9 ways to keep clients coming back


Clients judge the quality and value your practice offers during the first three minutes of contact.

When we talk about client bonding, we're referring to the percent of clients that return within 18 months of their last visit. And this bonding rate is especially significant when you look at new clients. These first-time visitors represent the future of your practice, and the impression you make with them determines your ultimate success.

When I assess veterinary practices, I usually find the average bonding rate of new clients is around 60 percent. That means that for every 10 new clients, you can expect to retain six. The other four will choose a different practice.

Of course, you can't expect to be everything to everyone. It's really not even healthy to try. However, some practices achieve bonding rates of 80 percent and 90 percent. What are these practices doing to achieve these results? I've listed 9 strategies below. Perhaps some of these ideas could work for you.

1. Hone that first impression.

It may not seem fair, but clients judge the quality and value your practice offers during the first three minutes of contact—before you explain your high-quality personal care and the services included in a procedure. So if a client steps out of her car into a pile of feces, that experience could affect her compliance with your recommendations or response to the bill. And it's not a minor issue if your reception area is dingy or smells or if the magazines you make available include a 1988 National Geographic.

Have you "visited" your reception area or exam rooms lately? Do they accurately reflect the high level of care and service your practice team offers? Take a look at your practice through clients' eyes, and keep the three-minute-judgment syndrome in mind. You must be aware of the impression you're making if you want to improve your new-client bonding rate.

2. Give new clients a tour.

Giving client tours of your hospital is by far the most effective way to bond clients to your practice. Most clients have never seen past your exam room doors. And showing off your radiology department, surgery suite, and laboratory will leave them much more impressed with your practice. Tours also let you show off your team members' true care, concern, and professionalism.

I know one specialty hospital that has an average per client transaction of more than $1,500. Healthcare team members have told me that if they give a client a tour of the facility on the first visit, they almost never receive a complaint about fees—the clients understand the level of care and expertise the team offers. When team members don't give tours, they sometimes get complaints.

3. Understand your niche.

Every practice serves a specific client segment. One way to explain this concept is to look at hair stylists. My wife goes to a fancy hair salon where she gets her hair styled for $60. Now I don't have much hair, so I go to the nearby Cost Cutters and get a trim for $10. These businesses serve very different clientele. Can you be a fancy salon and charge Cost Cutters' rates? No. And you can't be a Cost Cutters and charge fancy hair salon rates. My wife wouldn't pay $60 if her hair looked like mine in the end. (She might sue). And I wouldn't expect to get a $10 trim at her hair salon. You need to understand and be true to your niche.

When a high-end practice offers low-cost spays and neuters or holds a rabies clinic once a month, what message do clients receive? Think of how this looks to a client; she spent $180 for an ovariohysterectomy last week, and today it would've cost her $95.

True, you can boost new-client numbers by offering a deal. But these price-conscious clients are coming for the cheap service. Once they discover that your practice isn't cheap, they'll go somewhere that is.

4. Emphasize great service.

I think every front office team prides itself on the high-quality of medicine and surgery the practice offers. And not many practice teams focus on service in the same way. But the service end of the equation is just as critical to the success of the practice.

Think about this: When you go to a restaurant, what most affects your decision to return, the food or the service? Most people say both affect their decision to return. But if the food was good and the service was truly terrible, would you return? Probably not. So your practice's "food" might be good, but what about your customer service?

My recommendation: Hold a monthly team meeting where you focus solely on customer service. At these meetings, discuss your team's customer service successes and failures. Of course, you don't want to bash people with past mistakes, but it's still important to discuss failures; that's how we learn what went wrong and how to prevent a recurrence.

Practices that want to take customer service to the next level also appoint one team member to be a client advocate or customer service representative. This staff member's primary job: to ensure that clients experience a positive, pleasant visit and to correct any service problems.

5. Meet and exceed expectations.

Most team members don't know how they exceed a client's expectations. But I can assure you, every practice does something that clients see as being above and beyond the call of duty. And your gesture doesn't have to be a big one. One example is offering to carry a client's food purchase to her car. Other examples are calling to check on pets, making clay pawprints of new puppies and kittens, giving new clients leashes or collars with your practice name on them, and providing toys for clients' children. You already do the big things—offering the best medical care and customer service you can—but it's the little things that clients remember.

Bring this topic up at your next team meeting, and ask your co-workers what they think they do to exceed clients' expectations. Then brainstorm more ways to wow your clients.

6. Establish a comfortable environment.

Little things mean a lot to your clients. Here are some easy examples:

  • background music in the waiting area

  • a children's play area

  • an entertainment center where clients can watch the news or catch up on their favorite sports team

  • a station with a coffee machine and maybe a small refrigerator filled with juice boxes or soft drinks.

