How to manage your equine client herd
Kyle Palmer, CVT
Long-time dvm360 magazine and Firstline contributor Kyle Palmer, CVT, is hospital manager for VCA Salem in Salem, Oregon, as well as a practice management consultant for a number of other hospitals.
Do you know which clients are your prize Thoroughbreds and which ones youre just happy to plug in when its convenient? Thats step one of a three-step process to work with clients who want to be seen right now.
These horses, err, veterinary clients may LOOK alike, but they're not. Some pay on time, don't demand to be seen, and take your medical recommendations. Take that into consideration when you're figuring out how much to twist your schedule around to accommodate a visit on THAT day and THAT time. We know it's common for horse owners to maintain a relationship with more than one veterinarian, and in many cases, they move quickly to Plan B when their preferred doctor is too busy to see them in 48 hours or less (or in a manner befitting the convenience that they expect on a desired day or time). Given that, are veterinarians left to simply accommodate clients' every wish or face the threat of losing the appointment?
Not necessarily. Here are three steps that I see equine docs take to keep their scheduling needs in mind while also improving client retention.
Step 1: Figure out who's really paying your bills
Most practice management software can easily spit out a list of your clients ranked by the amount of money they spend each year. Without question, there are other factors that make a client valuable, but this is a great place to start. Print the list, then take some time and add a ranking based on four other variables (to be clear, you provide the rankings, but let a staff member do the paperwork). Rank your top-grossing clients according to:
- >How often they get their horses ready for appointments, making your visits more efficient
- > Whether they're often demanding or unreasonable about the urgency in which they need seen
- > Their general willingness to accept your recommendations and take quality care of their animals
- > Your difficulties in the past collecting for services rendered.
Use this data to drill down to a list of your real top clients so you know who you'll squeeze into a busy schedule-even when it may cause another client some inconvenience. In other words, when Mrs. Smith (provided she scores high on the above list) calls with an urgent need and your schedule is full, make room for her, even if it means rescheduling a client who may not score as highly on the above rankings.
Clients like Mrs. Smith are the foundation on which your practice is built, and you can't afford to let them move onto Plan B. As you provide the best and most accessible care to her horses over time, you'll slowly develop more clients just like her. Letting your schedule get tipped upside down for clients who score poorly on your list poses a long-term danger to your practice, as “A” clients will eventually float off to parts unknown for other doctors to appreciate.
When you do have to reschedule another client, make it clear that you're attending to an emergency. If possible, make the story relatable by telling them what it is that's caused the emergency. Most of your clients will appreciate that you take emergent care seriously because they know you'll be there for them when the time comes. When you're running late, or unable to be reached, you should always be attending to an emergency – after all, aren't you? Telling a client that you're “full” or too busy to address their needs is another way of saying that they aren't important enough to you.
Step 2: Ask, “How long?”
An accurate history needs one very important question: How long has this condition been going on? And you're the judge of how important the answer is.
Most clients are in a hurry to communicate their observations, and in many cases they assume that a condition that's been occurring for longer is more severe. While that's certainly true if an animal hasn't eaten for days, it's not at all true for an animal with an occasional cough for the same period of time.
If you get clients to admit they've been aware of the condition for some time, you've taken away their power to insist that it's critical to be seen immediately. After all, if it's so important, why did they wait so long to call you? Fortunately, you don't usually need to actually say that-it's just human nature that, once they say it out loud to you, they probably won't feel like they can play the urgency card.
Step 3: Don't ignore your part in negotiations
You need to understand the two-person negotiation happening when someone calls for an appointment. Do you ask your clients for a time? Do you offer a time? Do both occur?
The first move should always be a question about what the client had in mind for a day and time. This shows that you start the exchange caring about what's important to them, and it's necessary to put yourself in a position to achieve your scheduling goals instead of theirs (in a perfect world, both are nice).
What drives a client's need for an appointment right now?
• Urgency of whatever condition exists. Urgency is subjective, so it's up to you to extract the information needed to accurately assess this.
• Client convenience. Especially in this day and age, clients will almost always try to fit you into their normal routine, not the other way around. It's good to be convenient, but you know your own schedule best and what you can manage in a busy day or week-and who you're willing to spend time juggling.
• Emotions. Many clients look at the fact that you squeeze them in as an indicator of how much they mean to you. So, go back to Step 1 above and remember which clients mean the most to you and adjust your schedule accordingly.
After you hear the client's “goal” for an appointment, it's your turn to offer two options that fit as close to their needs as possible. If you're offering appointment spots at a day or time that wasn't their choice, don't draw attention to that-simply let them know that you could schedule them at (fill-in-the-blank time) or at (fill-in-the-blank time). If neither of the two options work for them, select two new options and repeat the process. Continue until they accept one of your recommendations. They will.
Equine clients can be fickle, and successfully scheduling appointments without sending them to their Plan B is a critical skill. If managed correctly, they will schedule with you, even if it takes a bit of time to arrive at a day and time they're happy with. Most humans have a natural sense of guilt when they can't give the other party what they want. They also have a natural sense of guilt when they don't accept something that's been offered multiple times. As a result, it's vital that the scheduler (whether the doctor or a team member) ensures that he or she is playing the role of the “offerer” and the client is kept in the role of the “acceptor.” If those roles are reversed, you end up with an appointment that doesn't work for your busy day.
The more times a client declines whatever day and time has been offered, the more likely they become to eventually “settle” as your offers are evidence of your work to satisfy them. Conversely, if the client is the one doing the offering, your scheduler will become increasingly willing to “settle” for all of the same reasons. If you handle this exchange strategically, you should be able to schedule nonemergency clients out at least a few days, despite their initial request to be seen immediately.
Using the above steps-knowing who your best clients are, assessing urgency, and negotiating well-is a template to help with every scheduling conversation. Manage these requests properly, and you should be able to confidently schedule clients out several days without any risk that they'll move onto their second choice for care.
Kyle Palmer, CVT, is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a practice manager at Silver Creek Animal Clinic in Silverton, Ore.