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Compendium July 2010 (Vol 32, No 7)

In Practice — Your Practice in the Digital Age

by Todd Lue, MBA, PRC, Stacey Holton

    Imagine that it’s the year 2000. A new family has just moved into your neighborhood with their two children and a new puppy. When the puppy swallows one of the children’s toys, the family immediately grabs the phone book to find a local veterinarian. They select the listing for your practice and call the number. You take care of the puppy, and in the process you gain a new client. Now it’s 10 years later. Imagine the same family with the same new puppy. This time, instead of reaching for the phone book, the family goes online to search for a local veterinarian. The question is, will your practice even come up in their search?

    Only 10 years ago, most of us rarely used the Internet, and if we did, it was mostly to send and read e-mail. Today people use the Internet to pay bills, book vacations, and research products, services, and companies. They shop for everything from books to pet food with just the click of a mouse. Pew Research estimates that nearly three-quarters of the US adult population has gone online.1 Of those online adults, 91% use e-mail, 89% use search engines, and 71% have bought something online. This trend is also affecting human medicine. Pew estimates that 75% of online adults use the Internet to find health information, and Manhattan Research reported that 40% of physicians are communicating with patients online.2 If you haven’t acted on these trends yet, you need to because these people are your clients and potential clients.

    Having a presence on the Web doesn’t necessarily mean you need to run out and build a Web site for your practice if you don’t already have one. While a Web site is valuable, you may not initially have the time or budget to devote to it. In this article, we’ll explore why a Web presence is vital to your practice and the options you have for establishing or enhancing your Web presence.

    Why Should I Consider a Web Presence?

    Your practice’s Web presence can be one of the most cost-effective ways to acquire and maintain clients while reducing your operating costs. In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, my colleagues and I found that

    • 40% of loyal clients were susceptible to switching veterinarians,
    • most pet owners preferred to purchase products from their veterinarians, and
    • good client communication is key to establishing trust, loyalty, and compliance.

    By not having an effective Web presence, you run the risk of losing clients and sales to other practices or Web sites that do a better job of providing more accessible and convenient means to do business with them. If having a Web presence is not already a part of your business or marketing plan, you should seriously consider whether you’re overlooking a critical ingredient for the success of your practice.

    So what, specifically, is it about a Web presence that makes it so important?

    More sales and fewer costs. In today’s hectic world, buying decisions sometimes come down to how easy it is to find or obtain a product or service. Having a presence on the Internet makes your practice more visible and accessible 24/7 to current and future clients. When people are able to find you online, they can access information about your practice and do business with you even if you aren’t open. Clients can now do everything online, from setting up an appointment to purchasing prescription refills to accessing their pets’ medical records. The bonus is that clients often choose to do business with practices online even when the clinic is not open, which helps reduce operating costs. And don’t forget e-mail, which not only cuts down on phone time but also caters to many of your clients’ preferred method of communication. Additionally, including electronic forms that can be completed online eliminates both the hassle for clients of filling out a form while trying to watch their pet and the need for your staff to perform time-consuming data entry.

    Credibility. To many pet owners, their animals are a part of the family. The more clients know about you and your practice, the more likely they will feel comfortable bringing their pets to you. Your Web presence is the perfect way to help patients get to know your practice through staff biographies, a practice history, video or photo tours, testimonials, and your practice philosophy in treating pets.

    Client communication. Consistent, clear communication is important to establishing a strong relationship with clients. As discovered in our recent study published in JAVMA , such communication leads to better trust and, thus, a higher likelihood of following and complying with recommendations. Using e-mail to communicate with clients who prefer this method can save you time, reduce costs, and offer improved accessibility. Online handouts can enhance the communication process by reinforcing conversations you have with clients in the clinic. E-newsletters offer a cost-effective way to stay “top of mind” with your clients and provide education while nonintrusively informing them of products and services they should consider purchasing from your practice.

    Real-time information. Is your practice swamped (as many are) by calls from concerned pet owners whenever there is a product or pet food recall? If so, think how posting information and suggestions on your Web site and sending e-mails could have helped keep your clients informed. If you had an online store, you might have gained additional sales of pet foods that you suggested on your Web site. Moreover, imagine the number of staff hours you could have saved on fielding calls. These little things add up to better communication and more loyal clients who are less likely to switch providers of veterinary services and products.

