Let’s face it. Nobody goes into veterinary practice to become a great marketer. Very few even think about how to market what they do, or realize how much their success in practice depends on it.
Back in the 1950’s, it was enough to just hang out a shingle if you wanted to open a veterinary practice. It all but guaranteed success. It doesn’t work that way today. It’s unrealistic and so is the expectation that just doing a good job will be good enough to guarantee clients for a veterinary practice.
The “New” Word–of–Mouth Marketing
There are some basic truths in marketing that never change, for instance, word–of–mouth advertising is still the best marketing there is. However, what’s different about word–of–mouth advertising today is that it’s on steroids. Now, instead of telling one or two other pet owners about you—for good or for bad—clients can tell hundreds at a time. It is called online reviews.
The good news is that veterinary practice teams have a lot of control over online reviews and it starts in their offices, not online.
Here are some things to know:
- Word–of–mouth marketing is built one client at a time. It depends on how clients feel about their veterinary visit, not just the clinical veterinary care they received. We’ve known since 2007 that clients who trust you and understand the value of your recommendations say ‘yes’ more often and are more accepting of fees.1 This makes warm, personal communication throughout the visit as important as the clinical experience for the client and the pet. Veterinary team members need to be knowledgeable and competent in both clinical and client communication skills to foster a positive client experience. Does your staff training cover both for all staff members, not just the client service representative (CSR)?
- Avoid Negative Reviews. According to the American Marketing Association, upset customers are the number one reason for bad reviews. Don’t let a client go home angry. Try to solve the problem on the spot. And if that’s not feasible, make a plan to speak with the client as soon as possible to try and resolve it. This takes away the client’s motivation to vent online and it decreases the probability of a negative review. And it may also help you identify problems to fix to avoid future client issues. What procedures and training do you have in place for managing an upset client?
- Encourage Positive Reviews. All medical practices live or die by their online reputation. It’s easy to encourage positive reviews. When a client tells you how pleased they are about something during their visit, thank them and ask them if they would do you a favor and post a review online. Tell the client it would help others like them find your practice and it would mean a lot to you. Then make sure to send a follow up note by e-mail to thank them again for their promise to post an online review. Include a link to click on for the review site on which you want them to post their comments to make it easy for them to follow through. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, hire an outside firm to do it for you, because without encouragement of this kind, clients will think they’ve done enough when they thanked you in your office.
How Veterinary Marketing Works from the Client Side
Your veterinary website and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) are two other key marketing pieces because they are how clients find you. Once they find you, they will use online reviews to decide if they want to choose your practice for their pets. Making a decision on veterinary care today is usually a two-step process, especially for younger pet owners who most practices need to attract. Here’s how it works:
Pet owners go online to seek services and products for their pet to solve a problem or get what they want. They will also try to determine if they even need to work with a veterinarian or if there is a comparable alternative that would be cheaper or more convenient.
New findings from the 2011 Bayer Veterinary Usage Study2 of over 2,000 pet owners showed that pet owner behavior is greatly influenced by
- 39% look online first if pet is sick or injured
- 36% would not take pet to the vet, except for shots (vaccinations and treatment injections)
Pet owners have told us by their online behavior what they believe is important. They care if their pets are sick or hurting and they don’t want to spend a lot on injections that their
Are you talking about the things they care about on your website and social media? For instance, if you educate pet owners about the subtle signs and symptoms of some diseases a dog or cat might show if they are sick, it might help more pets to be seen by the veterinarian earlier on. Once you help them with what they care about and build trust, you educate them about the other things theirs pets need—but you may never see them if you don’t start where they are at.
Once a pet owner determines that they need to work with a veterinarian, the game changes. Now, they will look for the best veterinarian or practice for their pet—not necessarily the least expensive or the most convenient.
These pet owners see selecting a veterinarian as a learning journey. They may decide that the journey isn’t finished yet; they may wait and see how their pet does; they may try an alternative; or they may decide to do more research before making a decision on a veterinary practice. When they finally do come in, they often want to tell you what they think the problem is, based on their research. This is not a sign of disrespect; rather it is an indication of pet owners who really care and are trying to get it right.
Connecting with Today’s Pet Owner
The point is that your customer has changed. We need to understand them and market to them in the ways that they welcome and act on. Here are some more ideas to better connect with today’s pet owners:
1. Realize that the pet and pet owner relationship has shifted. It’s called the “humanization” of pets and it means that pet owners see their pets more like a child than an animal. They are not expecting rough restraint, or having their pet dragged onto the scale or into the exam room. They expect care, gentleness and expertise in handling their pets while they are in a veterinary practice. It is similar to the feeling most parents would have about their children at a pediatrician’s practice. Are you working with your team to ensure they have the skills to deliver according to today’s client expectation?
2. Technology has impacted marketing in ways that can be harnessed cheaply and economically to grow a veterinary practice. Today, you can reach and teach pet owners about the care their pets need and you can build stronger relationships with existing clients. At minimum:
- Hire a good website designer to ensure that your website is not only attractive, fast–loading and functional, but that it is setup for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and mobile–compatibility. These last two technology considerations will ensure that your practice can be found online.
- Consider allowing pet owners to make their appointments online—be careful with this one, however, and make sure that they can pick an appointment time with their regular veterinarian, lest they be disappointed when they arrive. Also, make sure to confirm the pet’s appointment to decrease the probability of “no-shows.”
- If you are not doing this already, start using text to communicate with clients after procedures and surgery at the hospital to let them know how their pets did and when they will be ready to come home.
- Collect e–mail addresses and use them responsibly; ONLY to communicate with pet owners on useful, helpful or fun news for their pets. Pet owners will appreciate e-mail contact for:
- Reminders for their pet’s next appointment.
- Timely pet alerts on new dog or cat diseases reported in your area or other urgent pet news that affects pets in your community.
- Invitation to events at the practice.
- Notification of special promotions at the practice.
- Announcement of practice contests, e.g. best pet selfie/best dressed pet.
- Announcement of changes at the practice, e.g., new doctor; new hours; new services.
- Regularly post items on social media that are relevant and interesting to pet owners and true to your veterinary “brand”, such as:
- Stories with pictures or videos* on pets you’ve helped which will educate other pet owners about what you can do for their pets, e.g., the crabby dental patient who changed into a sweet and loving dog after you took away its mouth pain.
- A video showcasing a dog and cat receiving laser therapy or acupuncture and the amazing results they enjoyed after treatment.
- Video tips on helpful topics, such as how to clip a dog’s or cat’s nails without a struggle, or to how socialize your new puppy or play with your new kitten.
- Video clips and pictures of team members and others at community events such as a dog walk or community expo that the practice supported.
- A list of the most popular dog names and cat names (from your practice database) each year.
- A photo of a dog that your practice has DNA tested. Ask viewers to guess the breed, then surprise them with the DNA results.
There will always be new marketing ideas and things that you can do. Keeping your customer in mind, and communicating with them in the ways they will expect will always be the key to marketing success. +
1 2007 AVMA-BN Research Fee Sensitivity Study
2 Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study
Free marketing and client communication training videos and other resources are available for veterinary teams at Partners for Healthy Pets, www.partnersforhealthypets.org.
*In all cases, make sure to have clients and staff members sign a simple release form to allow you to post their and their pets’ pictures online before you use them.