Why Do Clients Leave a Practice?
Erika Ervin, MBA, CVPM, CVT
Erika Ervin, MBA, CVPM, CVT is practice manager at Toms River Animal Hospital in Toms River, New Jersey.
There is no secret to retaining veterinary customers. Just do a few things right every time, and your practice will thrive.
Today’s market is saturated with veterinary health care options for pet owners. Every street corner seemingly houses a general practice, a specialty hospital, a vaccine clinic, or some other type of business that provides pet health care. If pet owners choose to come to your hospital, you have hit the jackpot! But don’t get too excited yet. Now you are tasked with wowing those pet owners and turning them into loyal clients. Following are 3 reasons why practices sometimes lose clients, along with advice for avoiding these fraught situations.
Reason #1: They Don’t Feel Valued
Mr. Lee has a 13-year-old Siamese named Eisenhower. Mr. Lee works from home and Eisenhower is his constant companion; they are inseparable. Mr. Lee brought his cat in today because Eisenhower is always looking for food and seems to be losing weight. Following her examination of Eisenhower, the veter­inarian says she is concerned about his health. She recommends some testing, including bloodwork and radiographs. The treatment plan Mr. Lee is given totals $585, and he is asked for his approval to move ahead.
Mr. Lee is quite confused because he does not understand why the tests are necessary. Why do we need x-rays, he wonders. He wants to do what is right for Eisenhower, but he doesn’t want to spend money for something that may be unnecessary. Mr. Lee feels like he is being asked for money without justification or answers about his pet’s condition. He agrees to the bloodwork but not the radiographs, and the doctor says she will call him with the results. When Mr. Lee arrives home, he calls a couple of friends asking for recommendations for a new veterinarian.
What Went Wrong (and How to Fix It)
Not taking the time to explain why certain tests are being recommended can and will be detrimental to the health of both your practice and your patients. If, like Mr. Lee, your clients do not understand the reasons for your recommendations, they will never understand the value in them. We often view these clients as being cheap or unable to afford the recom­mended care, and we become frustrated with them. The veterinary team should never assume the client knows why certain tests are necessary for us to make a full assessment.
Make sure you and your team are taking the extra few minutes to explain each item on the diagnostic and treatment plan thoroughly enough for clients to understand fully the impact that each will have on the treatment plan for their pets. Taking the extra time now will save you time later from having to rework the plan, sometimes more than once, to better fit what you think the client can afford.
REASON #2: THEY HAD A BAD EXPERIENCE.
Mrs. Meyer brought in her great Pyrenees, Petunia, today for her annual physical and vaccines. Before being led to an exam room, the veterinary assistant escorts the pair to the floor scale in the lobby to get an accurate weight for Petunia. Mrs. Meyer mentions to the assistant that Petunia really doesn’t like this scale and, in the past, the staff has had a hard time getting a correct weight on there. The assistant says “OK” to Mrs. Meyer and continues walking toward the scale.
As they approach, Petunia starts to pull on her leash and become unruly. Mrs. Meyer says she doesn’t think this is a good idea because Petunia is getting very stressed. Ignoring her, the assistant tries with all her might to drag and shove Petunia onto the scale. After struggling for what seems like an eternity, she lets out a large sigh and brings Mrs. Meyer and her dog into an exam room.
Petunia’s appointment has not even started yet and the dog is trembling in the exam room. Mrs. Meyer is not comfortable with how she and her dog have been treated so far, but she doesn’t like to complain or upset the staff and doctor who will be seeing them today. Petunia has her appointment, after which she is taken to “the back” and somehow the staff measures her body weight. As Mrs. Meyer is paying the bill, she is already thinking about searching online for a new veterinary practice when she gets home.
What Went Wrong (and How to Fix It)
The veterinary assistant in this scenario may have heard Mrs. Meyer say that Petunia was uncomfortable with the floor scale in the lobby, but she certainly didn’t listen to or address Mrs. Meyer’s concern. Clients want to be considered partners with their veterinary practice in caring for their pets. This appointment left Mrs. Meyer feeling irrelevant and convinced that the veterinary team did not have her dog’s best interests at heart.
How will you know why Mrs. Meyer, or any client, hasn’t returned? You won’t, unless you ask her about her experience at your hospital. Make sure the prac­tice follows up with clients after every appointment. Calling the client the day after a visit to see how the pet is doing and asking, at that time, whether the client has any questions or concerns will open the door for them to speak about their experiences.
If you’re worried that clients won’t feel comfortable talking about their appointments, send email surveys after appointments. Offer a small incentive for clients to complete the surveys—your drug reps can likely help you with the prizes—and have a monthly drawing from among those clients who completed the surveys.
REASON #3: THE PRACTICE STAFF IS NOT ON THE SAME PAGE.
Mr. and Mrs. Burgess brought in their Jack Russell, Captain Biscuit, today for his annual physical exam, vaccines, and bloodwork, including a heartworm test. They had received a postcard reminder in the mail noting all the services due for Captain Biscuit.
When they arrive at the hospital, an assistant escorts them into an exam room and states what Captain Biscuit’s annual visit will include, mirroring the information on the postcard. The assistant takes a history on Captain Biscuit, asking about his diet and preventive medications. The Burgesses are very good about giving Captain Biscuit his monthly heartworm pill and will need a refill of the medication today. The assistant relays the information to the veterinarian and lets him know the plan for today’s visit.
The veterinarian examines Captain Biscuit and discusses what he plans on giving the dog. He does not say he wants to perform a heartworm test. Mrs. Burgess asks the doctor why the test is not part of the plan. The veterinarian responds that a heartworm test isn’t necessary because they have given Captain Biscuit all of his preventives. Mr. and Mrs. Burgess glance at each other, confused by the differing information they have received, but they take the doctor’s word that Captain Biscuit all of his preventives. Mr. and Mrs. Burgess glance at each other, confused by the differing information they have received, but they take the doctor’s word that Captain Biscuit does not need a heartworm test.
While Captain Biscuit is in the treatment room getting blood drawn, the Burgesses discuss the conflicting information they received. If the annual heartworm test isn’t necessary, then is the assistant just trying to sell them unnecessary services? They are not happy. After they leave the hospital, they go home and search for some information on the internet, including other veterinarians in the area.
What Went Wrong (and How to Fix It)
Giving conflicting recommendations or mixed messages to clients does not inspire trust. Clients who don’t trust your team will always questions the motives behind the recommendations they receive. Make sure you have standards of care for your practice and hold training sessions for the entire team so everyone remains on the same page and can explain all recom­mendations. Nothing will be worse for your business than clients who doubt what you are recommending for their pet.
Acquiring new clients is not inexpensive, nor is it easy to do well on a consistent basis. It requires ongoing staff training and coaching. If you have regular clients, you need to do your best to hang onto them. Some client attrition is normal; pets die, clients move, or a number of other circumstances may arise. Regardless of the situation, look to gain new clients continually to make up for those who leave. We can put less pressure on ourselves if we know we are doing everything we can to ensure our clients’ trust and provide them with a top-notch veterinary experience.
Ms. Ervin has experience in all aspects of veterinary medicine, including client service, surgical assistance, dentistry, private and corporate practice management, and lab animal medicine. She became a certified veter­inary technician in 2005 and was certified as a veterinary practice manager in 2017.