The veterinary customer: What's urgent, what's important and what's neither

March 2, 2017
Mike Paul, DVM
Mike Paul, DVM

Dr. Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.

The customer controls more of your veterinary practice than you think. Its time to sort out your priorities and understand what will fix that 20 percent loss of clients most businesses experience.

Photo: Adobe Spark

As the iconic businessman and entrepreneur Sam Walton said many years ago, “There is only one boss: The customer. The customer can fire everyone in the company … simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

One of the best things about retirement is the freedom to do what you want when you want. As veterinary professionals, we are familiar with setting priorities. Some things are urgent and important. Some are not urgent nor are they important. Some things are important but not urgent. Unfortunately, many of us, myself included, have a tendency to spend most of our time on things that are not urgent or very important. 

Prioritize the customer in 4 steps

In this column I frequently discuss the steps you can take to help customers feel special. You can find them all at, but in the meantime, here are some top pointers:

1. Develop and nurture customer relationships.

2. Always provide exceptional customer service, not just good service and not just most of the time. Exceptional and always.

3. Actively pursue customer feedback-not so much from your good customers as from your average customers. We often hear from our happy customers and occasionally from those who are dissatisfied. But most average customers don't complain when they're unsatisfied-they just leave.

4. Take care of your strongest marketing force: your staff.

Being retired from practice, I have relatively few demands on my time that cannot be adjusted, ignored or completed with ease. Living in Anguilla is an ongoing struggle against the call of sea and salt.  But some of my activities and tasks fall into the “important” category even if they're not all that urgent-yet.

For example, running out of gas at midnight is urgent and important. Running low on gas at 3 p.m. is important but not urgent. One of the things I enjoy most about my days is the ability to increasingly focus on things that are important but not urgent, such as reading “just because.” I am constantly amazed by how much I don't know or, if I ever did know it, have forgotten completely.

I have been cleaning my desk and donating books to the library. During this process, I've come across a number of books by one of my favorite marketing and management gurus, Peter Drucker. I started flipping through some of these old books and realized that virtually everything he espoused remains true, even more than 10 years after his death. My favorite Drucker quote? “The purpose of a business is to attract, make and keep a customer.”

With the advent years ago of computerized veterinary practice management systems, we can instantly determine a vital practice number: new clients. This measurement of client recruitment makes us all feel understandably good. But recruitment is only part of the success equation. How many customers are we losing?

According to business author Shellica Brooks-Johnson, the average business loses up to 20 percent of customers annually by failing to take care of customer relationships. We all know the cost in time, money and lost revenue of obtaining a new customer. What we don't know as well is that customer attrition may be an even bigger biggest business cost.

In the food service industry, many customers leave an establishment not because the food is bad or even because of poor service, but rather because they perceive an attitude of indifference on the part of staff members. This may be our biggest loss in veterinary practice, yet few people really track it objectively.

I have always believed that, while the product or service we deliver is important, the experience of our customers is vital. Make sure you can set priorities according to what's important, what's urgent and what's both in order to gain control of higher-priority tasks in your practice as well as your life. And if you haven't read Peter Drucker's work, do so. If you have, reread it. I plan to. 

Dr. Michael Paul is a nationally known speaker and columnist and the principal of Magpie Veterinary Consulting. He lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies.