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Keep costs affordable


Invaluable health care at a cost clients like.

Our clients' spending behaviors are changing. At our Battle Creek, Mich., practice, we've noticed that many pet owners are no longer buying a year's supply of heartworm and flea and tick preventives. Or when they do, they're coming back to return some product a day or two later. And they're putting off that dental cleaning or vaccination for just a little while longer.

Pam Weakley

But even though the economy is suffering—and our clients are looking for ways to save—our clinic's financial numbers have remained strong. Why? Because we've adapted to the changes our clients are making. Here's what we've done—and what you can do—to help keep veterinary care attainable during these difficult financial times.

Illustrate the worth

Lesson one is this: The main commodities veterinary team members sell are information and peace of mind. To do this well, client education is paramount in every single case. Pet owners need to understand what they're spending their money on and why the treatments and services are valuable to their pets. Take the time to explain this to clients. If your practice is seeing a slowdown, use the extra minutes to your advantage. Increase the length of your appointments so you're able to spend even more quality time with your clients.

Consider this example: A few years ago, we only recommended Bordetella vaccinations for show dogs, hunting dogs, and dogs that were regularly boarded. Then we started seeing more cases of kennel cough. So we changed our vaccine protocol to include Bordetella for every dog. When making this new recommendation, in the same breath we told clients about the increased incidence, noting that doggie day cares, dog parks, and pet stores that welcome our four-legged friends increase the chances their pets will be exposed.

It's important to approach every recommendation this way, regardless of whether your protocols have changed or the client you're talking to is new. It can be monotonous to tell the seventh client the same thing you told the first six, but explaining the reasons behind your practice's recommendations is essential. Doing so shows clients why they should part with their precious dollars: It's the best thing to do for their precious pets.

Also give every pet owner the opportunity to ask questions about your recommendations. Answer completely so they understand the treatment or service, as well as its value. Offer to give related handouts or brochures. Take-home information provides an added benefit: When clients get home, they'll be equipped to answer the question, "What did the doctor say?" Encourage pet owners to call if a family member wants to ask anything more about the pet's visit.

Parcel out products

As I mentioned, more of our clients are returning purchases. We accept returns, no questions asked. We're not worried about whether pet owners are returning a product because they made a mistake or decided they couldn't afford it. We just want to offer excellent client service.

One way to do this is to break up packages and sell one pill or tube at a time. (Be sure to follow EPA guidelines for relabeling and keep in mind that Internet pharmacies usually only sell 6- or 12-count packages, so clients will opt to buy from you because of your flexibility.) Then send stickers home so pet owners can put reminders on their calendars to come back later and buy more product. You could also call clients or send them e-mail or postcard reminders when it's time for them to restock. These strategies help clients stay compliant and help you offer top-notch client and patient care.

A few generic products are now available, and they provide clients another affordable option. While our practice doesn't advertise these products, we do stock them in case a client asks.

Eliminate sticker shock

Most quarrels or complaints about price occur because doctors and team members failed to adequately communicate with clients. For hospitalization cases, veterinarians and technicians need to prepare clients in advance by providing accurate estimates and keeping them informed of daily charges. To make this process successful, we place a notebook in each exam room that includes our fee schedule with separate sheets for vaccines, surgeries, lab tests, food, and more. We update these sheets every time there's a price increase.

Finally, every client whose pet will be hospitalized needs to schedule a discharge appointment with a doctor or technician. During this time, he or she will explain all the services—and charges—and home-care instructions.

When it comes to discussing routine prices, take veterinarians out of the mix. First of all, doctors often give away products and services. But most importantly, doctors should focus on diagnosing and performing surgeries. If they're bogged down in price negotiations, they can't do the jobs they're meant to.

Practices walk a fine line with routine-care estimates. A veterinary clinic is a business that must turn a profit, but the focus is keeping animals healthy. You must make sure clients can pay, but by talking price too much, you run the risk of giving clients the idea that your services are more about cost than value. Therefore, our practice doesn't offer routine estimates unless clients ask. Communication about the benefits of treatments and services is more vital than giving price quotes for regular items, such as vaccinations and products.

Offer payment options

The client is about to check out and you've just tallied the total bill. You're worried the client will get angry because the amount is high. Don't apologize when you tell clients the final total, but don't try to sweep anything under the rug. Take the time to go over each line item, if necessary, to be certain the client knows what each charge represents.

If pet owners worry about their ability to pay, explain your clinic's options: third-party payment plans and pet insurance to name two. We've found that many clients aren't aware of these choices. When they hear the possibilities, they're grateful for the chance to give their pets the appropriate care. Our clients especially love that third-party plans allow installment payments at much lower interest rates than regular credit cards.

Engage in early intervention

More clients are asking what their visits will cost when they call to make their appointments. We've created price lists for receptionists. The receptionists outline the costs of standard items, such as vaccinations, but emphasize that the veterinarian might recommend additional treatments or services depending on the outcome of the physical examination.

Further prepare clients by providing them with information when they arrive. This lets them consider the options and learn about services while they wait. For example, our practice offers two heartworm wellness packages. We created handouts with comprehensive details about what the packages include and cost. Receptionists suggest that every client picks up these sheets. Then, if clients have questions, they can ask the doctor when they're in the exam room.

Another way to encourage compliance and decrease financial worry is to mail seasonal brochures describing timely treatments and services. In the spring, send heartworm brochures that break down the benefits of prevention as well as prices of the products you carry. (For an example, click here.) This way, clients can figure out what they want—and can afford—before they even walk through your front door.

Our practice has seen a great return on these brochures. In fact, the sales representative for the product we use tells us we sell more than any other clinic in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. It's common for clients to come in holding the brochure with the items they want to purchase circled. They hand the brochure to the receptionist and say, "This is what I want."

Pets are priceless, and so is the care you offer. But both come with some financial costs. Money doesn't have to be the determining factor when it comes to pet health. Work to keep expenses from becoming an insurmountable obstacle by focusing on ways you can help pets—and their owners.

Pam Weakley is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and practice manager at Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic in Battle Creek, Mich. Please send questions and comments to firstline@advanstar.com

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