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Prosperity hinges on the veterinary client experience
With a growing number of veterinary provider options, sustaining relationships is more important than ever for retaining clients.
The concept that the consumer experience is as important as the product or service provided is becoming a front-and-center reality in healthcare. More and more consumers are seeking their own information about health issues and looking for alternatives to traditional delivery models. The emphasis on preventive healthcare spans the scope of medicine. As a profession we've received the same opportunity to prioritize client experience but we've been slow to accept the invitation. It is vital for us to realize that while we all want to provide for the well-being and health of our patients, until we can teach them to make an appointment and drive to our practice, the pet-owning consumer is the gatekeeper and the decision-maker for veterinary care. They vote with their feet every time they come to us or, more increasingly, every time they choose to explore other options.
In my January 2014 dvm360 column, we discussed the reality that while obtaining new clients is important, retaining existing clients is critical. We may choose to believe that the care we provide is what seals the deal with clients, but it's really the client experience that increases retention and compels adherence to the care we advocate for.
A recent Notebook inclusion in the American Animal Hospital Association's Trends (February 2014) focused on "4 steps to creating lifelong loyal clients." As veterinarians we tend to stress the quality of our medical services; consumers assume we are providing excellent patient care and instead focus on how they feel and their interactions with staff. The article stresses the importance of cultivating relationship development, emphasizing follow up with clients and resolution of client issues, hiring for client service skills and demonstrating client appreciation through periodic communications.
Nothing new to the marketplace
An investment newsletter I subscribe to recently pointed out that it has been nearly a decade since the publication of the human healthcare report by William Blair and Company, "On the Brink of a Consumer Revolution in Health Care," which discussed the role of the consumer in his or her own personal healthcare. And while our profession tends to see the Internet flood of information and the growing number of provider options as having a negative influence on practices, this report instead saw their disruption as a solution, particularly to the impact of the "unsustainably high cost of care."
Even ten years ago, we had the perspective that increasing competition will ultimately lead to greater efficiency, lower cost and more options for consumers.
Increasingly the emphasis will be on preventive care, cost containment for consumers and greater value in general. The report predicted a decreased emphasis on expensive equipment and facilities and greater emphasis on providing education on staying healthy in the first place.
Start swimming or you'll sink like a stone
As singer Bob Dylan said 50 years ago and in a much different environment, "The times ... they are a changing." Changes in generational buying habits will undoubtedly have impact on where and what we buy. Indications are that suburban living may be less appealing to the millennial generation. Smaller apartments and houses seem to be the new trend. Box stores like Costco that emphasize quantity buying will have to adapt to the new model where families simply don't have room to store inventory.
There's already been an increase in consumers shifting buying habits for products and services away from traditional brick and mortar facilities. Online shopping has decreased traffic in stores and malls, and reduced pricing power to the consumer who can make purchasing choices from the comfort of his living room. Traditional magnate stores such as BestBuy, Staples, Sears, K-Mart and even Macy's are closing locations because traffic and in-store buying are declining rapidly.
How will these changes impact us? We already have more veterinarians than we can fully employ and more capacity than we can utilize.
The commodity of care
Once upon a time pet owners called our practice for an appointment and often waited days to be asked to come in (remember when we were too busy?) Then they were viewed as bothersome problems rather than solutions.
Well guess what—pet owners don't need us as much. The commodity of care has become just that. Consumers can get their information online. They can purchase products at retail outlets, and Amazon will deliver them almost before they can sign off the computer. Pet owners can obtain care from alternative sources such as house call, mobile and shelter associated not-for-profits. In the future some "super stores" may establish clinics in their facilities. Have you seen the outpatient facilities in Walgreens? Have you noticed all of the emergency facilities springing up?
Quite frankly, in many cases, low-cost or more convenient options are more than "good enough." They provide an environment of patient involvement and interaction with a healthcare provider who is actually paid to educate and inform.
Plus, patients are growing more accustomed to these options and more comfortable with the idea of taking their children or going themselves to the pharmacy where a nurse practitioner, physician's assistant or, in some cases even a physician, will examine, diagnose, prescribe and dispense, all in one facility. Faster and easier and, oh yes ... less costly.
Time for reinvention
The bottom line is we have a great opportunity to respond and even reinvent ourselves. We know consumers want something different. We know what they want. We need to evolve not away from what has made us succeed, but toward what will make us prosper.
As I have said in the past, the consumer always dictates the market and—whether we like it or not—the consumer always wins.
Dr. Michael Paul, @mikepauldvm on Twitter, is a nationally known speaker and columnist and the principal of Magpie Veterinary Consulting. He lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies.