5 methods to make and keep new clients

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Make sure clients choose your practice over the one down the street.

Most of us think we provide excellent service to our clients. We know we're at least better than the hospital down the street. How? Our clients vote with their feet and beat a path again and again to our door. And sometimes we get new clients—disgruntled pet owners who are unhappy with other nearby clinics. We start to feel pretty sure of ourselves.

But our confidence is shaken in these financial times. For the past couple of years, many of us have seen fewer of our active clients. When we have seen them, they've spent less than they used to. Plus client turnover rates have risen. If we used to lose 20 percent of clients each year, we've now started losing up to 35 percent. Revenue has fallen. If we haven't made plans to react to these changes, our fall from grace has been dramatic.

If this describes you, take heart. You can maintain your current business level, or better yet increase it, by gaining market share. Does this mean you take clients from other clinics? Yes! You can bet other veterinarians aren't sitting back and letting their practices decline.

To attract clients, you need to know what your practice does well and what you need to work on. You want happy clients who spread the good word about your practice and generate the best kind of marketing you can get—and the cheapest.

So how good is your customer service really? Here are five methods you can use to measure your practice client satisfaction on a regular basis. Along the way I've supplied some of my favorite client service tips.

1. FOCUS IN ON FOCUS GROUPS

A good way to gauge client satisfaction is to host a focus group with a small cross-section of your clientele. You'll gather your clients' honest feelings and impressions about their experiences at your clinic. Typically, the mix should include several top long-term clients, some typical annual or biannual clients, and some new clients.

In the past, I've hired a professional host to select and invite clients to the roundtable meeting. The host leads the discussion, usually without my team members or myself present. You want clients to speak freely about how they really feel about you and your team, which they might not do if you're in the room. You can hire a local management consultant to run a meeting for $250 to $1,000, depending on the moderator. Don't forget to budget for lunch or dinner.

2. SEEK SUCCESS IN SURVEYS

Surveying clients is much less involved and less costly than conducting focus groups. Whereas focus groups gather freeform responses from 10 to 12 participants once or twice a year, surveys are short, with just five to 10 questions, and you can conduct them much more frequently.

Surveys let clients provide feedback without a major time commitment. Clients also can remain anonymous. Consider asking clients to answer a short survey after each general visit. Offer separate surveys related to surgery, grooming, and boarding experiences. Clients can fill these out while at your practice or mail them back in pre-stamped envelopes. You can also send surveys via e-mail.

Surveys will uncover trends, for better or worse, in your client service. At my practices, we often discuss the responses at our team meetings.

3. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH SECRET SHOPPERS

Do your team members answer the phone promptly—within three rings or less? Are they friendly on the line? Do they get clients into the clinic during their time of need? Most practice owners assume they know the answers to these questions, but do they really? Secret shoppers help you understand just how well your team provides service over the phone. Find a service and start secret shoppers calling on a consistent schedule, once a week or once a month.

Another great way to learn about your clinic's customer service is through visits. In this case, a secret shopper visits your hospital with a pet and goes through an appointment. During the visit, no one in the office is aware that the shopper isn't a true client. The secret shopper then summarizes the visit based on observations.

To find qualified secret shoppers, my practices teamed up with other local clinics. Our staffs visit each other's hospitals and share results. Most recently, we asked a veterinary consultant to pose as the client. When she completed the visit, she shared her findings with the team.

4. USE EXIT INTERVIEWS

One good barometer of customer satisfaction is your client turnover rate. A common method—popular with management consultants—to measure this is to divide the number of new clients for the year by the number of active clients for the year. Therefore, if you had 1,000 active clients last year and 250 were new, your turnover rate was 25 percent. If your turnover rate is high—35 percent or more—ask yourself why you're losing so many clients.

One way to answer this question is to keep a departing client log. Any time clients ask to transfer or fax a patient's chart, a receptionist should ask why they're leaving and a doctor or manager should review the request and consider calling the client if the problem can be fixed.

Of course, you can't keep all departing clients, especially if they're moving out of the area. But recording an explanation in the log helps you detect negative trends in time to reverse them. If you're losing more clients than you gain, you're in trouble; existing clients spend more than new ones.

5. PUT YOUR RESULTS TO WORK

Once you've gathered all this client service data, it's time to start building on your clinic's strengths and attacking its weaknesses. Start by hosting a meeting with the entire team to talk about the results. Your people might feel defensive, so consider hiring an outside expert to explain the results. Try to motivate one of your vendors to sponsor the speaker, for either your practice alone or a group of practices in your area. While the results will likely show a lot of great customer service, there's always room for improvement. Let your team know the rewards of being the best: jobs, promotions, raises, and so on.

Next, plan a team brainstorming session and come up with things you can do to start "wowing" your clients, or as I like to say, "bow-wowing" your clients. Keep in mind that you won't find a single magic bullet to guarantee stability and growth. Better customer service comes from an overall commitment to keep the client happy.

Embrace this goal of continuous improvement. Being the best doesn't come easy, but you can have fun with it, enjoy happy clients, and be proud of the high-quality care you deliver. Being the best will help you keep the great clients you have—and find clients who are new to the neighborhood or tired of the care elsewhere.

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Jeff Rothstein, MBA, is president of Progressive Pet Animal Hospitals in Michigan.

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