Are your pet owners straying to another veterinary practice?


You drove the lonely streets, wondering where they went. You watched for their cat or dog, their appreciative smile, their punctual friendliness. Don't give up. Don't just let your missing clients go-find out where they went, why they left, and maybe, just maybe, get them back.

One of the most difficult yet valuable assignments my business coach ever gave me was the task of calling a long list of clients that were in our inactive files. My job wasn't to try to talk them into coming back, but to find out why they'd left in the first place. I tried to pass the work along to Donna, my receptionist, but my coach wouldn't hear of it.

"It will mean a lot more to these people if the call comes from you," Judy said. "Besides, you really need to hear what these people have to say." So I started to make calls—at least five every day, no matter what. At first, most people I reached gave me only vague niceties. After all, my practice was in the heart of the South where everyone knows how to be nice. But after telling my coach how little I learned that first week, she shook her head. "You need to get underneath all that nice Southern talk and dig out the truth—the real reasons they left."

Back into the breach I went. Sure enough, when I spent a little more time with clients and let them know that I really wanted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they delivered. Boy, did they deliver. Consider some of the comments they offered:

  • "I'd been coming to you for the past four years, but last time I visited you didn't know my name or my pets. It made me feel like you really didn't care."

  • "On my last visit to your clinic, it smelled bad. I was afraid you weren't keeping the hospital clean."

  • "On the phone I was told that the charges would only be $15 to $20. But when I picked up Elmo, the bill was $75. I was shocked."

I guess it's true what they say, "The truth will set you free." But first it will irritate the hell out of you. It was tough listening to those calls without defending myself or making excuses, but the information I gleaned was invaluable in turning a lackluster practice around. Using those nuggets of truth my team members and I went on a search-and-rescue effort to discover what drove clients away—and, if possible, bring them back.

Ask your clients why they're straying

"Clients are the life blood of your practice," says Dr. Tim Banker, owner of Sedgefield Pet Care Center in Greensboro, N.C. "Without them you have no patients. Yet too often we focus on gaining new clients, when it's even more important to pay attention to whether you're losing clients and if so, why."

Retaining clients is vital to the health of the practice where you work. If the number of clients a practice serves declines, so too will raises decline, for it is the revenue from clients that allows for these increases. The opportunity for continuing education will also decline. If the drop is too drastic, it will be necessary to reduce staff hours as well. For these reasons, it's important to find out the real reasons clients leave your practice. It's also important to develop strategies for persuading them to return to give you another try.

One key sign that a practice is hemorrhaging is when clients call to request you to transfer their records. If the new clinic's address is a distance away, it's a safe bet clients are simply moving. But if it's to a clinic in your area, it's time to investigate a little further. As Dr. Banker points out, whoever takes these types of calls needs to gently search below the nice standard answers that clients often give to find out the real reason the client has chosen another practice. The conversation might go something like this: "Ms. Reynolds, we're sure going to miss seeing you and Lera. Could I ask you the reason that you're planning to go elsewhere?"

"Well, it's nothing really. It's just that Dr. Watson's clinic is a little closer to where I work."

"I understand convenience is an important factor. Could I ask you to take a moment to see if there's anything that we did or didn't do that in any way detracted from your receiving the very best care? We realize that sometimes, despite our best efforts, we make mistakes. And if we did so with you, we'd appreciate knowing about it so we can be sure to correct it in the future. I promise your honest comments will be well-received, no matter how large or small the matter."

Once a client begins talking about the problem, your next step is to listen intently. Do not defend, justify, or try to explain away the problem. In fact, do just the opposite. Gently probe with comments like, "I understand, Ms. Reynolds. Has anything else ever happened, either on the visit you just mentioned or at any other time, that was less than a positive experience for you or your pet?"

Another crucial time to find out who's planning on not returning to the practice is while doing follow-up calls of those clients who haven't responded to your reminder system cards and letters. Here again, it's important that the person making the call is able to get below the surface to the real reasons by creating a sense of safety and trust during the call.

A little preventive care can go a long way in heading clients off at the pass before they've actually decided to leave. Dr. Banker recommends using client surveys sent out randomly to both new and existing clients. Then follow up on any returned survey that returns with a less-than-positive report with a quick phone call, thanking clients for their honesty and assuring them that you will take the necessary steps to correct the problem.

What we've got here is a failure to communicate

Clients almost always leave because of some communication issue between them and a veterinarian or team member. Of course, communication problems can take many different forms, such as:

  • A clash with a doctor or team member in which clients left feeling as though either they or their pets weren't cared for properly.

  • A surprise over fees. Perhaps the invoice was more than the estimate, or clients received no estimate, so they weren't prepared for the fees. Invariably, the fee is higher than clients' expectations.

  • When doctors or team members exhibit an Ivory Tower attitude. Condescension can drive clients to the exit in droves.

  • When you return the pet dirty, poorly groomed, or acting differently. Once again, you've failed to meet the client's expectations.

Bring lost clients home

While it may be true that you can't please all the people all the time, most practices can benefit from some lessons to reduce the flow of clients to other hospitals. It's all a matter of communication. Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Truly care about your clients, and don't be afraid to show it. Take the time to get to know them, including—and maybe especially—those clients who frustrate you. Make a game of identifying at least one good thing about these clients on each visit—for example, how much they really love their pet or their attention to detail when it comes to their pet's care.

  • Listen—no, really! As the saying goes, "God gave us two ears and one mouth, and most of us haven't gotten the hint." Listening will help you identify what your clients want and expect so you can provide it.

  • Show compassion. "You cannot answer the phone with an ugly manner if you're smiling," Dr. Banker says. As the saying goes, "Clients really don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

  • Ask questions. If you notice a client leaving upset or becoming hesitant to speak, don't be afraid to ask, "Is something wrong? You seem upset ..." Giving clients an opportunity to simply express their upset can often head off a grudge before it gets started.

  • Seek feedback. Constantly let your clients know that you're always looking for their feedback about what's working—and what's not.

And when they offer feedback, listen and thank them for it. Never get defensive. Taking these kinds of actions will help assure pet owners feel connected to your practice today and for years to come.

Dr. Brad Swift is founder of the Life on Purpose Institute and helps professionals through writing, speaking, and coaching. Share your thoughts at

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