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Taking action: Marketing initiatives to grow your practice (Proceedings)

Article

Marketing planning includes reviewing the practice's key performance indicators or KPIs to assess the areas of opportunity to grow your practice. Once you have made analyzed your hospital data and KPIs, you can take action to develop and execute specific marketing initiatives that will result in the greatest benefit for the practice.

Marketing planning includes reviewing the practice's key performance indicators or KPIs to assess the areas of opportunity to grow your practice. Once you have made analyzed your hospital data and KPIs, you can take action to develop and execute specific marketing initiatives that will result in the greatest benefit for the practice. Try to create the appropriate balance between marketing initiatives that are targeted towards gaining new clients and those that are targeted towards increasing service utilization by your existing client base. Depending on your number of new clients per month, the competitive environment, your plans for growth or expansion, and other variables, you may need to devote more or less resources to marketing efforts that are aimed at new clients vs. existing clients.

It is helpful to determine specific target markets when developing marketing initiatives. Target markets are the group of clients the practice wishes to attract. Target markets may be further divided by market segmentation which refers to dividing markets into specific groups based on specific criteria. Examples of specific target markets include: cat owners, dog owners, clients with senior pets, potential new clients from specific neighborhoods, members of the Greyhound rescue club, clients who do not visit the practice annually, etc. When you focus on a specific target market, your marketing is more focused and your results may be easier to measure.

Attracting New Clients

For veterinary practices to grow and thrive, new clients must be added to the client list each month. To attract new clients, focus on branding and specific external marketing tactics. Branding refers to the trusted image or reputation of a business. Brands are associated with various degrees of quality and service. For example, the name Ritz Carlton is synonymous with 5-star hotel accommodations and customer service. The name Wal-Mart immediately brings to mind lower prices. What is your practice known for? What is your reputation in the community? Branding is accomplished by differentiating the practice in terms of the medical care and services offered. Branding is created over a period of time as a result of the consistent message and service that is provided to clients. The practice name and logo help to achieve branding by representing the value and service associated with the hospital.

External marketing refers to written and verbal communication or any other efforts to promote and increase awareness of the practice which will help to attract new clients. There are a number of external marketing tools that can be utilized to attract new clients. These include making sure the hospital has excellent signage, an appealing exterior appearance, use of marketing collateral such as brochures, business cards, and pens with logos, advertising, websites, social media and community involvement.

When deciding which marketing initiatives will be the most beneficial for your practice, you will need to consider your budget, other resources such as available personnel, and the expected return on investment. Needless to say you won't be able to do extensive advertising or expensive remodeling without the necessary cash flow. On the other hand, other initiatives such as community involvement may cost nothing more than your time. Even if you have a significant marketing budget, always carefully try to determine the expected outcome before spending substantial sums of money on marketing. For example, if you plan to spend $2,000 on advertising or a targeted mailing to clients, strive to calculate the return on investment for this initiative. How many new clients will you attract? How much will they spend? Why spend money on marketing if you have not defined the outcome desired and forecast a favorable result?

Leverage Technology

One of best ways to differentiate your practice is with the use of technology to provide value to clients. Potential barriers to leveraging technology are undoubtedly a lack of resources-namely time and money. Busy practice owners and managers don't always take the time to explore all their marketing options involving technology. Savvy businesses are wise to overcome these barriers by devoting time to look at some of the following ways to use technology to connect with clients.

Practice website

The vast majority of veterinary practices have websites but if you don't this is a must. Unfortunately, practices that do have websites don't always use the website to its full potential for client service. Consider whether your website has the following information and/or benefits for clients:

     • Profiles for all doctors and full-time employees including color photos

     • Easy to navigate links for directions to the practice

     • Complete information on hours and all services

     • Links to other websites of interest such as local pet adoptions, humane society, reputable groomers, dog trainers and boarding facilities, pet insurance, etc

     • After-hours emergency information with links for area referral practices and directions

     • Pet portals so clients can manage their pets healthcare and communicate with the practice

     • Articles on pet healthcare

     • Links to credible websites for owners to learn more about various medical conditions

     • Subscription to monthly or quarterly e-newsletter

     • "What's New" section or calendar with information about community pet events

     • A photo gallery or "In Memory of" area to post photos and notes about pets

     • Information about third party payment plans with applications

     • Something fun and interactive for clients that changes periodically such as contests, monthly drawings, etc

     • Client satisfaction surveys

     • Prescription refills

     • Short videos about the practice or pet care topics

Electronic communications

Establishing electronic communication with your clients can be done through your website and/or you can create email lists to use for electronic newsletters, client reminders for routine healthcare, hospital announcements, etc. Now is the time to start collecting email addresses if you have not already done so.

