Carry food to care for clients


A team-wide effort to recommend-and sell-a certain diet increases pet owners' compliance rates and improves your patients' health.

Pet owners are clearly learning about nutrition. Look at all those special diets in the pet-supply stores. But where are clients getting their information? Brian Conrad, practice manager at Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash., worries that it's not from you.

"In a puppy kindergarten class here, someone asked the teacher what food she fed her dogs," Conrad says. "Then the whole class went silent so they could hear." The people in the class were in a veterinary clinic, and still they didn't just ask the doctors or team members. Conrad brought in this particular trainer so the source was reliable. Unfortunately, other people might not be as knowledgeable, but they'll still be all too happy to tell your information-hungry clients which pet food to buy. It's time to get your practice in on this action and start making strong recommendations.

And if you're going to recommend food, why not sell it? Compliance will improve and your clients won't wind up confused by the array of brands at the local superstore. Remember, suggesting and offering what your practice deems the best diet is good for your patients and you. Meadow Hills, like any veterinary clinic, is still oriented toward services over products, Conrad says, but that doesn't mean clients aren't served by good products.

Conrad has drafted a plan for optimum client compliance, and the components are listed on the next page in his order of importance. So even if you can't make room for an all-encompassing food pantry (No. 4), your practice can still recommend a product line and ensure that every team member understands its benefits.

1. Single out a winner

Consistency throughout the practice is key, Conrad says. "Thirteen years ago, we offered four or five food lines," he says. "We were just confusing pet owners when they'd see different doctors and hear different food recommendations." Veterinarians should choose one pet food line for its prescription diets and a default food from that same line for healthy pets. This will cover most of the nutritional bases. If your practice offers various lines, gently explain to the owner that the choice only hurts clients. Veterinarians in multiple-doctor practices must agree on one brand. This allows team members to make a straightforward recommendation and send the message that clients only have one choice—the best.

2. Know your eats

The whole team plays a role in nutritional compliance. The front-desk team, for example, sees clients who come in only to buy pet food. A receptionist who has studied up can recommend a dental diet and schedule an oral-health appointment on the spot after chatting with that casual wellness-food purchaser who wonders out loud why his dog has bad breath. Conrad includes nutritional knowledge in team members' job descriptions. He expects each of them to know which indications call for special diets and why the doctors have chosen a specific product line.

3. Give clients something good to chew on

Meadow Hills team members provide clients with handouts that explain the reasoning behind the practice's nutritional recommendations. They also reinforce these recommendations by spelling them out on wellness-exam report cards, which they hand out at the end of every healthy-pet visit. This tells clients loudly and clearly that their pets' nutritional needs really matter.

4. Stock your practice pantry

If it's important for clients to buy a food for their pets' health, keep it on hand. This allows your practice to bring in extra profits (see "The Proof is in the Food"), and it helps clients cut an errand out of their busy days. To really help time-strapped pet owners, consider going the extra mile—literally. If Conrad's practice runs out of a specific food, he offers to deliver a bag to the client for free when the new shipment arrives. He says this costs the practice only about one trip a month for a veterinary assistant because most customers just smile when they hear the offer and come back themselves in a few days. "It's great marketing," he says. And it's great client service.

5. Freshen up your food

Know what you're selling and how much, and keep your retail area "fresh and organized," says Conrad. To help with this, he buys stickers at a few cents apiece with the clinic's logo and prints them in different colors for different months. That way he can tell at a glance which packages need to be sold first.

6. Start an after-meal conversation

Meadow Hills team members call clients four to seven days after making a food recommendation to check whether pets are tolerating the new diet and whether clients are satisfied. If a pet has indigestion, diarrhea, or vomiting, the team member immediately refers the case to a veterinarian.

Conrad admits there's a downside to emphasizing pet food sales: Sometimes stock winds up in his office. But he just looks at that food and thinks of the new equipment he'll be able to buy with the revenue, the health of the pets that will eat it, and the clients who will be greatly satisfied. After that, a few bags of pet food by his desk start to look pretty appetizing.

Brendan Howard is senior editor of Veterinary Economics magazine, Firstline's sister publication about the business of patient care. Please send questions and comments to

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