Why do your clients leave?


Every practice loses some clients. Here's how to find out if your client losses add up to a drop in the bucket or a hemorrhaging wound to your client base--and how to staunch the flow of pet owners leaving your hospital.

One of the most difficult—and valuable—assignments my business coach ever gave me was to call a long list of inactive clients. My goal: find out why they left. I tried to pass the work along to my receptionist, but my coach wouldn't hear of it.

Making a diagnosis

So I started to make calls—at least five every day. At first, people gave me only vague niceties. My business coach shook her head. "You need to get underneath that nice North Carolina talk and find out the truth—why they really left," she said. Sure enough, when I gave those clients more of my time and let them know I wanted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they delivered. Boy, did they deliver:

"I was your client for four years, but last time I was in, you didn't even know my name or recognize my pet. It didn't seem like you really cared."

"On my last visit to your clinic, it smelled bad. I was afraid you didn't keep it clean."

Use surveys to find out what clients want

"I was told that the charges would be $15 to $20, but when I picked up Elmo, the bill was $75. I was shocked."

It was tough to listen to those calls without defending myself or making excuses, but the information I gathered helped me turn around a lackluster practice. Using those nuggets of truth, my staff and I worked to heal the wounds that had my practice on the verge of bleeding to death.

Not sure whether your practice is hemorrhaging—or why? I recommend you invest the time and emotional energy to find out. After all, if a steady stream of clients leaves the practice without being replaced, you'll soon be out of a job. Here's how to keep clients from walking away for good.

Keep your practice pumping

Stay alert to potential problems

Clients often leave because of a communication problem with someone in the practice. Of course, such problems can take many different forms. Consider these common communication conflicts and the solutions you can use to repair the damage:

  • A clash with a doctor or staff member. Whether the issue is price, service, or medical care, clients get angry because they think your team didn't understand or didn't care for them or their pets properly. The first step: Pinpoint the problem. Then ask the client how you can resolve the situation. Giving her an opportunity to express her concerns may be all she needs. No matter what, resolve any issues on the spot. You never want a client leaving mad.

  • Sticker shock. Perhaps the invoice exceeded the estimate, or maybe the client didn't receive an estimate. Regardless, the fee was higher than the client expected. The result: The client felt ripped off. The solution: Give all clients a clear, accurate estimate in writing before every procedure.

  • Doctors or staff members exhibiting an "ivory tower" attitude. Do team members in your practice act so formal and guarded that they don't allow clients to see that they're human? Lighten up! Get to know your clients, and let them get to know you. Personal relationships with clients and their pets drive client loyalty—and long-term success in practice.

  • Unmet expectations. Say, for example, that the pet was poorly groomed or acted differently when it returned home from the hospital. If the client expected something else, you disappointed her—and she may choose not to return.

To head off such problems, make sure you educate your clients about what to expect. For example, if a client knows a pet will be droopy for a couple of days because of a procedure, she won't be angry with you because the animal seems unhappy.

It's also a good idea to ask clients at check-out if they're satisfied with the service and care you provided. If the answer is no, give the client an opportunity to voice all her concerns without interruption. Then ask her how you can remedy the situation. Apologize sincerely, assure her that you'll resolve the problem, then follow through. Keep in mind, you can't fix a problem if you don't know it exists.

Seize the moment

Confronting disgruntled clients isn't easy. If you're not ready to dive in and start calling inactive clients for advice, as I was instructed to do, take advantage of these other opportunities to glean valuable information from pet owners:

  • Record transfer requests. If the new clinic's address is across town or in another city, it's a safe bet the client simply moved. But if the clinic is in your area, it's time to investigate a little further. If you take these phone calls, gently explore the standard answers departing clients give. For example:

Receptionist: "Ms. Reynolds, we're sure going to miss seeing you and Lera. May I ask why you're planning to go elsewhere?"

Client: "It's just that Dr. Watson's clinic is a little closer to my office."

Receptionist: "I understand convenience is an important factor. May I ask if we did something that detracted from your receiving the very best care? We realize that sometimes, despite our best efforts, we make mistakes. If we did so with you, we'd appreciate knowing about it so we can correct it in the future. I promise that your comments will be well received."

When a client starts talking about the problem, listen intently. Don't defend, justify, or explain. In fact, try the opposite. Gently probe with comments like, "I understand, Ms. Reynolds. At any other time has your experience been a less than positive one for you or your pet?"

  • Follow-up calls. Do you call clients who haven't responded to your reminders? This is a great opportunity to identify who's not returning—and why.

  • Client surveys. Use questionnaires to head off problems before clients decide to leave. I recommend randomly sending surveys to new and veteran clients.

If you receive any negative feedback to surveys, follow up with a quick phone call. Thank the client for her honesty, and assure her that you'll correct the problem. You'll impress the client by quickly and professionally addressing her concerns.

Show them you care

You can't please all people all the time, but you can take steps to improve communication in your practice and show clients that you really do care about them and their pets:

  • Get better acquainted. Take the time to get to know clients, especially the clients who frustrate you. Make it a game: Identify at least one good thing about every client on each visit.

  • Really listen. As the old saying goes, "God gave us two ears and one mouth, and most of us haven't gotten the hint." Listening will help you learn what your clients really expect—and how to exceed those expectations.

  • Be positive. Clients want to know that you love caring for their pets. An exuberant attitude illustrates your commitment to excellence and keeps clients in a positive frame of mind, too.

  • Pay attention. If you notice that a client seems upset or suddenly becomes distant, don't hesitate to ask if something's wrong. Giving the client an opportunity to express her discontent can head off a problem.

  • Never get defensive. Let your clients know that you always want their feedback on what works—and what doesn't work. And when they offer such feedback, listen and thank them for it.

Showing clients that you care about their pets and value their business will help ensure that your practice stays in the pink of health for years to come—and your entire team benefits from ongoing practice success.

W. Bradford Swift, DVM, is a business coach based in Flat Rock, N.C., and author of Coaching to Win: Building Your Business by Building Your Team (Veterinary Medicine Publishing Group, 1998).

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