There are a number of companies currently that support your efforts to keep in touch with clients. These companies can help you send out reminders or other publications that are professionally designed and full of useful information.

Social Media and Networking Sites

Like it or not, social media and social networking on the internet are current trends and a primary form of communication for many people. Many businesses and organizations now use Facebook and Twitter to disseminate information and stay in touch with their target audience. Creating a blog is another means to stay in touch with pet owners although this means of communication isn't for everyone and takes time. If you do decide to pursue social media outlets, make sure you establish a process to govern usage for your practice.

Wow Clients with Your Client Service

When I facilitate strategic planning sessions with veterinary teams, we talk about the strengths of the practice and inevitably client service or client communication is part of the discussion. Typically, staff and doctors alike reference aspects of client service that are important to continue but they aren't necessarily unique to that hospital. To really differentiate your practice with client service, be creative and think about exceeding client expectations not just meeting them. Work with your team to brainstorm ideas on how you can raise the level of your client service. For example, you might make simple changes to your reception area to make clients more comfortable such as offering gourmet coffee or candy. Other ideas include keeping small bottles of water on hand to give to clients or adding a digital photo frame with pictures of clients' pets. Other ways to surprise and delight clients include sending them home with bandanas or toys for their pets after they have been hospitalized.

Anything you can do to make your service more convenient for clients tends to be well-received. Consider offering a pet pick up and drop-off service for clients who may be extremely busy or have difficulty getting to the practice. Set up a protocol to text clients rather than call them if this is their preferred means of communication. Offer monthly dog obedience classes so clients don't have to seek out a dog trainer on their own. The list of what you can do for clients is endless. Work with your team to find ways to distinguish your service which will attract new clients and build client loyalty.

Create Service Standards

Establishing client service standards can help achieve consistency in service delivery as well as raise the level of service. The secret to creating service standards that work is to start with a few standards at a time and train everyone on the team to meet the standards. Focus on developing standards for the most common client interactions such as on the phone, in the exam room and during check-in and check-out times. Include the entire team in dialogue about standards to capture great ideas, facilitate training and to ensure buy-in.

Avoid creating standards that are scripted phrases which lack authenticity. We've all heard the common phrase that businesses often train their employees to say: "Have a nice day." Do you really feel better after a clerk at a store says this to you? It rarely sounds genuine. A standard for demonstrating warmth and enthusiasm using a tailored greeting is much more powerful. For example, if you have a standard for greeting clients and team members are trained to use appropriate phrases, they might say "Hi! This must be Josie-she's so cute. Tell me more about what's going on with her." The client will feel the employee is interested in her and Josie more so than if the staff just asks "How can I help you?"

Standards should always convey professionalism and enhance the client service experience. In fact, all your efforts to differentiate your practice with client service need to in some way elevate the level of service and create a positive memory for the pet owner.

Internal Marketing: Increasing Service Utilization by Your Existing Clients

While it is imperative to execute marketing initiatives to attract new clients, some of the greatest opportunities for increasing veterinary practice revenues occur as a result of marketing efforts aimed at the existing client base. To maximize these opportunities, implement practice protocols, medical standards and programs which help drive increased utilization of veterinary services. Then, take the necessary steps to make sure team members are well trained which will help improve client education and pet owner compliance.

Rechecks, Recalls and Hospital Programs

Most practices are effective at sending out annual reminders for vaccines and other wellness services. However, not all practices have similar protocols to emphasize the importance of rechecks examinations for pets with a variety of medical conditions. Recheck exams should be recommended for all patients when the veterinarian cannot be certain how long it will take for complete resolution of clinical symptoms. The most obvious case examples are pets with skin infections and otitis externa. Some of these patients have a resolution of symptoms with ten days of treatment while others may require treatment for up to six weeks or longer. Appointments for recheck exams should be made at the time of the pet's initial appointment to increase the likelihood of owner compliance.

Recalls refers to calling clients to check on the progress of their pet since the last appointment. Aside from being a practice builder, recalls generate increased service utilization when it is determined that these pets need re-evaluations or follow-up diagnostics.

Developing marketing initiatives that focus on specific hospital programs is an excellent way to grow your practice and ensure that pets receive excellent care. Examples of hospital programs include senior care, dental healthcare, and obesity management programs. For these programs to be effective, it is imperative that the hospital team adheres to specific standards and that everyone conveys consistent messages when communicating with clients. Moreover, compliance rates can be improved by using written client education tools such as brochures when communicating with pet owners as well as with targeted marketing to promote your services. Your marketing tactics might include promotion via your website, e-newsletters, hospital signage, advertising and mailings to specific target markets.

