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  • Fish Medicine
  • Diabetes
  • Livestock
  • Endocrinology

Footprints = profits


Don't despair at few new clients. Just follow the feet!

Let me share a few quick facts for your consideration. A mature veterinary prac­tice is expected to:

1. Bring in 25 to 30 new clients per month per full-time veterinarian.

2. Retain at least 60 percent of its client base from year to year, and

3. Add more clients than it loses.

If those statistics start you sobbing, don't ­despair—just follow the feet. The best way to generate new clients is still word-of-mouth. Here are proven strategies for bringing in new ­patients—and for keeping them.

Get referrals from your refer-ees

Do you refer clients to a groomer, boarding facility, obedience trainer, pet shop, or other animal-related business? Does that business then refer back to you? You can improve the frequency of those reciprocal referrals by strengthening your relationship with these pet care providers. It just takes a little schmoozing and educating. Here's how:

  • Invite the groomer to your hospital for a tour, introduce him or her to your employees, and show the groomer how wonderful your practice is.

  • Take the obedience trainer out to lunch.

  • Host an in-clinic seminar for employees of boarding, grooming, and pet supply businesses in the area (with those business owners' permission) about emergency situations, preventive medicine, or pet first aid (see tips on first aid education). These workers will walk away knowing you're the veterinary healthcare expert and they'll be more likely to send their customers your way the next time they ask, "What veterinarian do you recommend?"

In addition to hosting visitors, you or a practice manager could call on these businesses as well. Bring along hospital brochures and business cards so they can pass them along to prospective clients. Then sit back and watch your new client numbers soar.

Increase your thank-yous

You already know you need to thank clients for referring other pet owners to your practice. But put yourself in their place: Wouldn't it be boring to receive the same old form letter every time? It's time to take your referral program to the next level.

It's easy to do. First, come up with a graduated list of rewards. Here's an example:

This strategy is all about positive reinforcement for clients who prove they're good at getting people to your doorstep. But it won't work if you don't find out when these referrals are happening. On your new-client form, always ask, "Who may we thank for referring you to our office?" Or have a team member ask the question when she's entering new-client information into your clinic database during the first visit. However you approach it, don't let this question go unanswered. Everyone comes to your hospital for a reason—a recommendation from a client or pet service provider, your convenient location, or your eye-catching sign. You need to know why.

Note that the list of possible rewards on the left stops at nine. What do you do when a client makes 10 or more referrals to you? You make that person a "preferred client." It's your version of a frequent-flyer program. Invite preferred clients once a year to a client appreciation dinner, send them special newsletters, or hold an open house just for them. Let them know you appreciate them. They'll keep telling their friends, family—and even curious strangers—about their favorite veterinarian.

Invite clients to refer

Some clients will refer friends and family on their own. But others need a little prompting, and a "care to share" card can be the perfect nudge. Create a card that says something like, "Thank you for allowing us to be of service to you today. If you would like to tell someone else about our practice, please present this card to them." The new client could get a gift such as an ID tag, cardboard cat carrier, collar, or leash, and the referring client gets the next reward on your thank-you referral list. It's a win-win-win arrangement that brings you high-quality clients who will appreciate your practice's level of care and service.

Take the mystery out of practice

The best way to generate new clients is still word-of-mouth—referrals from clients and pet-service providers. But once you've tackled that, evaluate your practice's perception of value. Using a mystery shopper is an effective way to do this. Identify someone to experience the entire process of calling your practice, coming to the clinic, having an outpatient service performed on his or her pet, and being discharged. I like having a team member from another practice do this—just not a competitor next door. Who better to evaluate your approach to service than another veterinary employee?

Cling to your phone rings

One of the easiest ways to attract new clients is to convert phone shoppers into paying customers. After all, they already need your services—that's why they called.

To start, evaluate your receptionist's phone communication skills. There are a number of ways to do this, but my favorite approach is to hook up a voice-activated recorder and an automatic timer to your telephone lines. Make sure employees are aware that you're doing this, and then record an hour or two of conversation. No one will know when the machine is on. At the end of the week, play the tape at a team meeting. (If it's particularly poor, you'll want to play the tape one-on-one.) You might be amazed at what you hear—or don't hear. And amazed that team members begin to want to hear how they've improved with these tapes. Did the receptionist ask whether the client would like to make an appointment? Did she offer to mail a hospital brochure or a pamphlet describing the service the caller requested? If not, have your receptionist start asking those questions, and you'll start grabbing new clients almost immediately.

If you don't like the idea of recording, you can revisit the idea of having another veterinary employee call your practice or hire someone else through a mystery shopper service on the Web. This person will call your practice and inquire about an outpatient or surgical procedure that a receptionist would be familiar with. He or she will then evaluate the conversation and provide you with a report. Be sure to tell your employees you'll be doing this. You don't want them to think you're trying to catch them doing something wrong, but you do want to keep them on their toes and improve the quality of communication by grading employee phone skills.

"But wait," you may be thinking. "What's this about a brochure?" A number of veterinary consultants have seen that 70 percent or more of telephone shoppers turn into clients if the clinics send a brochure. Think about it. The pet owner has called three other hospitals. The fees are similar, but at the end of the conversation your receptionist says, "May I send you a brochure about our hospital and its services?" Not many other practices are doing this, so if you do, your practice will stand head and shoulders above the others. And the marketing doesn't have to stop with paper. You can also direct callers to your Web site or send them an e-mail with a link to your Web site. (Read the first in a three-part series on building a good practice Web site in the "Practice Management Q&A" section next month.)

If you excite your clients and local pet service providers about your practice, and make sure you're communicating and practicing medicine in a way that attracts clients, your days of hearing pins drop in the waiting room will be over. Just remember: It's not all about how many clients you bring in for the first time; it's about keeping those loyal hundreds—or thousands—coming back again and again.

Veterinary Economics Hospital Management Editor Mark Opperman, CVPM, owns VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm in Colorado. Send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com

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