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Veterinarian Technician March 2007 (Vol 28, No 3) Focus: Emerging Infectious Diseases

Management Matters: "Continuing Education as Creative Marketing"

by Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR

    Author's Note

    As a member of the practice team, I have always enjoyed attending continuing education (CE) events. Expanding my skills and gaining new knowledge have been rewarding for me both personally and pro­fessionally. Even though it can be difficult to find CE topics that directly apply to my job as a practice manager, I appreciate the opportunity to sit back, open my mind, and learn something new. Attending CE events also allows me to meet new people and to network.

    As a practice manager, I began to realize that CE could also provide marketing mileage for my practice. Although marketing can take many forms, it focuses primarily on appealing to the emotions of the consumer. Veterinary marketing is designed to touch the nurturing nature of pet owners so that they provide the best care possible for their companion animals. "Consumers" in a veterinary practice are also your internal clients, the employees. As a practice manager, you strive to help your team members feel satisfied with the services and quality the practice provides — especially to their own pets — so that they feel comfortable recommending those services to clients. The marketing methods described in this column are based on two facets of the same emotion: pride. Team members are proud to represent the practice to other professionals whom they meet at conferences, and the practice is proud that its team members are taking the time to expand their knowledge and skills.

    There is no doubt that attending CE events can benefit your team members as well as your practice. Employees gain new knowledge, the practice gains a team with new skills, and everyone wins. Yet have you ever thought of CE as an opportunity to market both your veterinary practice and your team?

    Each time team members attend a CE event, they represent your practice — consciously or not. They sit down in class beside a stranger and often engage in a conversation that starts with an explanation of "where do you work?" Friendships are made, and contact information is exchanged.

    At CE events relating to the veterinary profession, contacts can be made in several ways:

    • If you work at a specialty or emergency practice, you are making "contacts" that may potentially refer cases to your practice. These individuals may be more comfortable mentioning your practice to a pet owner because they have met you and learned a bit about the services your clinic offers.
    • You may meet other veterinary professionals who are looking for a career change. This type of contact can become a recruiting method to find new employees or a marketing tool to promote your practice as a good place to work.
    • If staff members are enrolled in basic business or client services classes, which are also attended by professionals from every corner of industry, there is an opportunity for pet owners to learn of your practice. The conversation between the team member and other attendees will naturally shift to their pets and their pets' health. Then, these new acquaintances may mention that they are looking for another clinic to which they can take their pet.

    There are ways to prepare your team members to make a good im­pression and establish connections when they are outside the clinic. There are also ways to use employees' attendance at CE events to make your practice stand out.

    Dress for Success

    We all know that wearing scrubs in public attracts attention. How many times have you been in the grocery store or drugstore on the way home from work, only to find yourself in a deep conversation with the cashier or the person behind you in line because they noticed that you're a medical professional? Dressing your team for CE events can also make others take notice of your practice. Apparel such as shirts and jackets with the company logo or company colors can be worn by team members at local CE events or on the flight to a national conference.

    Employees can also carry a professional logo-embellished bag to tote books or a laptop or a faux-leather portfolio to take notes at a lecture. Although less obvious to others, watches can be custom designed with the practice's logo on the face to provide subtle marketing. These items can be given at the time the CE event is assigned or approved, as a special gift showing that the practice is excited that the team member wants to take the opportunity to learn. They can also be given as awards during the year for outstanding performance or as holiday gifts that are encouraged to be worn or used at CE events.

    Carry the Card

    Business cards are not just for veterinarians! Every team member should have business cards. They can be printed in-house with a quality printer on microperforated sheets of specially designed paper. If your printing is outsourced, be sure to shop around for the best prices and order in bulk to get the best rate. Most team members who have cards will hand them out. Create a special recognition award for new team members by purchasing an inexpensive cardholder on which the employee's initials are engraved, and pre­sent the holder and cards at the end of the introductory period or during the employee's first favorable performance evaluation. Encourage and remind team members to carry their cards to CE events and hand them out to everyone they meet.

    Spread the Word

    When team members return to the practice after a CE event, there are many ways to spread the word about their new skills and knowledge. Let clients know that your practice encourages CE by writing up these events on the practice's Web site and in its company brochure. On the "Meet the Staff" page of your Web site, mention special CE events or certificates team members have earned along with the event's description. You can even create a special page devoted to a discussion of the CE events attended by your team and veterinarians. In the practice brochure, you can list CE achievements by individual team member, or you can add a cumulative list of CE events that your practice has encouraged and in which it has participated. No matter what method you use, the important thing is to get the word out and let existing clients and potential new clients know that your team members are interested in expanding their skills and learning more about veterinary medicine.

    Hang It Up

    If a team member earns a certificate or participates in an educational program that results in a paper award, purchase an inexpensive diploma frame and hang the framed award in the lobby or reception area in full view of clients. Veterinary technicians who have earned credentials or specialist recognition should be recognized in this manner as well. It's also important to recognize a hospital manager who has become a certified practice manager or an assis­tant who has completed a veterinary assistant's program. Even receptionists or front office team members can earn certificates for attending CE events on topics such as exceptional client service or front office procedures. However, a word of caution here — if the title of the event was "Dealing with Irate and Irrational Customers," you might want to refrain from hanging the certificate in the lobby! However, it could still be hung in the employee lounge or medical records room, in full view of the team.

    Pin It On

    Let team members display their accomplishments to clients by wearing a symbol of success on their uniforms. On their name tags, be sure to list their credentials after their names, as well as their titles. Award pins can be a nice way to reward team members and let them show off to their colleagues and clients. For example, if there is a veterinary assistant's course that your practice endorses, award a homemade certificate and reward pin to anyone who completes the course. Team members can wear the pins on their uniforms or attach them to their name tags. You can even set up an award incentive program for CE attendance. For example, if team members attend 10 hours of CE in a 12-month period, they earn one type of pin and homemade certificate. If they attend 20 hours, the pin can be a little bigger or nicer.

    Get Creative

    Feel free to get creative with your CE marketing, and be sure to involve the entire team. The golden rule in veterinary practice management is: The more you involve the team, the more they will accept the idea and feel accountable for the outcome. Bring the team together for a marketing brainstorming session, and see what types of items they would like to wear or carry to CE events. Ask them how they would like to inform clients of their CE attendance. Keep some award surprises to yourself, however, so you can enjoy giving them as gifts later.

    If the team selects an item that is too expensive or elaborate for routine use at CE events, perhaps it could become special award — for example, for someone who gives a post-CE presentation to the rest of the staff to share what he or she has learned.

    The important thing is to show appreciation to the team for their desire to attend CE events and represent the practice to others. Then follow it up by showing team members how valuable they are to the practice by sharing their accomplishments with your clients. Everyone wins — especially the pets, which have a more knowledgeable, skilled, and motivated practice team watching over their health.

    * * *

    Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, is the regular contributor to Management Matters. Katherine is the founder of the Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Practice Association (www.vespa-home.org), which is dedicated to helping emergency and specialty practice managers and other veterinary professionals manage their clinics more effectively.

    NEXT: On the Cover: "A Talk with Denise Mikita, MS, CVT"

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