5 ways to make your veterinary practice's door swing

October 1, 2011
Mark Opperman, BS, CVPM
Mark Opperman, BS, CVPM

Veterinary Economics

The slower economy may have offered an unplanned vacation for your front entrance. Use these tips to get clients back on your appointment schedule-and into your hospital.

Perhaps fewer clients are beating a path to your door. Maybe the schedule's a little less full or your bottom line looks a little anemic. Small comfort, maybe, but you're not the only one. Although many veterinary practice owners are getting better at boosting their per-client transaction, with the slower economy and increased competition, they're seeing fewer visits. An average full-time veterinarian should generate about 3,200 professional transactions a year, but many of you are struggling to do so. If that's the case for your clinic, it's time to put those door hinges to work. Here are five strategies for getting more clients into your clinic.

1. Re-energize your reminder system

Start by evaluating your reminder system. It should be 80 to 85 percent effective, meaning that after you complete the entire reminder system protocol, you've generated an 80 to 85 percent response rate. If your response is lower, ask yourself these questions. Are you sending out e-mail reminders? How many reminders are you sending out? How long do you wait between reminders? In many practices, e-mail reminders or text message reminders can increase reminder effectiveness by as much as 17 percent.

There's no perfect reminder system, and you'll need to customize your system to your practice. But in general, sending three reminders 30 days apart offers the best results. For example, you might mail a basic postcard for the first reminder, a tri-fold letter for the second, and a pet health reminder postcard for the final reminder. I recommend sending an e-mail along with each of these reminders. You may also consider outsourcing reminders so you know they're getting done—and your team can focus on other projects.

If you look at the number of clients who've visited your clinic in the last year who aren't receiving any reminders from your practice, you may be shocked. Your veterinary software can generate a report to identify these clients. They may have brought their pets in for skin, eye, or ear problems or some other medical condition, but because no one ever asked about vaccination history, parasite prevention, wellness exam schedule, or nutrition regimen, your team never entered reminders into the computer. You'll never see these patients again, unless they're ill or need medical attention. This is unacceptable from a preventive care point of view. It's also an enormous opportunity for your practice.

Next, look for pets with expired reminders. Maybe you vaccinated them or input reminder information in the computer, but those reminders expired. Print a report listing these patients and send their owners a purging letter or contact them to see if they'd like to bring their pets up to date on their preventive procedures (to download a sample letter, click here).

2. Launch a practice outreach program

Have you ever called the owner of a local business, such as a pet shop, pet grooming salon, doggy daycare, or training facility, and introduced yourself? Animal-related businesses often share the same clients. Think about how many new clients you might attract if you could develop a relationship with a local facility that referred people to your hospital. Of course, you must be careful that the business you reach out to has a good reputation and offers high-quality care and service. And if you offer boarding or grooming, you probably don't want to approach other boarding or grooming facilities. But how about cat clubs, ferret clubs, dog training facilities, or pet shops in your area? Once you make the call, you'll probably find a receptive voice on the other side.

I know an associate who visited a local pet store and invited the owner to lunch. After lunch, they toured the veterinary practice. Next, the practice held an educational meeting for the pet store employees on first aid for animals and signs of an animal in distress. Finally, they then gave pet store employees a VIP tour of the practice. Since that time, the hospital has seen a 70 percent increase in new clients. Most of these new clients are referrals from the pet store. When customers ask pet store employees which veterinarian they recommend, they can tell pet owners about their positive experience—for example, "I took a tour a few months ago and spoke to the doctors at ABC Animal Clinic. It's an awesome place!"

3. Offer a care to share card

Another technique I recommend is a "care to share" card. You give this card to current clients, normally at the time of invoicing. The card lists information about your practice and invites the client to share your hospital with someone else by passing the card on. The person who receives the card gets a gift when they visit, and the client who gave the card gets a gift or credit on his or her account. So, in essence, your clients become your marketing department.

