Overcoming real, imagined obstacles to marketing your practice

Article

Dr. Linda Randall tackles the challenges practitioners face as they begin to market their practice. Overcoming personal doubts is the biggest obstacle for many veterinarians.

A long time resident of our semi-rural community once said to me: "I didn't know your hospital was even here or I would have come sooner."

What?

Our large and well-lit sign was in front of our hospital, we were in the telephone directory, we rewarded our clients for referrals. We had been in the same place for 11 years.

How could he not know?

The answer was simple. We didn't market. We practiced medicine. As a matter of fact we practiced excellent medicine. And we thought that was sufficient. It wasn't. And it isn't enough for you, either. Marketing is an essential facet of running a business but it is something we in the veterinary profession have been slow to embrace. Why?

Obstacles: Real or imagined?

You are your biggest obstacle to successful marketing. There are no obstacles to marketing your practice other than those in your mind.

Do you find yourself resisting the concept of marketing? Maybe you think it is unprofessional or unethical. Maybe you think of K-Mart's "Blue Light Specials" and are loathe to align yourself with that. Or, maybe you think of Nike's "Just do it" ads and worry you can't possibly acquire that level of sophistication. Besides, you're a veterinarian and you have a hard enough time keeping up with medicine, never mind marketing practices. And, you are just a small business, not a large corporation, and you don't have enough money for that kind of advertising, right? Think again, and ponder this: the same strategies and ideas that make Saturn, Merial or Dell so successful will also work well for you. All you need to do is scale them down.

So, let's look at some of the excuses we veterinarians use so we won't have to market our practices.

Not ethical

It wasn't very long ago that a display ad in the Yellow Pages was considered unethical for veterinarians. No one seemed able to explain why exactly, there was just something faintly wrong with it. It just wasn't done. Then, slowly, that began to change as small in-column ads appeared, then larger and more colorful display ads. Now the ads, usually tasteful and informative, are of a variety of sizes and hardly anyone thinks anything of it. Have our ethics changed or are we merely embracing a marketing tool to help the consumer differentiate our practice from a competitor?

Marketing, of course, is not inherently evil, nor does it have to speak to the lowest common denominator. Veterinary marketing, done in a professional manner, is progressive and informative.

It creates an impression of stability and skill. It identifies the practice by name, describes the services offered and tells the public where to find and how to contact you. It also provides a quick feel for the values you and your practice represent. It should also sell, which means it is distinctive enough to encourage action.

Billions of dollars are spent on the demographics and psychographics of consumer buying. Your job is to use the information gathered by others to your advantage. Spend some time learning what makes a marketing campaign successful and how to design a clear, consumer-friendly ad. Then use that information to design a marketing strategy that's right for you and your practice.

Lack of funds

It's not how much you spend, but how you spend it. Always make your marketing money count and never say it doesn't matter. It matters. How you spend your marketing dollar is an important decision, not one to be left to whim or chance.

Make advertising a part of your yearly budget. You don't have to make it a large part, but do be realistic. And as you spend, so shall you track. If you don't know what the return on your marketing dollars is, you won't know how to appropriately allocate your resources. Ask new clients how he or she first heard of you. Also, find out what made them choose your hospital over another. If you discover that 25 percent of your new clients heard about your practice from your Yellow Page ad, you might be more comfortable with that large check you write to the telephone company for a display ad each month. If you also find they chose you because your ad made them feel you were not only competent but compassionate you will be able to design your ads with more confidence. But if more of your new clients find you by searching the Internet, and choose you because you offer evening hours, perhaps you should shift a larger share of your marketing dollar to establishing a better web presence and to Web page design, emphasizing convenience. Each year you can redistribute your dollars to the area that brings you the most revenue and the most recognition.

Also on a yearly basis, consider trying at least one new marketing idea, or avenue you haven't explored. Remain flexible and seek continuous improvement and refinement in the use of your marketing dollars.

No time

Yes, developing a marketing strategy will take time, but probably not as much as you imagine.

First, draw up a rough marketing plan. This is much like a business plan. It outlines what you are presently doing, your future goals, and how you intend to attain these goals. You can be as general or as detailed as you want. The important point is that you have thought about your marketing and committed it to paper. You can now refer to this plan as you make each marketing decision, which will ultimately save you time. If a particular project doesn't conform to the goals, you have written out for yourself, don't do it!

