Weigh in on weight problems


Tip the scales in pets' favor with these tips to create a weight-loss program that connects pet owners to your practice and helps pets reach their ideal weight.

When the bulge begins to win the battle against pets at your practice, fight back with a weight-loss program everyone can get behind. Kim Fish, practice manager at Seville Animal Hospital in Seville, Ohio, recommends starting with clients who have a relationship with your practice. "If it's a genuine conversation that you're having with a client, it can go easy," she says. "The words are endless."

Fish, who was a receptionist before she became a manager, says working with clients day in and day out builds rapport. Then it's easier to approach them about their pet's weight. She offers this advice to launch—or relaunch—your practice's weight-loss program:

Start with communication

Communication between team members is key to a successful program. For example, Fish says if she notices a pet looks a little broad in the beam, she might approach the technician who handles the case and discuss the pet and how to broach the topic with the owner.

Boomer, pictured below, is one of Seville Animal Hospital’s weight-loss success stories. He lost about 25 pounds with regular weigh-ins.

Next, use powerful words to speak to clients. Several years ago, Fish says she read an article that shared 21 words that grab your attention. "We use those words every day," she says. "For example, we don't use recommend. Instead, we say need."

Other powerful words include now, proven, money, save, protect, discover, love, and you. For example, you might say, "You mentioned that Buck has trouble getting up these days. Let's protect his joints from further damage and try to get some weight off him."

During team meetings, Fish says she uses a list of advice she's compiled over the years to help educate team members on how to talk to pet owners about the care their pets need. "Make sure everyone's on the same page and knows the products and services you use to encourage weight loss," she says.

Here's some of the advice she shares with her team:

Explain and emphasize the benefits. For example, perhaps weight loss would allow a family's portly pooch to enjoy their favorite pastimes again—whether it's simply being trim enough to jump onto the couch for a cuddle or indulge in long walks together.

Tug at the heartstrings. Share a weight-loss success story and relate how it changed a pet's life.

Use visual aids. Help them visualize the benefits of weight loss with pictures of weight-loss successes.

Celebrate successes. "We do it though Facebook, our website, staff testimonials, and patient before-and-after photos," Fish says. They also post on their bulletin board and collect stories in a binder. Fish's next goal is to compile before-and-after weight loss photos and create a photo book to place in the lobby. This way waiting clients can enjoy the success stories of other pet owners.

To launch the program, Fish used Umi, her own recently adopted overweight pet, as an example of a pet's weight-loss journey.

Use handouts to provide information. Always make sure you're sending clients home with written reinforcements of the topics you discussed.

Use available coupons and rebates. For example, Fish says she's considered creating a frequent shopper card to drive her clients back to her clinic instead of losing the sale to big-box stores or the Internet.

Ask questions and be a good listener. Fish says it's best to avoid questions that require "yes" and "no" answers. Open-ended questions will help you gather more information about the pet's condition. It's also important to practice good body language that shows you're listening by making eye contact and using the client's name.

The practice posts weight-loss progress charts, including before-and-after photos, on their bulletin board to inspire pet owners with success stories.

Use role-play. Fish says the first time you discuss a new topic can be difficult, and practicing using role-play will prepare you and your team members to educate clients more effectively.

Encourage regular weigh-ins. When pets begin a weight-loss program at Seville Animal Hospital, team members take an aerial photo. measure the pet's waist, and put the stats on a bulletin board. Then every 30 days they call the clients and ask them to come in for a courtesy weight check and measurement. "We have pet owners log their pets' results on the bulletin board," Fish says. "This way they get to see their pets' weight loss. If we just say, 'Oh your pet lost two inches,' it's not as real as when they log the changes themselves."

Make follow-up phone calls. "We make sure they don't fall off the wagon," Fish says. "And we set up follow-up calls as soon as they buy the recommended food so they receive a follow-up call 30 days later for a weigh in."

Offer guidance. "At their first weigh-in if they're not seeing weight loss, troubleshoot it," she says. "Don't let pet owners get discouraged. Does the client live with an elderly mother who's feeding too much? Do they have kids who feed pets from the high chair? Maybe they need to bump up their pets' activity level or adjust the feeding schedule."

Be a weight-loss leader

Your team needs to believe in the program for it to be successful. Fish says it starts with the practice's leadership. The doctors and practice managers need to believe in the program first before they can expect buy-in from the team. And all of the team's leaders need to be on board, she says, because a veterinarian or manager who doesn't buy in can derail the message.

Another important component, Fish says, is to solicit constant feedback from pet owners so they can hear the success stories. When team members start to see results, they will believe themselves. Then they have testimonials to share with other clients. They can say they believe in the program and tell clients why because they've seen pets improve.

"Remember, if your team members truly believe in the services and programs you recommend, they won't feel like salesmen," Fish says. "It will be a genuine conversation between the team member and the client to improve the health of the patient."

Fish used her own recently adopted dog as an example when they started their program. She adopted an obese purebred English bulldog. "She weighed 76.6 pounds when I got her," Fish says.

Within three months on the program, her dog dropped 15 pounds. "I had a before-and-after photo of her, and I placed it on the bulletin board as an example," she says.

To build an effective program, it takes your staff talking about it, Fish says. While there are so many things to talk about, Fish says she tries to keep obesity and dental disease top-of-mind, because these are two leading problems pets most often suffer from. If she notices team members aren't adding new people to the program, she tries to remind team members that their weight program is something they should be talking to pet owners about every day. She monitors their progress so she can be the cheerleader to keep the program strong.

Bond clients for life

"If you can learn to communicate with pet owners successfully, comfortably, and sincerely, you will bond them to your practice," Fish says. "And they will take what you say seriously in the future."

She also recommends making a point to sit down with clients—even when you're busy—to talk. Simple gestures such as carrying the weight-loss food pet owners purchase to their cars can go a long way in securing their trust and appreciation. It's also helpful to tell clients you'll call them back in 30 days to check in. Then follow through.

In some cases, pet owners may be resistant to the idea of recognizing their pet is overweight. When this happens, Fish recommends treading lightly. You don't want to damage your relationship with these clients. So you might try offering small steps to get to a weight-loss program, such as starting by asking the pet owner to break the dog's cookies in half. "Giving them a tip that they can take home with them offers a start," Fish says. "We've also had clients who say, 'I'm fat, my dog's fat, and we're going to be fat together.' So you may start by treading lightly, with questions like, 'Do you want us to help you? Can I offer some tips and tricks you can use to help your pet lose weight?'"

Finally, remember that if the pet isn't losing weight, you can fine-tune the program to match its needs. "Keep pet owners in the loop about your plans," Fish says. "It's not just about selling them a weight-loss diet. Make it easy for pet owners to understand. Use a pointer as you guide clients through your brochures, and highlight key points. And make sure pet owners go home with written instructions about how much to feed. Your goal is to make it easy for pet owners to follow your recommendations."

Portia Stewart is a freelance writer in Lenexa, Kan. Share your thoughts at dvm360.com/community.

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