Undoing Disney: A better service model for the veterinary industry

June 26, 2019
Melissa Detweiler, DVM

Dr. Melissa Detweiler practices full-time in rural northeast Kansas. She also has a full-time husband (whom she practices with) and three full-time kids. In her spare time, she feeds the creative side of her brain by writing, blogging and podcasting. She also enjoys running, gardening, fishing and travelling to warm, sunny beaches. Dr. Detweiler can be found online at thisvetsvoice.com and dvmdivas.com or by email at melissa@dvmdivas.com.

While its true that Disney reigns supreme when it comes to delivering superb customer service, that fact is that not all customer service models can be equal. Heres how the Disney model hurts our professionand what we can do about it.

A couple years back, my husband and I took our family on a dream Disney vacation. I spent months researching and making reservations, and we spent thousands of dollars for our family of five to spend a week with Mickey and friends. Surprisingly, it was some of the easiest money I've ever parted with. So, what's their secret? What exactly have they mastered that makes families so willing to dump obscene amounts of money into their brand?

One word: service.

Without question, Disney has elevated customer service to an art form. Many books have been written about its service models. Other corporations hire former Disney executives in an attempt to re-create Disney's protocols and operations. It's the stuff of legends.

Setting unrealistic expectations?

As so many other companies have striven to mimic the Disney model, it's created an expectation among consumers that all service experiences should be at that same level-retail exchanges should be magical. Interestingly, this concept has been the same in the veterinary industry for the past decade as well.

My own practice has paid for consultants and coaches to help us increase revenue and efficiency. Those consultants preached the importance of making each client feel unique and cherished. They gave us tips for focusing on customer loyalty and going beyond typical “satisfaction.” We've been trained, essentially, in the “Disney” way.

From a revenue standpoint, it works. Initial customer reviews reflect the process. There are fewer complaints and, perhaps in some situations, patient well-being has improved. As we've become more successful at emphasizing the importance and value of advanced care, clients have consented to more diagnostics and procedures.

Seems like a fool-proof method. Until it isn't.

We've definitely been successful at habituating clients to larger vet bills, but what happens when the outcome isn't what anyone would call a fairy tale ending?

The difference between Disney and veterinary practice

Disney certainly isn't immune to customer complaints, but the company is vastly more equipped to do whatever it takes to turn things around. An unhappy Disney customer doesn't stay unhappy for long. However, there's a gigantic obstacle the veterinary world faces that Disney does not-death, disease and suffering. With the exception of at least one parent in every Disney movie, death isn't a challenge that Disney “cast members” (i.e. employees) have to overcome to provide that legendary level of service. All those pearls and recommended techniques go out the window as soon as fear, grief and blame arrive on the scene. An extra ride pass or a hotel room refund isn't going to ease the pain and heartache of a family who was just given tragic news about the health of their pet. If only a complimentary stay in our boarding kennel would erase a diagnosis of a ruptured splenic tumor…

When it came to my vacation experience, I was willing to part with my money because I was confident in what I'd receive in return-my family would have countless happy memories of a fun-filled week. But a veterinary hospital isn't a theme park, and no one wants to pay to ride our roller coasters. There simply aren't any of those magic customer service tools at the ready when we're matched against bad biological luck. The Disney method states that every customer should have the same great experience, every time, but can anyone tell me how Walt would handle a septic parvo puppy in a family with no money? How can I possibly make that great?

Delivering Disney our way

Please understand, I don't fault Disney for its brilliantly effective methods. It's just that, despite our best efforts, it's not so straightforward in the veterinary world. We've been attempting a version of this “customer first” model, but the biggest things we've accomplished are rampant burnout and record numbers of veterinarian suicides. We've sacrificed our own well-being in the quest to always make the customer happy.

We've been counseled for years that we need to increase our prices and profitability. We need to sell clients on the value of our services, see more patients, run more tests. It's all about client satisfaction and if we don't make room in our jam-packed schedules, they'll go somewhere else. If we don't answer their emails and phone calls within minutes, they'll take to their keyboards and berate us online. If we question their choices about food and nutrition, we'll be labeled as “big-kibble sellouts.” And if a pet dies while under our care? Forget it. We're now the evil villain (more hated than Scar when he took out Mufasa in The Lion King), and they'll waste no time sharing their story on social media.

So, to all of the business consultants and CEOs out there, we hear you. We get what you're telling us. We absolutely do need to be able to communicate value to our clients. Ours is a consumer-driven industry, but it can't be a one-way street. We have to balance service with boundaries. We can't continue giving all the best of ourselves to our clients and have nothing left for us and our families. I've been mentored countless times about how to build a client's trust in me, but what happens when I don't trust the client? How can I practice in a world where I'm constantly enslaved by the threat of a negative online review, or worse?

If the current practice management techniques are failing, perhaps it's time to invest in an updated veterinary business model. Instead of trying to turn our clinics and hospitals into luxury boutique resorts, let's focus on communication and the psychology of triggering emotions such as fear and grief. Let's strive to be better at delivering medical recommendations with honest and realistic expectations. Let's be doctors and not wait-staff wearing mouse ears.

Shifting to an approach that honors not only the client and patient, but the veterinary team as well, may mean a few less dollars at the outset, but it might also mean one less act of despair in our profession.

Dr. Melissa Detweiler is an associate veterinarian at Bern-Sabetha Veterinary Clinic in Sebetha, Kansas. In her free time, she enjoys reading, being out in the yard during the warm months, running, fishing, following K-State sports and, above all, spending time with her husband, children and their Rottweiler mix, Lucy.