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How to cope when competitors move in

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01 February 2015, at 12:00am

ROBIN FEARON reports on a session at the London Vet Show where Alan Robinson looked at ways of strengthening client relationships when a practice with low-cost health-care packages opens nearby

IN an age when chain veterinary practices and low-cost provision are the dominant force in many high streets there is a premium on business advice for independently owned clinics. Coping with a wellarmed, well-financed competitor requires a particular set of skills.

Alan Robinson of Vet Dynamics talks regularly to independents looking to bolster their trade on how to cope with the competitor offering killer packages. Speaking at the London Vet Show, he acknowledged that marketing is a telling factor for small businesses, but without the right internal processes in place there is no practice to market.

It is a familiar tale, starting at reception and an efficient phone system, of retaining the clients you have to beat the drop. Alan rated the need to tackle call processes and the practice website as crucial. High value is placed on having enquiries answered competently and in a polite and timely fashion.

Websites should offer the ability to leave client e-mail details and as much information on what the practice offers as possible. “This is an internal process you need to fix first,” said Alan. “If reception and the website are not up to speed, then you will not get conversion working.”

Client retention involves building relationships and trust and while it extends to developing a sense of community through pet health clubs and social media, first impressions last. “Marketing is an inside-out process,” said Alan. “Build conversion through phone systems, internet, e-mail and reception, then go out there and spread the word.”

Most practices fail from the inside, not from competition. They are often too busy already and do not need any more customers. “Most need to look at the customers they have and look after them far better,” he said. “We are too busy to practise good customer service.”

Alan cited independent research showing that only 20% of calls to reception are converted to appointments. Add to that the fact that 55% of the work presented in the consulting room walks back out of the practice because vets don’t have the time or the energy to deal with it and clinics appear to be too busy to practise good medicine.

By focusing on relationships rather than recruiting new clients, it shifts the entire marketing focus and strategy. New entrants to the market have the opposite problem. Practices opening in an area without a clientele must market aggressively to attract business.

Branding and position are important and increasingly that comes in with a low-price differentiator. “There are two ways of doing it,” said Alan. “Differentiate on quality or price. Price is really simple except it is ever elastic downwards. Who is going to be the cheapest? That is a strategy to gain market share.”

Competition varies in nature from large chain corporates to low-cost providers, even not-for-profit vet chains, alongside the traditional independent opening a branch in your area.

Branded veterinary chains have the added advantage of a marketing department and a well-conceived strategy to start up in high streets and retail centres.

As an established independent practice this is a worry because they either take clients or revenue from you, said Alan. “There is massive interest in the veterinary space because in the economic period that we have just come through they see the veterinary space as a very stable thing to get involved with.

“What you have to choose with this is your position in the market. We have fewer customers at the top, spending more money. There are a lot of people at the bottom who might not have as much money. You have to make choices about where you practise medicine, who your customers are and how you rearrange your resources, your capabilities and people to match that position.”

Looking at big brand marketing is instructive, said Alan, the four Ps writ large: product, price, place and promotion.

Most offer a basic first opinion product with a large dash of lowcost preventive health-care, built around straplines emphasising their relationship with pets. Websites are bold and bright with strong calls to action.

Next is price. “While sucking you into their website they make tremendous offers,” he said. “They have low-cost offers on vaccinations, which is the mainstay of basic client attraction. It is all very appealing for a naïve client with a pet with a need.”

Place is usually prominent in the local area, often operating out of new brightly-lit units, adequately equipped with good phone and reception systems. Promotion is the heavy lifting and there is a lot going on, said Alan: TV ads, website promotions, mailshots and local advertising based around packaged low-cost options.

Frankly, said Alan, unless there is a drastic drop in business your practice can afford to lose 15 to 20% of its client base in order to make more money. “There are plenty of people below us offering lower pricing. We need to shift ourselves up… I think we ought to start with where we make money and where preventive healthcare fits in: bundling these up into health-care packages helps. The really important marketing message is to raise our customer base and quality.”

Reactivating lapsed clients is another area to consider – only 18% on average are active clients and 72% have not been seen for 12 months or longer. In essence, concluded Alan, pick up tips from the corporates. Preventive care is a proven tool for locking-in clients. “It is not about price, it is about the relationship you build.

“Vets tend to look at these schemes as transactional pieces to sell more product. They are not. They are a tool to ring fence your best client base. Then you have a core to market to.”