    Another item to consider related to timely information is the static nature of phone book listings. What happens if you need to change your practice phone number or location? With a Web presence, you can make that change instantaneously rather than wait 6 to 12 months to update your information.

    So, What Can I Do to Have a Web Presence?

    There are many things you can do to establish or enhance your Web presence. The following are some of the best ways to create an effective online presence. While doing all of them would be great, you can choose to start with one and add others as your time and budget allows.

    Create a Web site. Creating a Web site provides the best way to maximize your Web presence. There are generally two ways to go: (1) a custom site or (2) a semi-custom site using a predesigned template. While a custom site requires more work, it typically results in a better return on your investment. Templates can be purchased from many different sources, and they are a good option for getting your Web site up and running quickly. You can do it yourself or employ one of many Web site vendors that provide semi-custom sites. Of course, there are many tradeoffs, such as how well the site reflects your brand, differentiation from other practice Web sites, development time, and ancillary services offered by the vendor.

    Check into local business listings. Does your practice belong to a local Chamber of Commerce or community business group? Be sure to check whether your membership includes a listing on the group’s Web site.

    Check into veterinary medical association (VMA) listings. If you’re a member of your state or local VMA, you should take advantage of its online practice listings. The Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association Web site offers a “Find A Veterinarian” page for Illinois pet owners, as do most other state VMAs. If you’re a member and not included in the listing, be sure to contact your VMA to find out how to get your practice in its directory. AAHA and some manufacturers maintain directories as well. Don’t be afraid to ask whether your practice can be included in such directories based on your qualifications.

    List your practice with Google Maps. Google Maps listings display businesses relevant to consumer search phrases. For example, if you type “veterinarian Beaverton Oregon” into the Google Maps search engine, the results list veterinarians in Beaverton, Oregon, that have registered with Google. (Click here to see the results of this particular search.) With a Google Maps listing, you’ll be able to share detailed information about your practice such as hours, contact information, and the types of animals your practice specializes in. Listing your business is free, and you’ll even be able to add promotional coupons to your listing. However, you should be aware that while your Google Maps listing is a great way for pet owners to get information about you, it also provides a forum for client reviews, both positive and negative.

    Create a Facebook page. It’s not just for keeping in touch with your college roommates anymore. Businesses small and large are jumping on the Facebook bandwagon. The West Liberty Vet Clinic in West Liberty, Kentucky, has a thriving Facebook page. Clients can “Become A Fan” of the practice, leave comments, post information on lost pets, ask questions about their pets’ health, and post their favorite photos. A sidebar on the page lists the clinic’s mission and office hours.

    Getting your practice online is only the first step in having a successful Web presence. No matter which one of these things you do, you must ensure your Web presence reflects your brand, reinforces your marketing strategy, and is up-to-date. Nothing can be worse than having a Web site that does not reflect the quality or philosophy of your practice. And as you probably know from personal experience, if you visit a Web site regularly and never see anything new, it’s likely that you’ll visit less or even stop visiting altogether. Your clients are no different. While your receptionist or practice manager may seem to be the perfect person to keep your Web presence fresh and engaging, often it may be more time- and cost-effective to hire a Web professional. Regardless, be sure to maximize your investment by projecting a professional image and giving people a reason to frequently track or visit your Web presence.

    Resources to Help Create Your Web Presence

    Facebook: www.facebook.com

    Google Maps: http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&tab=wl

    Lue and Associates: www.lueandassociates.com

    TheSiteWizard.com: http://www.thesitewizard.com/

    Vetstreet: www.vetstreet.com

    1. Jones S, Fox S. Generations online in 2009. Accessed July 2010 at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1093/generatioins-online.

    2. Marek AC. The virtual doctor. Accessed July 2010 at www.smartmoney.com/personal-finance/health-care/the-virtual-doctor/.

    References »

    NEXT: Reading Room — Hair Loss Disorders in Domestic Animals

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