Finding good clients


Your clients seek you out because your approach meets their needs.

I'VE WATCHED SUPER BOWL COMMERCIALS, glued to the TV screen, to see what new tactics businesses will use to woo clients to their wares. Companies spend millions on these creations to grab customers in 30 seconds or less. Equally remarkable is that with minimal advertising, Google established itself as a household word.

What these different strategies—and price tags—say to me is that there's more than one way to attract clients. That's good, because horse owners are a varied group. And so are equine veterinarians. The key is to match up the client with a veterinarian who meshes with his or her mindset.

Types of clients

For some, horse ownership is purely a business. They make their decisions based on the cost, benefit, and bottom line. "Will the cost of the treatment and likelihood of success provide a good return on my investment?" they ask.

More plentiful are hobbyhorse owners, who make decisions based on what's best for their animals, from regular vaccinations to an expensive colic surgery.

Trainers often fall somewhere between these poles. They want the healthy horse to stay in their barn; perform adequately; and be a positive asset, for example, by garnering ribbons for its owner or by being a potential lucrative sales prospect. But the question "What's best?" may not always be the first one they ask.

When a client seeks a veterinarian, he or she is looking for someone who responds to his or her needs and offers quality veterinary services. The location of the practice and the anticipated costs may not be as important as the client service and level of patient care.

Pulling clients in

The old "just hang out a shingle" marketing plan may still work for some mixed animal practitioners in small rural areas. But with fewer people living and working on farms and ranches, most equine veterinarians will need other ways to attract clients.

Advertising, which until about 25 years ago was considered taboo, is now mainstream. Some ways to introduce your practice to potential new clients: advertise in telephone directories and equine publications, sponsor community equine events, and maintain a practice Web site.

You could also speak at an exhibition or fair; or 4-H, FFA, or breeder association meetings. Such speaking engagements are an honor—and you can introduce yourself to potential clients.

If you're a specialist or have a professional area of expertise, you may not think of it this way, but your colleagues are also potential clients. Consider speaking at various seminars, local associations' meetings, or the AAEP convention. Public speaking gives you an excellent opportunity to communicate with your peers and establish your credibility as an expert.

Strategies to keep clients

Once you've attracted clients, you need to provide high-quality service that meets their needs. Some basics:

  • Be on time. When making a first call on a client, there's nothing more important than simply arriving on time for the scheduled appointment. This moment sets the tone for the entire visit. When you're on time, you denote the proper respect for your client and show that you value his or her time.

Of course, emergencies and traffic jams happen. But with today's rapid communication solutions, there's just no reason not to call the client when you're running late, explain the reason for the delay, and determine when and how to complete the appointment. Offer to reschedule if you need to.

Most horse owners understand that emergencies take precedence; after all, they'd want the same treatment if it were their horse. But they want to know ahead of time when possible.

  • Work on your beside manner. You don't have to be a communications expert to achieve good rapport. For starters, make sure you know the client's name and the horse's name, breed, and gender. If you don't, then ask. It's far better to ask than to guess and guess wrong.

  • Use the right tools. You need the time, tools, ambition, and talents to do the job that your clients ask—and pay—you to do. These tools help you provide a high level of service. And the wrong tools hurt your efforts. For example, a diagnostic tendon ultrasound with an older model rectal scan probe will seldom pass muster in today's technology-driven society. And a quick once-over dental float with some dull blades won't suffice for a horse with a wave mouth and large caudal hooks.

Now, it's easy to say, "Well, of course," when you see this advice on paper. It's sometimes another story to walk this talk in the field.

If you don't have the right tools in good condition and the necessary time to do the job, you must explain why not and offer your client an alternative. A referral is never a bad option, and it's often the best one when you're questioning your tools and knowledge.

  • Follow up. It's not easy, but without a doubt following up is the most important step when it comes to retaining clients. Call the client with test results the day that you get them—even if the results are normal. And call to see how the treatment you've recommended is working.

Dr. Andy Clark, MBA, CEO of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., challenges equine doctors to make sure their clients call only once per problem. After the initial call, he says, you should initiate the rest of the communication about the problem. This approach ensures you're being proactive about the patient's care.

If practitioners refer horses to you, you can also use your effective follow-up skills to communicate with those referring veterinarians. These doctors have indicated on surveys that they like to hear back every time there's a change in a case they sent to a hospital. You don't have to call about every sneeze, but discharging the horse or treating a turn for the worse deserves a phone call.

Understanding price

You're likely wondering why I haven't mentioned the bill. The reason: Most horse owners don't shop price as much as they seek skilled, experienced veterinarians who meet their needs.

Look at it this way: Would a client travel 60 miles to have you examine his or her horse because you're the least-expensive veterinarian in the area? No. But clients do value your expertise enough to travel. And they're willing to pay for it, as long as the price is fair and the results are as good or better than expected. Rarely will a satisfied client quibble over price.

If you receive referrals, the same is true; referring veterinarians don't send you clients because you'll offer a bargain fee. Costs are far down the list of reasons to refer.

Or course, this doesn't mean you shouldn't have open discussions with the client about expected tests, length of stay, possible complications, and estimated expenses. This way, there are no surprises.

Remember, relationships are built on trust, communication, and results. Your clients—and referring doctors—seek you out because your approach meets their needs. They stay with you because you provide a level of service that meets their needs. So all you really need to do to succeed is to continue to meet the needs of your clients and their horses.

Dr. Mark C. Rick is a senior associate veterinarian at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center Inc. in Los Olivos, Calif., which has more than 3,500 clients. Please send questions or comments to

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