How to compete with spay-neuter clinics
Low-cost clinics provide the bare minimum. Start showing-and telling-your clients and community that your practice's high-quality veterinary care is the well-balanced meal pets need.
Spay and neuter clinics are cheap. They work on the principle of low cost and high volume—kind of like McDonald's. And what pet owners receive there is similar: just the basic burger, no tasty or satisfying extras. You can't compete with these low-cost clinics on fees. So what's your competitive edge? Sure, your medical care may be of a much higher quality, but clients probably don't understand the technical nuances well enough to base their decisions on these differences.
No, your job is to tantalize pet owners with hearty servings of stellar customer service and regular sides of client education. You need to show clients the superior quality of medicine you provide, which is the equivalent of a well-balanced meal for their pets. Here's how.
Service strategies: Good ideas
The first step in coping with low-cost competitors is to make sure your shopped fees are reasonable for your area. Shopped fees generally include vaccination prices and spay and neuter procedures. (The rest of your nonshopped, value-based fees can be calculated as a ratio of your exam fee. Visit dvm360.com/valuebasedfees for an interactive spreadsheet that helps you do this.)
You can also compare your fees to other local practices' by conducting a community survey. Ask your front-desk staff—and even your veterinary technicians and assistants—to call practices in your area that offer services and medical care comparable to yours. They'll call as potential clients and ask for the various fees for canine and feline vaccinations and spay and neuter procedures. Be sure to conduct this exercise anonymously; you don't want to violate antitrust laws (see "Keep your community survey kosher").
Legal issues: Keep your community survey kosher
After your team completes the calls, compare the information you've gathered side-by-side with your practice's fees. This simple activity gives you an idea of where you stand in the local veterinary market. Remember, it's not a problem for your fees to be the highest in your area as long as you provide value that justifies that price. If clients don't think the value they receive matches the price they pay, they'll leave. For more information on conducting community surveys and their benefits to your team members, see "Conduct a community survey".
One way to prove that the price you're charging is worth it is to focus first on your patients' and clients' needs. During every physical exam, explain what you're doing and why. Explain the benefits of diagnostic tests and dental procedures. Keep every interaction focused on the client and the pet. You might love your new digital radiography system, but Mrs. Ballor will see only dollar signs when you start talking about its capabilities. Instead, explain how your equipment will help you determine the cause of her beloved Frankie's back pain. Ensure that all communication—whether it's face to face, over the phone, or via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter—revolves around what you can do for your clients.
Client service: What I like about you
SEE THAT SILENCE IS OK
Offering clients value for their veterinary healthcare dollar means giving them complete information about the best care for their pet. But don't confuse them. Offering too many options in each case won't help clients find the perfect solution—it will cause them to spend less. (See "Offering veterinary medical 'choices' may hurt patients" for another opinion on this subject.) After all, the easiest thing for a person to do when he or she is confused is nothing. So explain why a treatment is the best course for the pet and leave it at that. Focus on that necessary care in your conversation with the client, and then give him or her time to think about it.
We often think silence is awkward in the exam room or over the phone, but thought is necessary to process information. If after thinking it over your client turns down the care you've described, offer a second recommendation. Repeat this process of recommendations and silence so the client can think over and ask questions about your plans for treatment.
LINGER ON YOUR LOOK
To create a perception of value that advertises your very real medical value, consider the attractiveness of your building. Make sure the landscape is well-maintained and the reception area is clean and comfortable. Ask team members and doctors to dress neatly and professionally. Create appropriate lighting and color in the hospital, and keep odors away as much as possible. All of these items contribute to your clients' impression of your practice, and impressions are deceptively important.
LET EMOTIONS WORK
To understand why smart people make illogical decisions, veterinary practice management consultant Karyn Gavzer of KG Marketing & Training looked at the emerging field of neuroeconomics. This discipline combines neuroscience, economics, and psychology to uncover the ways brains process emotion and how feelings affect our reason.
What we may intuitively know from our own experience is borne out by research: The connection between emotion and action in our brains is closer than the connection between rational thought and action. To arrive at a logical decision we have to consciously think through the situation, whereas feelings unconsciously move us to a decision. Given that emotions have such a powerful influence on the way people act, you must make sure clients' feelings toward your practice are good. That's where relationships come in.
A strong relationship draws people back to your practice even if your prices are slightly higher. Clients would have a difficult time grading you on your medicine, but they are experts on determining whether their relationship with you is good and you care about their pet. So, considering this, do you:
> Call clients and pets by name?
> Return phone calls promptly?
> Show that you value clients through your words and actions?
> Listen wholeheartedly to clients' concerns about their pets' health?
In the exam room, clients can tell if you're really listening and if you care based on your body language. Multitasking while a client is talking sends the message that you have more important things to do than listen to them. But eye contact, head nodding, and responses to questions show you're engaged.
You can further develop a relationship with clients by asking what they want and need. They're willing to be impressed and usually seeking appreciation, attention, and respect. For example, if they ask if you have hours before 8 a.m., take note. That's something they'd prefer. Of course, clients are usually more willing to tell you what's wrong—or what they love about you—if they can be guaranteed anonymity. Use third-party surveys from online companies like SurveyMonkey to stay on top of your shortcomings and your successes.
And don't forget that client experiences at your practice don't start or end with you: They start and end with your team members. Be sure your team knows how important they are to the client relationship that bonds pet owners to your practice. The fastest, cheapest, and best way to market your services is through great team members. Be sure to model the behavior you're seeking from your practice team, too.
KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON
OK, so you've checked that your shopped fees are reasonable for your area. You provide great value to your clients. They know you love them. Yet they still defect to low-cost clinics for vaccinations, spays, neuters, and anything else they can get for a few bucks off. How can you draw them back to your practice?
Continue to highlight the quality of care you provide and the benefit of having the pet's health record available in case of a bad reaction to anesthesia or a vaccine. If you offer on-call emergency services for clients, call attention to the benefit of having regular veterinarians available at a moment's notice. If clients still leave for cheaper prices, don't despair. They may return when they realize just how good they really had it at your practice.
You can compete with these low-cost clinics. Their competitive advantage may be low fees, but yours is your lip-smacking-good service and stick-to-your-ribs quality of care. The veterinary market is big enough for the both of you. If your shopped prices are reasonable, your fees are justified with a pleasant facility, friendly staff, a high quality of care, and client-focused service, and you and your team members have close relationships with clients, you're set. With value like that, your clients will choose deluxe over skimpy in the long run, and you'll enjoy satisfied clients, not to mention improved profit.
Denise Tumblin, CPA, is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and president of Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates in Columbus, Ohio. Helen Hoekstra is a financial and valuation analyst at Wutchiett Tumblin. Please send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org