‘Many practitioners have an overinflated view of their verbal skills’... - Veterinary Practice
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‘Many practitioners have an overinflated view of their verbal skills’…

JOHN BONNER in his second of two reports on a two-day veterinary business forum in the south of France in May, covers sessions looking at ways of improving communications with clients

WHEN clients leave your consulting room, will that be the last you ever see of them?

Maybe, because for a worryingly high percentage of client interactions, their last words will be farewell rather than au revoir, practitioners from across the world were told at a meeting on client communication held in the south of France in May.

Pere Mercader, a veterinary business consultant from Spain, described the results of a survey of 400 veterinary clinics which showed that 49% of clients that present their pet for a single transaction will not return again in the following year.

More worryingly, few practices seem to do anything about lapsed clients: in the audience comprising nearly 350 practitioners and practice managers from 48 countries, 56% had no idea how many clients fail to return, and only 21% carry out an annual check of how many clients are lost.

“These numbers are horrifying, we need to start doing something about this,” Mr Mercader warned. He calculated that if the numbers of retained clients increased by 5% that could result in a 30% improvement in practice profitability. Speakers at the meeting organised by Royal Canin highlighted the importance of good communications skills in demonstrating to clients that they should regularly visit a practice to safeguard the health of their pets [see July issue, p54].

Unfortunately, many practitioners have an overinflated view of their verbal skills. So they must reassess the way they use traditional mechanisms for getting their messages across, as well as embracing the huge potential of social media for opening new channels.

Important tool

Outside the consulting room, the telephone remains the most important communications tool, used in 72% of contacts. But even that is not always used effectively. Mr Mercader noted research from the UK that at certain times, between 10 and 20% of telephone calls to a practice get an engaged signal.

E-mail still drives more traffic within a veterinary practice setting than social media and its value shouldn’t be underestimated, he said.

Even so, it still needs to be used properly: the recipient’s name in the “subject” line makes it far more likely that the message will be opened.

Other forms of electronic communication will become increasingly useful for practices, the audience was told. The only thing holding this back is the technophobia gripping large numbers of practitioners: “You must face the fear,” insisted German vet Christina Lauer.

Ideal starting point

Establishing a well-maintained website is the ideal starting point for any practice seeking to become more “technology-savvy”, she suggested. It is vital that the content is kept fresh with regular updates.

Writing a personal blog is a good way to ensure that there is new material for visitors to see, and this content can be shared more widely using Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels.

One obstacle to wider acceptance of electronic media is the belief that it requires outside help. “Anyone who can use Office Word can use a content management system to upload material onto the internet, you don’t need to be an IT professional any more to create content. Nor is it expensive in terms of effort: it should need less than two hours a week to maintain a website,” she said.

Once basic competencies have been developed within the practice, then the next step is to acquire skills in searchengine optimisation to ensure that the practice website appears high on the first page of any search results for veterinary services in your locality.

To further improve the site’s content, a practice must also consider using web analytic tools to find out who is visiting the site and what exactly they are looking for.

Dr Lauer recommended using local versions of a service like Piwik in Germany rather than the better known Google Analytics. The information gathered will remain on your server rather than that owned by some multinational computer company, she said.

Not an option

Ignoring the IT revolution is no longer an option because clients will constantly remind their practitioners of the power of the internet.

Cindy Adams, director of the client communication programme at the University of Calgary in Canada, noted that 70% of clients bring information obtained from ‘Dr Google’ to their appointments.

Dr Adams warned colleagues that they shouldn’t see this as a challenge to their position as the authoritative source of information on animal health matters.

Clients want to know more about their pets as there is a gap between what clients want and what they get in a 10 or 15 minute consultation. They are seeking guidance from the vet on where to look for further information.

“As veterinarians, you need to work with them to set up a joint management plan that the client understands, feels comfortable about and is prepared to follow through with,” she said.

Complaints are an obvious consequence of failing to communicate properly with clients but even when errors have been made it is always possible to rectify them, suggested Antje Blaettner, a German veterinary surgeon who founded Vetkom, a company which educates vets and VNs on practice management issues.

Dr Blaettner emphasised the importance of having staff who are trained in dealing with complaints and the need for agreed protocols on how incidents should be dealt with. She noted that in the client’s eyes any grievance that they may have will be entirely justified, whatever the practice staff may think.

Show understanding

So staff must be ready to say that they recognise something stressful has happened, to express sympathy and offer to take action in dealing with it. “Showing understanding doesn’t mean that you agree,” she said.

While the client may often appear to be complaining about the cost of treatment, there will usually be another underlying issue. Hence, preventive care for the client is as important as that for their pet; veterinary staff should take pre-emptive action in asking if clients are satisfied with their contact with the practice and deal promptly with any issues that are mentioned.

It is much simpler to deal with problems when the client is still on the premises, although action can still be taken later on.

Monitor your reputation

Dr Blaettner recommended that practices should monitor their online reputation and deal promptly and courteously with any grumbles that are only revealed through social media.

If complainants can be identified, then they can be contacted to discuss the matter privately but even if a person has posted a complaint anonymously, there are still steps that can be taken to minimise any damage and even enhance the practice’s reputation in the eyes of other clients who may see the exchange.

Clients adopt opinions about their veterinary practice long before they have met the clinical staff inside. The visual appearance of the premises, the sounds and even smells convey messages to potential clients of which the staff may be completely unaware, said Zara Boland, a practitioner based in the UK who also runs the communications consultancy, Vet Voice.

While filling the room with a pleasing fragrance like fresh linen sends positive messages to the client, it isn’t possible to assess what effect this will have on their animal.

Good ventilation

She thought that DAP pheromones may help to reassure an anxious patient but probably the best strategy is to ensure that good ventilation soon clears the reception area of any unpleasant odours.

To build and maintain their client base in an increasingly difficult environment, practices must find better ways of communicating with clients between consultations. Gregory Casseleux, a graduate of Lyon veterinary school who is responsible for Royal Canin’s scientific communications, offered two new tools for strengthening the bond.

In human medicine, mobile phone applications providing health information will be an industry worth an estimated $6 billion by 2017. In veterinary medicine, there are two areas where such tools will be useful in monitoring basic clinical parameters in animals with chronic disease and in client education. The company has recently developed software for both situations and is introducing the resulting services to veterinary staff across Europe.

Anatomical images

The first is Catom, a service that provides more than 1,000 anatomical images for practices to demonstrate the causes and treatment of feline diseases. The images can be tailored to the needs of an individual patient and can be incorporated into the client records.

Meanwhile, Vet Follow Up is a computer portal that allows clients to communicate with their practice and work together in managing conditions such as diabetes, obesity and dermatological diseases.

The owner can input data into the pet’s record which allows the practice to monitor and direct the patient’s treatment.

Yet practices don’t always need their suppliers to help them build better communications with clients. Pere Mercador offered a series of tips from practices which have developed their electronic tools.

One practice in Barcelona used its Facebook page to keep clients up to date with the progress of a parvovirus epidemic that affected the city. News of the initiative reached the local radio station which reported the latest developments throughout the region.

The practice’s efforts received a commendation from the city authorities and helped educate thousands of dog owners to ensure that their pets remained healthy.

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