Reaching Out to the Community
Karen E. Felsted, CPA, MS, DVM, CVPM
This is the fifth and final article in Dr. Karen Felsted’s Growing Your Practice series, which is based on results from the 2011 Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study (bayer-ah.com/nr/45.pdf). This study investigated veterinary practice performance from both the veterinary professional and pet owner viewpoints.The goal of this series is to identify what sets growing, successful veterinary practices apart from their competitors and how to implement their business models in your own practice.The previous articles in this series are available at todaysveterinarypractice.com:
- Practices That Continue to Grow: What Are They Doing Right? (January/February 2012)
- Building Strong Relationships Among the Veterinary Team, Clients, & Patients (March/April 2012)
- Veterinary Teams & Clients: Facing Financial Facts (May/June 2012)
- Keeping Up with Today’s Technology (July/August 2012)
Veterinary medicine has changed forever; it is no longer going to be as easy to attract and retain clients as it once was. Several factors have caused this change, including:
- Loss of status as recession-proof profession
- Declining pet population
- Increasing number of veterinarians and veterinary practices
- Proliferation of information on the Internet
- Veterinary products (once sold only in veterinary practices) now available in thousands of nonveterinary outlets and through nonveterinarians practicing veterinary medicine
- Increasing do-it-yourself attitude by pet owners.
The “build it and they will come” approach is much riskier than it used to be. Veterinarians need to make themselves heard and seen in the community; not only to attract clients but also enforce our status as the go-to experts about animal medical issues.
EVALUATING ONLINE OUTREACH
In last issue’s article, we talked about reaching out to clients and potential clients using your practice’s website, social media, and other electronic communications. Unfortunately, not all practices are convinced the Internet is a good thing.
- Only 31% of respondents to the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study agreed that the Internet had made it easier to work with clients.
- 40% did not agree that the Internet had made it easier to work with clients.
- 33% of respondents were neutral—not sure if the Internet was a good or a bad thing.
These concerns about the Internet were reflected in the usage by practices:
- Nearly a quarter of practices surveyed said they did not have a website.
- Less than half the practices had a Facebook page.
- Use of other social media (Twitter, blogs, etc) was almost nonexistent.
BALANCING COMMUNITY TIES
Online communities are here to stay and pet owners regularly make medical and purchasing decisions based on what others in their online communities say. Successful practices recognize “community” doesn’t just mean a physical locale; they make sure to interact with the online communities that pet owners frequent.
However, this doesn’t mean that online communities are the only way to go—reaching out electronically is critical but it is also important to reach out to your physical community. This outreach not only reinforces online contacts but also puts you in touch with those you don’t communicate with electronically.
DEVELOPING COMMUNITY RELATIONSHIPS
Following are three ways to develop ties with your community:
1. Develop relationships with other pet service providers:
While it may seem that this idea is a “no-brainer,” only about 20% of practices surveyed in the Bayer study have referral arrangements with other pet service providers.1
Researchers also analyzed the study to determine common variables among practices with increased veterinary visits as well as common variables among practices with decreased visits. One factor common to practices with declining numbers of visits was a lack of referral arrangements with other pet service providers.
Think of all the pet service providers in your community—pet stores, breeders, boarding facilities, grooming salons, pet walkers, pet sitters, obedience trainers, and others. Pet owners that use these services need a veterinarian.
- The first step in building relationships with pet service providers is to:
- Identify them in your community.
- Understand how their businesses operate.
- Determine where your practice might fit in.
- Of course, you must be comfortable with their approach to pet care before you align with them. Some won’t pass this test but many will.
- Sit down with the owners of these companies and look for ways you can work together. Cross-referral is, of course, one of the easiest ways. However, the more specific and substantive the efforts, the more successful the program will be.
- Offer to include the company’s brochure in your new puppy/kitten kits.
- Include the company’s name on your list of preferred providers.
- Offer a class on pet care for new adopters or other clients of the pet service.
- Determine what the pet service provider can then do, in turn, for you.
- These kinds of referral arrangements can be combined with a marketing discount from each group, depending on the philosophy of those involved and what seems to work best in generating new clients.
2. Develop relationships with shelters and rescue groups:
Another type of community organization devoted to pets are shelters and rescue groups. In some communities, there is a certain amount of friction between some shelters/rescue organizations and veterinarians. The reasons for this are varied but have led to a lack of collaboration between organizations that share some goals in common.
It is important to remember that many pet owners acquire their pets from shelters and rescue groups; according to the Bayer study, 22% of dog owners and 26% of cat owners chose their pets from a shelter or rescue organization.1 Those pets may have received some starter services (vaccinations, spay/neuter, etc) from the shelter/rescue organization but they often haven’t received all of the needed first-year services. Plus, new owners need a permanent relationship with a veterinary practice in order for their pets to receive the care needed throughout their life.
Building a referral relationship with shelter/rescue organizations can lead to new clients. Again, the relationship needs to be robust for it to work and both sides must benefit:
- For example, in exchange for including the practice’s brochure or magnet in the adoption packet, the practice may be willing to exhibit some pets for adoption in the practice’s reception area.
- Joint education programs that help new pet owners understand the need for veterinary care can be put together by the practice and shelter/rescue organization and help ensure pets get the long-term care they need.
- Again, referral arrangements can be combined with a marketing discount, depending on the philosophy of those involved and what seems to work best in generating new clients.
3. Make your expertise in all things “pet” known in the community:
Many media companies and other organizations need professional opinions about issues impacting pets or the impact of pet issues on people. Who better to comment than veterinarians? While it should seem obvious that veterinarians are the best choice, others will fill the void if we don’t reach out and establish relationships with such organizations.
- If your local or state veterinary medical association has a list of veterinarians for the media to contact, get on it.
- Develop individual relationships with people in television, radio, or print media organizations—offer to be their pet expert when needed, to write a column, or answer questions on a radio show.
- With the advent of the Internet, pet forums and websites abound—pick one or two focused on your community and contribute to the discussion.
Not only do these actions keep your name visible in the community, they help the profession as a whole by demonstrating the expertise veterinarians have.
Not all of the above marketing strategies will be right for every practice. However, as the Bayer study clearly demonstrated, a common factor among practices with an increase in veterinary visits is a belief in marketing and advertising as a key business strategy. Therefore, it is critical that practices expand their marketing activities, measure the success, and determine what programs are the best fit for the practice.
1. Bayer Animal Health, NCVEI, Brakke Consulting. Bayer Veterinary Case Usage Study, 2011 (bayer-ah.com/nr/45.pdf)