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Veterinary Forum November 2009 (Vol 26, No 11)

Get clients to love your fees

by Yvonne Stecher

    You are on your way to your next patient and, while taking a shortcut through reception, you see Mrs. Smith standing next to the desk. She's holding Mulligan, yesterday's tough surgical case, in her arms. Your top technician is all smiles as she discusses the discharge instructions with Mrs. Smith. The technician is smiling because not many people thought that this case would have a happy ending.

    However, thanks to your surgical skill and the incredible efforts of your staff, Mulligan is on his way home. He's been given a second chance at life. You smile to yourself as you walk down the hall, proud to see that cute little dog going home with his owner.

    A few seconds later, you hear Mrs. Smith gasp. "Why did it cost $1,500?" she asks. "All he did was eat a little superglue." The warm glow you were feeling starts to fade.

    When an owner questions the cost of treatment, it can be hard to keep that glow from turning into a glower.

    Why don't they get it?

    When you work hard to practice great medicine, your staff pulls out all the stops, working together like a well-oiled machine, and your hospital does its best to offer every reasonable service, comfort and advantage to your patients; why does it seem that some clients still try and nickel and dime you? The answer, according to practice consultant Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, may be that they don't understand everything that you do for their pets.

    "We think our clients know what's going on behind the closed doors, but they don't," said Grosdidier, a speaker and consultant with Veterinary Management Consultants in Colorado. "If you want to cut down on the number of complaints about your fees, you have to invest a little time and energy in explaining exactly what it is you do, what it is you plan to do and what you have done," she says. To justify the costs of quality veterinary care, you need to make each visit to your practice a memorable experience for the client and always reinforce the value of what you are doing.

    Communication is key

    Whenever clients make appointments, Grosdidier recommends sending them a letter or an email that outlines what you expect to cover during their visit. "Now you've set it up in their mind, and they are no longer thinking that they will be seen for a 'just a vaccination' visit." Advise the client to write down, ahead of time, any questions he or she may have about the pet's health or veterinary care, and tell the client that you want to make sure he or she gets the most out of the visit to your practice.

    You can also add more value to your message and increase the personal connection between the practice and the client by including information about a pet's previous visit. For example, you could say, "The last time we saw Buster, he was dealing with [a, b and c], and now I'd like to recommend [x, y and z]." This shows the client that you have been thinking about his or her pet, rather than thinking of the pet and client as a number in your database.

    "You also want to make clients feel like you're expecting them," Grosdidier said. "Have the dog's picture appear on the computer screen. Have everything ready when the client walks in. Don't read through the file as you walk into the examination room. These steps can help make each client feel unique and special, and it helps to set the tone. You want to make clients feel like they are a part of a community in your practice and that you're not just moving people in and out as fast as possible."

    Use cool tools

    When it's time to pay the bill, many clients ask themselves, "What did I get for my money?" It's your job to make sure that they know. First, you need to ensure that your clients know about the wide range of veterinary services available to help their pets. Second, before you admit a pet, ask clients if they would like you to go through the pet's treatment plan with you. Then, when the pet is discharged, sit with the client and discuss everything that was done for the pet while it was in your care.

    Grosdidier has a list of techniques she recommends practices use to help clients understand the value of proper veterinary care:

    Use visual tools — Seeing is believing for many clients. If you can, give your clients a tour of your hospital. Show them your imaging capabilities, the surgical suite and the monitoring equipment. Walk them through your recovery area, and show them how their pet will be cared for by your staff. If you can't give a tour, take some photographs of these sections of your practice and create a slide show that can run on your examination room computer.

    If a client has to admit a pet for surgery, walk the client through the whole process, from the time the pet is dropped off, through surgery and recovery. Show the client a picture of each stage of the pet's treatment. When the pet is out of surgery, call and say, "Buster's fine," or email the client a photo of the pet in recovery, along with a simple message, such as, "Everything went well," Grosdidier recommends.

    Visual tools can also be particularly valuable during the discharge process. Grosdidier encourages practices to create a digital presentation of a pet's surgical experience. For example, include a copy of the pet's radiographs and photos of the pet being brought in for surgery and in recovery. "At the discharge appointment, you can then have your technician say to the client, 'Let me take you through what we did for Buster today,' and use the presentation as a visual aid to reinforce all of the things you did for the pet," Grosdidier said.

    Provide Access — "A client who is paying $1,500 for a surgery should be able to call someone who is standing in front of his or her pet and can say, 'He's still under anesthesia,' 'He's fine,' or 'The doctor is still with him. He'll call you at 4:30 pm and let you know how it went,'" Grosdidier said. "If a patient is in an emergency situation, the client should also be able to call someone at 3:30 am to find out how the pet is doing so that he or she can go back to sleep."

    Having access to a practice website or pet portal, such as the customized pet portal service offered by VetStreet, can also help clients feel like they have a direct connection to the people and services that they need. Pet portals allow clients to access basic pet health records, review recommendations, click on links to veterinarian-approved medical information and purchase needed products and prescriptions online.

    Shine at discharge and follow-Up — You can be an absolutely brilliant surgeon or practice the best medicine, but if a client leaves your practice feeling confused, the two of you are working at cross purposes. To ease confusion, Grosdidier believes it is essential to schedule a discharge appointment to help enlighten your clients. Rather than merely bringing pets to the front desk and reciting routine discharge instructions, try to bring clients into a quiet examination room away from the bustle of the clinic. While a technician can handle client instructions, the doctor can poke his or her head in and say, "Buster did well today. Lesley is the surgical technician who was with him, and she will go over my discharge instructions. She'll explain the pain medications we've given him and how we're going to keep him comfortable tonight. Buster will need to come in again in 7 days."

    This accomplishes two things. First, a focused setting makes it easier to ensure that the client understands your discharge instructions. Second, the client can speak with a person who was involved in the pet's procedure. Most clients find that connection reassuring.

    But is it practical?

    Grosdidier says that she sometimes encounters opposition from veterinarians who think her recommendations are too time-consuming to implement with regularity. In reality, however, these routines don't take long to set up or to follow. And the bottom line is that clients who spend $900 on dental work for their pets should feel like they are getting their money's worth. "The feeling you should strive to leave clients with is, "'They do a heck of a job. It might be a little more expensive than the practice down the street, but it's fair when you consider all that they do,'" Grosdidier said. When clients walk out the clinic door with that thought in their heads, it makes your job much easier and more enjoyable.

    NEXT: H1N1 flu confirmed in Iowa cat and Oregon ferrets


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