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Veterinary Forum July 2008 (Vol 25, No 7)

Business Skills — Boosting client communication

by Cathy Levendoski

    Client communication is important to a successful practice and is a key component in providing effective animal care, according to the study "Perceptions and Attitudes of Pet Owners: The Impact of the Bond" conducted by BNResearch on behalf of Banfield, The Pet Hospital. When clients truly understand their pet's condition and the benefits of treatment, they are more likely to follow the veterinarian's recommendations.

    Howard Rubin, former CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI) who also helped facilitate this study, found that when veterinarians balanced medical and technical skills with strong communication skills, their practice performed better. "Performance has several measures, such as profitability, customer service levels and adherence," Rubin explains. "Great medical care is a partnership between veterinarians and clients, and strong partnerships are built on good communication."

    Rubin also finds that pet owners are eager to get as much accurate information as possible, and veterinarians need to be the vehicle feeding that hunger. That's what Philip (Pete) VanVranken, DVM, owner of Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic in Battle Creek, Mich., has found to be true at his practice, too. For 15 years, he has used communication campaigns to educate his clients about the various health services available for their pets. "Veterinarians often think of themselves as selling products and services, but we're also selling information and peace of mind," he says. "Good communication tools can provide much-needed information that can help clients sleep better, knowing that they are giving their pets the best care possible."

    Several communication tools have been launched recently to help veterinarians communicate more effectively with clients. "These tools can make it easy and convenient," says Mary Ann Vande Linde, DVM, owner of Vande Linde and Associates, a practice management consulting firm. "The easier it is to develop good communication systems, the more likely veterinarians are to stick with them, even through staff turnover. This delivers a consistent message, is time-saving and can be cost-saving for the practice."

    Using today's technology

    While an owner is in the waiting area, emebaVet's video-streaming service can be entertaining and educational. Launched in 2006, emebaVet's video content is delivered over the Internet to a high-definition, flat-screen television installed in the waiting room. According to the company, the service encourages clients to inquire about additional products, saves time in the exam room and increases sales.

    For a one-time setup fee of $600, emebaVet creates practice-specific video content, such as doctor and staff profiles, client testimonials and offered services. After that, the $199 per-month cost covers a stream of entertaining segments, such as practice-specific information, up-to-the-minute local news and weather and general pet health and lifestyle information. There is no charge for the flat-screen television or installation, which emebaVet owns and maintains.

    Once clients are in the examination room, the Pet Health Network touch-screen computer allows them to see, hear and interact with medical information. Clients also can email what they learn directly from the exam room to their home for review later. This combination of sight, sound and repetition can speed client understanding, increase memory retention and improve compliance.

    The Pet Health Network system consists of a wall-mounted computer for each examination room with three-dimensional anatomy visuals, home care videos, instructional animations and a health care library. The system also offers a website that is linked to the practice's website; Podcasts and Webinars from national experts to train the practice team on cutting-edge communication; and electronic pet history and examination forms.

    Lesley Birmingham, DVM, of Falmouth Veterinary Hospital in Falmouth, Maine, tested the system for a year before it hit the market and measured the effect on dental cases at his practice. "With Pet Health Network, our staff examines and grades dental disease consistently, and our clients now see visuals to support our recommendations for dental procedures. The bottom line — our dental revenue doubled, and our compliance has gone up," he says.

    Vetstreet is a new company that was formed when Medi­Media, which owns Veterinary Learning Systems, the publisher of Veterinary Forum, purchased Pet Portals and VetSuite. Vetstreet offers a seamless comprehensive communication platform for veterinarians to stay connected with their clients between office visits. Vetstreet delivers pet health information through a combination of automatic emails and pet-specific websites. The service allows veterinarians to provide clients with online access to their pet's individual health histories and includes automatic email reminders, birthday e-cards, seasonal health tips and email alerts to keep track of pet health schedules. Veterinarians also can send out email marketing campaigns that require little time to prepare. Plus, an online pharmacy component enables veterinarians to offer their clients the convenience of purchasing guaranteed products via the Internet.

    When veterinarians sign up for the basic Vetstreet service, which costs $200 per month, each client who provides an email address receives a personalized pet website. Much like the previous Pet Portals, clients can log on to view their pet's health information, send updated contact and pet information and communicate with the practice. Visits to the practice's website typically increase because pet owners must go there first to access their Pet Portals. If a veterinary practice requests a website, Vetstreet will build and host one for no additional charge.

    In addition, clients can request prescriptions and therapeutic diet refills from their veterinarian and have them delivered to their home, as well as access a complete health care educational database.

    According to a nationwide study conducted by Vetstreet, veterinarians who used the automatic email reminders in addition to their current reminder protocol saw compliance increase from 40% to 56%, on average.

    "When I review my reports, it's crystal clear," says Gary Edlin, DVM, of the East Louisville Animal Hospital in Louisville, Ky. "The clients who use Vetstreet follow more of my recommendations for their pet's care."

    Beyond ordinary reminders

    Several practice management software companies, including IntraVet and McAllister Software Systems, makers of AVImark, have launched online reminder card services that are integrated with their software systems. IntraVet and AVImark reminder cards go a step beyond the more traditional reminders — they are full-color and personalized with the name of the client and pet. The software integration makes it easy and cost-effective to send reminder cards each month.

    Veterinarians use their software to create a mailing list of all clients whose pets are due for services. Then they log on to their software vendor's website, select the reminder cards to be sent and upload their mailing list. These reminder cards not only remind clients about upcoming services for their pet but enhance the image of a practice, increase compliance and make an otherwise laborious task quick and easy. And their costs are comparable with other services.

    Taking client communication one step further, In Touch Marketing Solutions combines personalized reminder cards and direct mail campaigns with the Internet. The company offers a variety of client communication pieces that are personalized with the name of each client and pet, including direct mail cards that educate clients on such health issues as dental awareness and parasite prevention, reminder cards and email reminders at prices that are competitive.

    Direct mail cards, reminder cards and email reminders can be combined with interactive, personalized web pages, called pURLs, which further educate clients about various treatments and allow them to complete pre­appointment health care forms, answer survey questions to gather additional information about a pet's condition and request appointments or print coupons. For example, when Jane Smith receives an email reminder for services due, she is linked to her pet's personalized online health care form, where she can answer questions about the dental health of her pet and ask the practice to call her to make an appointment. These online health care forms can be customized for each veterinary practice.

    pURLs are the latest tool used by direct marketers to improve response rates. According to In Touch, veterinarians can combine the personalized web pages with direct mail or email reminders to increase ancillary services by as much as $100 per client transaction.

    HealthyPet Magazine offers an alternative way to send reminder cards, with a 36-page, full-color magazine that is wrapped with a reminder of services due for each patient. In addition to encouraging regular wellness visits and immunizations, this quarterly magazine educates clients about other pet health issues that are appropriate for the season. Recently HealthyPet added an email service that alerts clients when the magazine is on its way. According to HealthyPet, educating clients creates more informed pet owners, healthier pets, better relationships with clients and increased compliance year after year.

    NEXT: Challenging Your Pet's Food Trial


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