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Extinguish negative veterinary practice reviews
Burned by scathing Internet comments? Posting a response may actually help you gain veterinary clients-if you take the right approach.
Remember the old days before cellphones, smartphones, or the Internet? We knew that if we made one person happy, she would tell three people. But if a single clientleft unhappy, she would tell 10. When consumers are angry with a service provider, they want to tell the world. And in today's age of instant communication, theycan—and do. The difference is that instead of complaining to their 10 friends, they'll complain to 100, 10,000, or more. That's why monitoring your onlinereputation is vital.
Every practice, no matter how good, is bound to get negative reviews. But how you handle those comments in a public forum can either fuel the feud or help youestablish an even stronger following.
THE NATURE OF THE BEAST
It`s all good: Positive feedback deserves a response tooMy few complaining clients never bothered me, mostly because I had many more happy, loyal, long-term "fans." Of course I would follow up with the complainers,listen to them, try to dissect the problem, and do my best to resolve the issue. Their complaints were often legitimate, usually the result of some breakdown in communication,and we could frequently make these criticisms constructive to improve us and our staff. The key, however, was that these interactions were typically one-on-one. Today, theseinteractions occur, more often, before an audience of thousands.
Unfortunately, there are few rules or regulations in place when it comes to free speech on the Internet. The concept of professional slander is nonexistent. Reviewwebsites are immune to legal ramifications, citing in their policies that printed reviews are the sole views of their contributors. Oh, sure, they may screen the reviews forvulgarity or viciousness, but they have no interest in screening for the truth. Basically, you're on your own. Unlike a journal article, where an author will be notified inwriting and given a fair opportunity to respond in print to challenging viewpoints, negative Internet reviews are sitting out there, unchallenged, for everyone to see.
CONSIDER THE SOURCE
So, who are these complainers? Many, believe it or not, seem to be professional complainers. You can see that they've contributed several reviews—mostlynegative. They probably feel it is their obligation to protect the world from terrible people like us.
A few years ago, I read one caustic review from a client I immediately recognized. She cited an experience when her dog was vaccinated during a boarding stay at ourhospital. Our boarding policy is clearly printed on the intake forms: "All pets need to be current on vaccinations." Because our records indicated that her dog wasoverdue on his vaccinations, and no updates were provided on his boarding form, my technicians updated the vaccines to comply with hospital policy. After reviewing her invoice,the client flipped out, claiming that she told our receptionist on the phone when she scheduled the appointment that she recently updated her pet's vaccines at a localvaccination clinic. Unfortunately, no notation was made. Of course, given the client's long-standing association with our hospital and our desire to make things right, weremoved the charge and advised her that these vaccines would not harm her pet. We also advanced the pet's vaccination schedule to reflect the latest vaccinations. Thissounds like a no-brainer, right? End of story? Not quite.
For starters, this event took place in 2005, but the review appeared in September 2010. What's more interesting is that this client has been back to thehospital many times during the past five years, as if nothing had happened. And even more upsetting is the fact that she's an attorney—a service provider just like weare.
When I called her to ask about the review, she told me she had an "obligation" to share that experience because she felt we provided the service withoutpermission "because we wanted to make more money." I guess our need to protect the health and safety of her pet—and all boarding pets—didn't resonatewith her. Nor did our decision to reverse all charges. She just wanted to complain.
Another negative review came from a non-client who came to our office to purchase a case of prescription diet. Her regular veterinarian, she explained, is fartheraway, so she wanted to come to a more convenient hospital to pick up the food. For me, this was a golden opportunity to attract a new client, but unfortunately, my receptionistexplained to the owner that since we didn't have a "doctor-patient" relationship, we couldn't sell her the food. Obviously, this client was not happy. And,boy, did she post her dissatisfaction for everyone to see. Trying to "make nice" and explain the method to our madness, I clicked on the icon under her review where Icould respond to her directly and in private (at the time I didn't think it was appropriate to share my comments publicly). I started by apologizing profusely for hernegative experience and explained that in order to sell any prescriptions, including diets, we really need to have that "doctor-patient" relationship. I did mention,however, that we could have contacted her hospital to get the doctor's OK, acting more like a pharmacy than her primary-care provider. Telling her how badly I felt, Ioffered a courtesy exam (since she mentioned we were more convenient) if she were ever in a bind or had an emergency and needed immediate attention. I thought this was a greatresponse—what more could I do? Well, it obviously wasn't impressive enough because she never responded to my note. Not even a "thanks, but no thanks."Again, another pet owner who wasn't looking for a resolution—just the opportunity to complain.
How should we handle these negative reviews? One thing's for sure—don't ignore them.
Use them to evaluate. At the very least, use the comments to review your service goals and practices. If you see a pattern, maybe these reviewers have identified areal problem:
- Are you considerably more expensive than your competition?
- Are your clients not appreciating the value of your services?
- Is your wait time too long?
- Do your receptionists need a refresher course in customer service?
- Should your estimates be more accurate?
- Should your technicians spend more time with clients at discharge, making sure they understand medications and post-care instructions?
- Are clients getting the impression that you don't care?
These are some of the more common comments that pop up in Internet reviews.
Answer the review. The Internet marketing mavens seem to agree that, when possible, you should respond to negative reviews. If you know the reviewer, you could callhim or her to resolve the issue at hand. If not, you can answer via the same website. Whether to respond directly to the client or publicly is up to you. In my experience, thecomplainer isn't going to care what you have to say and isn't looking for resolution. So I recommend going public. It's good for prospective clients to see yourside of the situation and, more important, to see how you handle client dissatisfaction. Anyone reading my response to the prescription diet episode may have thought, "Wow,what a nice guy—what more could he do?" I may even win over a new client because I handled the situation well.
Take the high road. When you prepare your response, be positive and respectful. Don't challenge the reviewer in a public forum. If there's a viableexplanation, share it. If your office screwed up, apologize. If there's a lesson to be learned, thank the reviewer and learn it.
Let the review stand. Experts don't recommend, at least initially, that you ask reviewers to remove or modify negative reviews. You don't want them tothink that your only reason for seeking resolution is to remove the negative comment. The client needs to know that your true motivation is to solve the problem and bringsatisfaction. If successful, and your positive relationship is re-established, ask the client to consider writing a new review.
If you feel strongly that the review is a clear misrepresentation or inaccuracy, you can contact the host site and dispute the comment. If you can prove that theinformation is false, the company may remove the post.
Remember that every business is vulnerable to negative reviews. But when you address complaints head-on in the spirit of delivering satisfaction, you can turn thesefew lemons into lemonade.
* This article was adapted from Dr. Werber's presentation at the 2011 CVC San Diego, "The New Rules of Marketing."
Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Jeff Werber owns Century Veterinary Group in Los Angeles. Please send your questions or comments email@example.com.