6 lessons learned about the decline of veterinary care
In January 2011, a new and disturbing marketing study, the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, was released. (The second phase was released this month. See story, page 1.) It confirmed a multi-year, nationwide decline in the number of companion-animal visits to veterinary practices. The study identified six factors that contributed to the decline:
The factors the study identified are indicative of profound changes in the way pet owners view and use veterinary services. The good news is these changes also give veterinarians six targets they can use to turn around the decline and attract pet owners back to their practices. To understand the implications and the opportunities the study identified, it's important to look at how consumers' perceptions of veterinary medicine and spending patterns have changed in the six areas.
1. The recessionIt did not cause the decline in visits, but it did accelerate it and painfully brought it to the attention of veterinarians. Statistics from the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI) leave no doubt that practitioners felt the slowdown in visits during the recession years, 2008-10. However, the pet economic sector overall performed well compared to the rest of the economy. In other words, pet owners continued to spend increasing amounts of money on their pets, but they were spending it in retail, not in veterinary practices.
The growth in pet expenditures proves that pet owners were willing and able to spend money on their pets—even in a recession—and that marketing works, even in a slow economy. Improve the marketing of your practice to attract new clients. Go beyond the traditional reliance on word-of-mouth marketing and find new ways to reach pet owners who aren't bringing their pets in for preventive veterinary care and who may not understand why they should.
This is another name for competition. But the competition the study describes isn't other veterinary practices—it describes competitors who make themselves appear as equal but less-expensive choices for pet care. Well-intentioned pet owners sometimes don't know the difference in the quality of medical care and advice that veterinarians provide, and they end up making poor choices. When they see a mobile van in a parking lot advertising vaccines for $15, they assume it's a good deal. They view services like this the same way they view cheap oil changes for their cars. It's an easy way to save a few dollars and from their perspective there's no difference except for the price.
Pet stores, online pharmacies and supermarkets want veterinary clients to spend money with them. They're the competition. Learn to compete by paying better attention to clients when they're in your office so you can offer customized solutions to their pet care problems. Let pet owners know you can solve their problems before they leave and seek solutions elsewhere. Being more attentive and listening are the first steps to understanding client problems, and these are skills that everyone in veterinary practice needs to get good at to compete.
While fragmentation is just another form of competition, there's nothing stopping veterinarians from making themselves more competitive. Offer convenient evening and weekend hours and online product options for clients. Tell them the reasons behind your recommendations so they see the value of choosing them. Give focused talks to business groups, schools and clubs in your community to engage local pet owners and create an advantage over the competition.