I know of one practice that keeps a bread machine in the client convenience center. They treat clients to freshly baked bread, and the practice smells like a bakery when you walk in. What a treat!

A little effort goes a long way in making the client experience a positive one. And your clients really appreciate the attention.

7. Poll new clients.

Do you send a survey with your new-client thank-you cards? If not, how do you know whether you've met clients' expectations? It's important to keep a finger on the pulse of your practice. And a new-client questionnaire can be a valuable measuring stick in your information toolbox.

I suggest including a self-addressed, stamped return envelope, too, to boost your response. With this approach, you should get good and not-so-good responses straight from the pens of about half your new clients.

Recently, I purchased a new car. A week later, the salesman called to see whether I was satisfied with my purchase and asked if I had any questions. Just asking how your client is doing shows that you care. So shouldn't you at least check in with new clients to learn how they assessed their experience with your practice?

8. Refine your communication.

Most practices hold monthly meetings to keep communication open. But successful practices go further to bond clients. These practices not only focus on using clear communication at work, but also focus on effective communication during in-house seminars and by sending team members to continuing education meetings and events. Healthcare teams also role-play and address team members' verbal skills and body language.

If you're ready to really improve in this area, you could videotape outpatient visits, with everyone's knowledge, and play clips during team meetings to reinforce good communication behaviors and improve weak areas. You could take the same approach with phone calls—again, with everyone's knowledge.

Communication is critical to your success at giving pets the care they need. So it's worth the investment to refine your skills and develop a team that shines in this area.

9. Keep your team in the know.

Think about the last time you visited a business where the employees clearly knew what they were talking about. Instead of employees who begrudgingly answered your questions and seemed bored with their job and your problems, they were excited about the business and about helping you, right?

Do these businesses just hire the right people? No, they train them!

Yes, setting up training programs and seeing them through takes time. Yes, cross-training employees so everyone knows something about everyone else's job takes time. Yes, outside continuing education costs money and takes time. But there's probably nothing more impressive to clients than a knowledgeable healthcare team. So invest in your team, and watch your client-bonding rate grow.

Five more ways to build your bonds with clients

You can do a lot to maximize your connection with clients. Here are five critical steps:

1. Make follow-up calls and callbacks.

It should be a given to call and check on any surgical or medical case discharged from the hospital that same night or the following day. But you should also call clients after the veterinarian sees their pets as outpatients. For example, call clients with pets seen for skin, eye, or ear problems four to five days after they came in, even if a recheck is scheduled in seven to 10 days.

There's nothing more powerful than a call to bond a client. Every client you call tells six other people about it.

2. When possible, encourage clients to see the same staff members.

Clients like to see the same team members and veterinarians each time they visit, and they develop relationships with those people. To help bond the clients to the veterinarians, make sure to schedule the patient with the same veterinarian every time to offer the pet and the client continuity of communication.

Many practices mark medical records with colored dots indicating the veterinarian the patient last saw, or they make a notation in the computer or medical record. Armed with this information, the receptionist asks the client, "Would you like to schedule an appointment with Dr. Smith again?" Not only does this approach facilitate client bonding, it sends a positive message about your team's professionalism.

3. Stay on schedule.

Every time I work with a practice, we send out client questionnaires and call clients who've left the practice and ask why they left. Time and again, clients' top reason for leaving a veterinary hospital is wait time. So it's clearly important to keep appointments on time when possible. If you do get behind, let the client know as soon as possible, and offer to reschedule. If they choose to come in anyway, keep them appraised of your progress. These steps should help keep client relations positive and minimize your stress, too.

4. Start the bonding process with name recognition.

It really is important to embroider your name on your uniform or wear a name badge. Introduce yourself by name and shake the client's hand. Finally, end the visit by giving the client a business card so he or she can contact you with any other problems or questions.

5. Determine your bonding rate.

Client bonding is an important process. Determine how well you're doing in this area and what, if any, improvements you need to make. To figure your client retention rate, divide your number of new clients per year by your number of active clients (patients seen during the last 18 months). Then subtract that number from 100 to get your client-bonding rate. For example, if you have 2,000 active clients and 500 of those are new clients, then 1,500 clients have stuck with you. This makes your client retention rate 75 percent.

500÷2,000=25 percent

10025=75 percent bonding rate.

Here's the bottom line

The average practice retains six of every 10 new clients. But it's possible to retain 80 percent or more. Practices that hit this mark invest in training so staff members provide enthusiastic, knowledgeable help and find ways to make pet owners say, "wow."

Mark Opperman is a certified veterinary practice manager, Veterinary Economics' Hospital Management Editor, and owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo. Send your comments to: firstline@advanstar.com

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