These cards are available commercially or you can design and print your own. The trick is to choose the right incentive. Many practices use a financial reward, such as $20 off the client's first office visit or a complimentary exam. The referring client might receive a credit on his or her account or a credit voucher in the mail. While this may be effective, I don't like to use money as an incentive. It sends the wrong message to current and prospective clients. Instead, I prefer soft discounts, such as a complimentary day of boarding, a gift card for a local coffee shop or ice cream store, a complimentary grooming, or a pet I.D. tag. Just remember, the rewards must feel valuable so prospective clients and referring clients will make the effort.

4. Leverage social media

Does your practice have a Facebook page? Do you tweet on Twitter? Look at the demographics of your area. If you have a relatively young client base, you need to join the social media revolution. If you don't know how to get started, it's simple. Ask your employees. They're doing it all the time. You do need to know what you're doing on social networks and you need to monitor your practice's activity, but social media can be a very effective marketing tool. (To learn more about social media and how to use it effectively to promote your practice, see "At your service")

There are also many practices that still don't have a website—or their website is out of date and ineffective. What does your website look like? When was the last time you updated it? Is it interactive? Can clients find information about their pet and request appointments or prescription refills? I love sites that offer a virtual tour of the hospital with lots of pictures and links to useful resources. Remember, your website is the digital image of your practice. It needs to be high-quality, professional, and something you can be proud of.

So how about using Groupon, Social Living, or a similar Internet neighborhood coupon site to promote your practice? I know several practice owners who tried it and were blown away by the response. How it works: You design a coupon, which is really more like a gift certificate to your practice. Clients have a predetermined time frame in which to buy the coupon. They can then use it by a specific expiration date.

On the coupon, you might promote a service, such as a comprehensive physical exam, dentistry, or a spay or neuter. When the coupon holder submits the certificate to you, he or whe will receive a free service, such as a nail trim or microchip, or maybe a free product such as a bag of food or a retail item. I know of one practice that offered a free bath with any wellness visit. The response was so overwhelming they needed to carry it over for a longer period. Groupons normally come out in the morning and are usually available for purchase only for a specific time period. Since the cost is based on the response, if you don't get a response, it won't cost you anything. It's a whole new way of marketing that might help increase your door swings on slower days.

5. Offer a referral thank-you system

One of my favorite ways to increase door swings is the graduated referral thank-you program. Start by creating a list of rewards for each referral clients make. The rewards will grow in value as the client makes more referrals. For example, the first time clients refer a friend you might send a thank-you card with a small Starbucks gift card. For the second referral, you might send a coffee mug with your practice's name and logo or give a gift card to a local ice cream shop. The rewards continue to grow until the 10th referral, when the client becomes a preferred client. (For an example of a graduated referral program, see "Sample graduated referral thank-you system".)

These preferred clients are the 20 percent of clients who are responsible for 80 percent of your income, and you need to take very special care of them. Like a frequent flyer or an elite member of a hotel program, preferred clients receive special services throughout the year, including newsletters, special gifts, and a dinner in their honor. By the way, never publish this program. Instead, let clients be surprised by the gifts you send them. They'll start making referrals just to see what you'll do next.

If you're unhappy with your door swings, there are many solutions, even in a struggling economy. If you sit back and say, "Oh well, we're in a recession and this is to be expected," then you'll be hurt. If you choose to believe that you can be successful no matter what the economy, you'll find creative ways to market your practice, increase your door swings, and continue to grow.

Mark Opperman, CVPM, owns veterinary consulting firm VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. Please send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com.

Marketing tips

Sample graduated referral thank-you system

First referral A gift card for a cup of specialty coffee

Second referral A coffee mug with your practice's logo printed on it

Third referral $10 Baskin Robbins Ice Cream certificate

Fourth referral A gift bag of goodies for their pet

Fifth referral A complimentary weekend boarding pass

Sixth referral A bouquet sent to the client's place of business

Seventh referral A $40 gift certificate from your pet retail area

Eighth referral A gift certificate for a complimentary grooming

Ninth referral Dinner certificate for an elegant restaurant

Tenth referral The client is given a "preferred client" status and receives special services and promotions