Set Medical Standards and Protocols

One of the greatest opportunities to increase service revenue and grow your practice is to set medical standards and protocols in your hospital. One of the biggest examples of missed revenue in terms of diagnostic testing is urinalysis. Veterinarians all learn the importance of evaluating a urinalysis in veterinary school and yet this simple test is often not performed. It seems to be forgotten or it is too inconvenient when the pet's bladder is empty. Be sure your practice has a standard of including a urinalysis when doing both wellness testing and chemistry profiles on sick patients.

Additionally, set diagnostic testing for patients placed on long-term medications such as thyroid supplementation, methimazole, ace-inhibitors, anti-convulsants, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications. All of these patients should have laboratory testing done at the start of medication to check kidney and liver values, again within several weeks to several months of initiating therapy to recheck values, and then annually at a minimum thereafter. Don't forget to educate your entire team about the value and benefits of diagnostic testing standards and train everyone to adhere to the standards.

Set anesthesia protocols for all pets requiring anesthesia. For example, establish minimum standards for pre-anesthetic labwork based on the age of the pet and the procedure. In addition, make it a standard protocol that pets undergoing anesthesia have intravenous catheters placed and fluids administered as deemed appropriate. Use anesthesia monitoring devices such as pulse oximetry for pets undergoing dental or surgical procedures. Another medical standard often associated with anesthesia is pain management. Pain medications should not be optional but instead administered and prescribed as needed. Be sure to charge appropriately for all the above medical standards. Clients today understand the value of high quality medical standards and are usually willing to pay for these services.

Train Your Team to Communicate the Value of Services

To effectively communicate the value of a veterinary service to clients, staff members must first understand and agree with the value of the hospital's services. A veterinary technician that doesn't believe in nutritional support is not likely to convey the value of placing and using a feeding tube. Likewise, a newly hired technician who is unfamiliar with laser surgery may not be comfortable discussing the benefits of this procedure with clients. Staff meetings are an excellent time to discuss the value of veterinary services. If gaps in training are identified or employees demonstrate discomfort associated with certain client interactions, utilize staff meetings to focus training in these areas. Be sure to train both the client relations staff and the technical staff to convey consistent messages about the value of routine preventative healthcare services to pet owners. Technical staff should also be able to provide clients with details about medical services and the associated benefits in language that clients can easily understand.

Once employees understand the value of veterinary services, they are much more likely to communicate this value to clients. Staff members should be trained to always highlight the benefits of services to clients even when the client has purchased similar services or products in the past.

Train Your Staff to Talk with Confidence About Money

Often, the client relations staff (including client service representatives and technicians) receives the brunt of client complaints about fees since they collect deposits, receive payments and may present treatment plans. The healthcare team should not feel the need to apologize for the cost of services but instead should remain committed to providing the best care possible to pets and focus on communicating the value of this care to pet owners. Inevitably pet owners express concern or complaints about fees when presented with treatment plan recommendations. When this occurs, train your staff to convey empathy, identify possible underlying causes (other than fees) for an owner's reluctance to agree to services and how to overcome objections.

Since many pet owners express concern about the cost of veterinary services, it is important to differentiate an individual's ability to pay vs. willingness to pay. Often clients are open about their financial constraints and in these instances, discussion of treatment plans and fees is dictated by the client's financial limitations. To increase the affordability of care for clients, practices can offer third party payment plans and the client relations team should be comfortable presenting these plans. For a majority of clients that have the ability to pay for veterinary services, their willingness to pay is the key to treatment acceptance. A client's willingness to pay for treatment recommendations is determined by their recognition of the need for the services offered. The higher the perceived need, the more likely the client is to agree to treatment recommendations. Therefore, it is imperative for the entire team to always reinforce the value and benefits of treatments and medical services.

Improving Compliance

Multiple studies and client surveys have shown that client compliance with treatment recommendations is low at many veterinary practices. One of the best ways to grow your practice is to develop marketing initiatives aimed at improving client compliance. To decide your areas of greatest opportunity, assess your current compliance for a variety of services such as dentistry, wellness testing, heartworm testing, pre-anesthetic laboratory testing, obesity management programs, etc. Once you know your current compliance levels, you can formulate marketing tactics to improve compliance rates. For example, you could develop a comprehensive marketing initiative to increase senior care laboratory testing that might include a targeted mailing to clients, promotion on your website, community activities, and an e-newsletter focused on senior care.

Summary

To decide which marketing initiatives are the right choices for your practice, remember the best way to achieve success is to start by analyzing your hospital's key performance indicators. After you gain clarity on your marketing goals, it is time to take action. Organize your team to execute specific marketing initiatives to meet your goals. And don't forget to measure your results so you can decide what works and what doesn't for your practice and client base.

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