight check. Penelope loses a pound at the checkup, and you've established yourself as a problem-solver by helping Mrs. Cox and Winnie achieve positive results.
Of course, the best opportunity to communicate with clients is during their semiannual or annual visit. But if you're experiencing delays or declines in these types of appointments, it's time to seek other opportunities to keep your practice front and center in clients' minds. The first place to look is your reminder program. Be diligent with reminders for necessary healthcare, but don't stop there. Look for other opportunities to communicate patients' needs. Here are some ideas for types of e-mail reminders that go beyond the norm:
√ Breed. You could send clients with miniature schnauzers an e-mail about the diseases and health conditions the breed is genetically predisposed to, like ear infections, dental disease, and cataracts. Remind them that regular checkups with their veterinarian will keep their schnauzers looking and feeling great.
√ Season. Consider sending educational reminders containing season-specific healthcare tips, like how to protect pets during hot or cold weather, allergy symptoms to watch for, or holiday tips related to pet care.
√ Age. Remind clients about the behaviors and symptoms to watch for as their pets age, such as weight loss or gain, lumps or moles, lethargy, aggression, coughing, or changes in appetite or water consumption.
√ Chronic conditions. Send reminders about necessary healthcare for pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney stones, liver disease, or thyroid problems. Describe your practice's annual testing schedules and treatment options to help educate clients on the conditions.
√ Specific diseases. Again, provide clients with symptoms to watch for and the plan your practice uses to treat certain diseases. The more clients understand these ailments, the less surprised and overwhelmed they'll be if their pets are diagnosed.
Also, be sure to communicate via social media and send thank-you notes, birthday cards, and sympathy cards—all of the things you do to maintain strong relationships.
If your promotional efforts have lagged or disappeared, it's time to revisit your marketing strategy. Well-Managed Practices list these tools as their top five most effective marketing and promotional resources:
1. Practice website
2. Client referral rewards program
3. Community outreach and and involvement
4. E-mail marketing
Are you taking full advantage of these resources in your veterinary practice? If not, and your appointment book has more openings than you'd prefer, take some of the downtime to strengthen your website (visit dvm360.com/websitehelp for tips), build a client referral rewards program, ramp up your practice's community involvement, collect e-mail addresses from all clients who have them, and take the plunge into social media (see dvm360.com/socialmedia for more on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites).
Above all, keep things simple and clear for your clients. Don't talk down to them, but discuss their pets' healthcare needs in terms they understand. For example, with a middle-aged pet you might say, "You know how when people turn 50, they need X? Well, Daisy would be about 50 in people years. To stay happy and healthy, she needs Y."
Airlines, hotels, grocery stores, pharmacies, and retail stores all offer loyalty cards. Perhaps it's time for your veterinary practice to jump on board. Your clients could accumulate points to use toward repeat visits, similar to airline rewards points, or receive special pricing on select services or products, like grocery store cards. Many people have at least one loyalty card and are familiar with the concept. (But because these cards are so prevalent, take a cue from other retailers and link the card account to the client's phone number. That way they don't have to stuff another card into their bursting wallets—unless they want to.)
They may not know it, but clients receive amazing benefits if they purchase medications like heartworm, flea, and tick products from you rather than a pet specialty store or Internet pharmacy. Your job is to educate them about these benefits. Emphasize your quality control for handling and storing drugs. Share information about manufacturer guarantees. Highlight the convenience of purchasing necessary medications during client visits or ordering from your practice's online home-delivery pharmacy.
Plus—and this is very important—be sure clients know that your products are comparably priced. Many national retailers claim that they're less expensive, but often it's simply not true. Clients, however, don't realize this unless you point it out.
The potential impact on revenue from lost product sales is significant, and many Well-Managed Practices are feeling the pinch. Forty-eight percent of Benchmarks 2011 participants report that their volume of medication dispensed dropped 5 percent or less in the last two years, while another 32 percent reported a decline of 6 percent to 10 percent (see "Slipping product revenue" on page 28 for a year-to-year comparison). Dr. Bob Beede, co-owner of Intermountain Animal Hospital in Meridian, Idaho, refuses to let that income go without a fight. "We must take action or lose market share," he says. "We could keep our heads in the sand until we have no product sales, or compete by offering our own online pharmacy. We've chosen to compete." Here are the steps he and his partner, Dr. Brett Bingham, have put into place:
1. Drs. Beede and Bingham presented a PowerPoint program to team members explaining why the practice has adopted an online pharmacy and how it works.
2. The doctors set up a separate WiFi network that allows clients to use the Internet in the hospital but also keeps the hospital network secure. "Many of our clients bring their computers and iPads with them, so it's easy for them to log on to order from our pharmacy or use the Internet for other purposes," Dr. Beede says.
3. The doctors set up a computer kiosk in the reception area so team members can train clients to use the practice's online system, as well as place an order for them before they leave the hospital.
4. Team members can show clients how to access a link from Intermountain Animal Hospital's website to the site of the practice's preferred insurance provider. If the client is interested, he or she can sign up at that time and receive special pricing from the insurance company.
"We tell our clients that, in this economy, we're trying to help them," Dr. Beede says. "We can sell the products online from our trusted sources at a lower cost, since we've eliminated our handling costs. The clients understand this and give us kudos for caring about them."
In an Elanco-sponsored survey of approximately 1,600 dog owners, four out of five owners purchased flea medication from only one place, and 36 percent purchased exclusively through their veterinary clinic. Building your own online pharmacy may help increase those numbers. Plus, the study found that dog owners who purchased their flea and tick medication through their veterinarian were likely to visit the practice more often in the preceding year than pet owners who purchased from warehouse retailers or online pharmacies. So encouraging clients to buy from you not only protects revenue from that sale but also bonds pet owners to your practice and may even help drive up visit rates.
Forget the flashy deep ball. Three yards and a cloud of dust is much more likely to be the play that kick-starts your practice. Develop your game plan around prevention and wellness services, then start celebrating your victories. Feel free to skip the Gatorade bath.
Denise Tumblin, CPA, is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and owner of Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates in Columbus, Ohio. Post comments at dvm360.com/comment.