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Put the Veterinarian Back at the Start and Heart of the Exam to Make the Value Proposition with Clients

January 12, 2014


Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM

Veterinary Management Consultant

It appears that the 2008 recession has cast a long shadow over the economy that we are still feeling today.  Even though things seem to be slowly getting better, it is still a bumpy ride for veterinary practices.  Most appear to be experiencing growth in unpredictable fits and starts; one day they are busy, the next they are not and there’s no rhyme or reason to it.  There are some blessed areas of the country where the local economy has stabilized.  There, practices are growing and doing so well that it almost feels like pre-recession times.  Most practices, however, aren’t so lucky and they will have to try harder to make the value proposition if they want to “go and grow” in the year ahead.

2014 has the potential to be a good year.  There are encouraging signs in the economy that suggest things are stabilizing across the country.  There’s also a growing optimism that the worst is over and that it is okay to spend money again.  Add to that a pent up demand, loosened credit access, and “frugality fatigue” and you’ve got a good recipe to fuel consumer expenditures in the year ahead – at least for the things they want to spend money on.

Here’s some good news:  Consumers want to spend money on their pets and they’ve proved it.  Did you know, according the American Pet Products Association, pet expenditures in every pet category have grown non-stop for the last six years?  And the pet expenditures have grown at almost twice the rate of the general economy during that period!  What this tells us is that consumers will spend money on their pets, even in a sluggish economy.  Others have noticed this phenomenon and have jumped into the pet market, triggering a firestorm of new competition for pet owners’ dollars.  Veterinary practices have seen online pharmacies attract business that used to be theirs and now, big box stores are offering private-label preventive products and retail store pharmacies are going after the pet prescription business.  Curiously, as the low cost providers entered the pet market, so did upscale service providers such as deluxe pet boarding, pet sitting and doggy day care and grooming.  Upscale services have also grown disproportionally better than the overall economy.

What does all this mean for veterinarians?  It means it would be easy to become discouraged by the new competition. It would be smarter to become a better competitor. I believe successful enterprises in the pet industry have learned to make the value proposition in a ways that make pets owners want to spend money with them.  I think it is time to fight back by making our own value proposition for veterinary care.  Let me tell you how —

Research from the 2011 Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study suggests the thing that  pet owners value the most about veterinary medicine is their relationship with their veterinarian.

Unfortunately, in the name of productivity and efficiency, we’ve unintentionally put barriers between clients and their veterinarians.  Today, it is not uncommon for clients to hear recommendations and be told what their pets need before they’ve even seen the doctor. It starts on the phone, when the receptionists says, “It looks like Daisy is due for her exam and vaccinations.  Of course, she will also need to have her heartworm test and because she’s over seven, she will need to have a senior screen, as well.”

Clients are put off by this approach.  They received a reminder card or email that said their pet was due for its vaccinations.  When the receptionists start telling them all the things that their pets need, they’re not ready to hear it and it sounds bureaucratic and impersonal.  At this point, clients may even become defensive and say, “No. I just want her shots today,” because they do not yet understand the value of the things the receptionists has told them their pets need.

When the client gets to the office, the assistant or technician usually puts them in a room, weighs their pets and take the histories.  Then, he or she starts the spiel again and says, “It looks like Daisy is due for her exam and  these vaccinations.  Of course, the doctor will want a heartworm test and, at Daisy’s age, a senior screen as well.  I’ll just take her to the back for the blood draw so that we can get those tests started for you before the doctor comes in.”  Then the pet is taken away to the treatment area for the blood draw, something the client doesn’t yet understand the value of, since the doctor hasn’t even seen their pet yet.  This cascades into further misunderstandings at the front desk, when the client is finding out for the first time what the heartworm and senior screen cost.  Now the problem is compounded: You’ve broken trust with the client by surprising them with unanticipated expense and your receptionist has to divert her time and attention to calming the client instead taking care of others.

Client visits from the phone call through discharge need to be handled differently to make the value proposition and give pet owners something they see the value of:  the doctor’s time and advice.  To make the value proposition, change the order of clients’ experience when they are in the practice. Keep in mind that clients aren’t ready to value what their pet needs until they hear it from the veterinarian in the exam room after he or she has examined their pet. That’s when and where the value proposition is made.

Our challenge in practice today is to revisit and re-order the client’s experience when they are in our offices for their pets’ exams.  Think of it as putting the doctor back at the start and at the heart of the exam:  Clients need to hear what their pet needs from the doctor before they hear it from anyone else on the practice team.  This means using our support team members effectively, but differently, to ensure that clients hear the right message from the right person at the right time to make the value proposition and give them what they can’t get from anyone but the veterinarian.

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