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Practices failing to communicate to clients the value of their services

by
01 July 2013, at 12:00am

JOHN BONNER reports on a two-day veterinary business forum held recently in the south of France where the value of healthcare plans and a ‘client-centric’ approach were discussed

VETERINARY practices and the pet animals that they care for will both suffer if clients are not persuaded of the importance of preventive healthcare plans, according to senior executives from the world’s biggest veterinary practice group.

Jeff Klausner, chief medical officer of the Banfield Pet Hospital chain, and Jeannine Taaffe, the US company’s senior vicepresident for marketing, were among the speakers at a veterinary business forum organised by Royal Canin in La Grande Motte, South of France, on 14th and 15th May.

The meeting, attended by more than 350 practitioners from 50 countries, highlighted the problems facing practices throughout the world and the potential value of social media and other novel communications strategies in meeting those challenges.

Dr Klausner explained that Banfield’s emphasis on providing preventive healthcare plans has enabled it to thrive at a time when the rest of the US veterinary sector is struggling.

Since it was established in 1955, the network has grown to include 824 clinics based in PetSmart stores throughout North America and employs 2,600 veterinary surgeons and 7,000 nurses. It has also enjoyed double digit growth in turnover and profits throughout much of the past decade.

Practice income shrinking

In contrast, income for most practices has been shrinking even though the US pet animal population has continued to grow.

This has been partly due to changes in vaccination schedules that eliminated the need for annual boosters. So the average number of times that canine patients are seen each year has fallen to 1.2 and for cats it is just one, he said.

Meanwhile, sales of worm and flea products through veterinary practices have fallen considerably due to increased competition from retail and online outlets. “The response of veterinary practices has been to increase prices – but what they have failed to do is to communicate the value of their service.

So clients don’t perceive that they are receiving any benefit and this creates a vicious cycle of declining revenues and influence which has been a disaster for the veterinary profession,” he said.

Dr Klausner maintained that many veterinary surgeons are not as good as they think they are at communicating with their clients. The consequences have been very damaging not just for their own financial position but also for the health of their patients.

Daily collection

Details of all 8 million canine and 2 million feline cases seen at Banfield clinics are collected daily and analysed in an annual report (www.stateofpethealth.com). This has demonstrated a worrying increase in the prevalence of a wide range of pet diseases such as dental conditions, arthritis and diabetes.

“There has even been an increase in the numbers of pets with fleas and ticks although there are dozens of medications available to treat them. That is because clients are going to Walmart and not to their vet and so they are not getting educated.”

Health plans such as those promoted by the Banfield management allow clients to spread the cost of preventive care. They also appreciate the fact that the costs are transparent with only minor variations in their structure and pricing to take account of regional disease prevalence and variations in the cost of living, Dr Klausner said.

However, it is unwise to heavily promote health plans on the grounds of cost, the only thing that will guarantee that clients will continue to support such schemes will be through meeting their demands for a long and healthy life for the pet. Furthermore, the advice offered by the veterinarian must be tailored to the specific needs of the individual pet and take account of developing risks according to its age, gender, breed and lifestyle.

Dr Klausner argued that every member of staff at the clinic must believe in the value of preventive care if they are to persuade clients to bring their apparently happy and healthy pets for the routine twice-yearly healthcheck offered through the healthcare plan. These visits are essential to identify and monitor those insidious conditions like arthritis which appear to be increasingly prevalent in the pet population.

However, two 10- or even 20- minute appointments do not provide enough time to deliver all the information that clients need to know about maintaining the health of their pet. “You need to be building a relationship in which you are communicating with your clients for 365 days a year,” he insisted.

Twice as likely to grow

Jeannine Taaffe noted research that has shown that veterinary practices that adopt a “client-centric” approach to delivering their services are more than twice more likely to be growing in the current climate than those that have maintained more traditional attitudes.

Being client-centric involves examining all aspects of the client experience and trying to assess how it will shape their opinions.

She noted that clients will have usually made up their minds about the practice long before they enter the consulting room, based on their impression of the clinic’s website, the eternal appearance of the premises and the demeanour of its staff, etc.

Banfield constantly monitors its client experience by conducting surveys of up to 10,000 pet owners a year. Mrs Taaffe recognised that in small, busy practices it would not be possible to devote much time to formal surveys but there are other ways to gauge how the practice is performing in the eyes of its clients. She recommended that all members of staff should be encouraged to ask clients whether they are satisfied with their visit and particularly whether they have understood the information given to them in the consult room.

She emphasised the importance of following up cases to ensure that the client knows what is expected of them in carrying out the veterinarian’s instructions. This can be through a telephone call, text message or e-mail and as explained by other speakers at the forum (to be covered in a report in next month’s issue) there is increasing scope for using social media and other technologies for maintaining contacts with clients.

Full support needed

Mrs Taaffe argued that the biggest challenge for any practice attempting to change the way it provides its professional services is to ensure that these plans have the full support of all the staff.

It can be very damaging both to the credibility and financial performance of the business if clients are given contradictory advice by different staff members.

It is essential that all staff are made aware of the latest evidence on the prevalence of parasitic diseases in that area and to ensure that any advice given outside the consult room is consistent with that given inside.

During questions, Mrs Taaffe acknowledged that in the past, the sheer size of the Banfield group had led to an arrogant attitude in which its managers didn’t care about the opinions of the rest of the US veterinary profession.

“This was an issue for us, there is no question of that. But we have worked hard to ensure that the protocols we have in place are fully aligned with those recommended by the leaders of the veterinary profession in the US, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association,” Mrs Taaffe said.