Learn to delegate. You may have a team member who would love to take on this challenge. If you have a practice manager, you might consider sending him or her to a course on marketing. An office manager may make wonderful use of the information provided in a seminar on how to design brochures. If this is so, your job is to oversee his or her efforts. You will want to make sure that it is your vision that is being marketed, and that the message is consistent with your goals.

As stated before, make use of the many studies that have been done on marketing. Why do your own research if someone else has done it for you?

Proceed slowly. Every year choose one or two areas of your marketing strategy to improve.

Clearing the hurdles

Know the image you want to project. This is vitally important. You not only need to assess the values of your practice, but also the values of the client you wish to attract. Examine your current clientele. Are you happy with the people and pets your practice is attracting? If so, cater to their needs and market to their desires. If not, decide what segment of the population you do want, and begin marketing to them.

The focus of your marketing is where your clients' values intersect with yours. Don't vacillate from this. Force yourself to analyze every word and image of your marketing material to ensure that it projects your message. If your clients value service over price, why waste space advertising that you offer the first heartworm pill free? Instead, mention that you give puppies and kittens longer appointment times or that you provide housecalls.

It will take time to see the payoff from your efforts, but you will see results if you remain consistent.

Establish an identity

Your logo, stationary, and printed pieces all need to speak to your practice focus. A logo should place you firmly in your client's mind and follow your marketing strategy. Follow through by using your well-thought out logo on all of your marketing material. Make sure it works well in one color, four colors and black and white. It should also be able to be resized easily. There are many poor veterinary hospital logos and identities. Don't let yours be one of them.

Your internal clients

Don't forget your staff! They are your clients, too, and you also need to market to them. A leader provides a vision that the hospital team can follow.

Let your leadership shine by marketing yourself and your practice vision to the staff. If you insist on behaving one way with your clients and another with your staff, you will quickly undermine your overall marketing strategy.

A quick way to monitor your internal marketing is to list your top three practice strengths. Then determine how you communicate each of these to your team during your daily interactions.

For instance, let's say one of your strengths is recognizing your client's emotional needs when dealing with the illness of a pet. When you come out of an exam room after empathizing with an emotional client, do you give a big sigh, roll your eyes and observe: "He's insane! I hope he never comes back." Your client may feel you were wonderful, but your staff hears that you are insensitive and insincere.

Besides marketing to your team, make sure they are supportive of your efforts to market to the public. One excellent tactic to ensure that everyone is behind your proposed strategy is to have a meeting where you involve the entire staff in determining individual aspects of the campaign. Have them help formulate your plan. They will have excellent ideas, and often know more about your clients than you do.

Be creative

You don't have to spend a lot of time and money to succeed in marketing your practice. Remember you are really marketing yourself!

Community service is a fun and inexpensive way to place your name in front of a large group of interested people. One caveat: choose your community involvement wisely and well. It is easy to become overextended in this area. Do only the activities you believe in and that track with your practice values. Involve your hospital staff as much as you can. Offer inexpensive but memorable "give-aways" with your hospital name and number on them and always carry your business cards!

Dress the part. If you have a casual practice that attracts clients that appreciate a warm, down-to-earth ambiance, don't put on a tie to go to work. You can act and look professional in many ways these days. Take advantage of this and, within your comfort zone, dress and talk to appeal to your clients. If they like it when you get down on the floor with their dog, do it! If they prefer a more clean-cut, business-like atmosphere, then by all means, provide that. It doesn't cost anything to establish yourself within your community based on client comfort and preference for style. Add that to compassion, confidence and high-quality medicine and you have a winning combination.

Remember to look at your facility. Whether you do your own interior decorating or hire a professional, stay true to your marketing focus. For instance, some practices choose to have a stunning gallery of portraits of clients and their pets on the walls, perhaps showcasing a staff member's talent with photography, and thereby binding clients to the practice. Others choose country crafts with homey touches to make clients feel as if they are visiting a close family friend. And then some maintain a more clinical environment, with a sharp, clean, uncluttered look.

If you present a unified feel with your appearance, attitude, hospital ambiance, and identity pieces you are marketing successfully.

Perception is everything. Your current, internal and prospective clients need to perceive you offer what they need - and that is the crux of marketing. Take this job seriously, and strive for continuous improvement and refinement in your marketing strategy. Obstacles? They are often more imagined than real!

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