If cats could talk, or dole out effective marketing and business strategies, they’d tell their veterinarians to get a makeover. Until then, it might not be a bad idea for veterinary staff members to learn how to “speak cat” to clients.
The results of a 2011 CATalyst Council study published July 1 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association suggests that a cat-friendly practice makeover can increase the number of feline visits, revenue per client and total practice revenue--not to mention client awareness of preventive care. The study, based on 17 practices--13 independent practices that were clients of ThinkPets Inc., a client communications and practice analytics company, and four practices owned by VCA Animal Hospitals--set out to determine whether the recent year-over-year decrease in veterinary cat visits could be reversed.
“It takes a commitment and some really significant work on their behalf,” says Jane Brunt, DVM, CATalyst Council executive director, of practices that take on the program.
“They can do it. You can change.”
The cat-friendly practice makeover program implemented staff education training and marketing and client communications strategies at participating practices. The first step was to e-mail a client survey to current clients to obtain insights into the client-practice relationship. Questions ranged from opinions on reminders and other communication methods to practice characteristics that made it a more or less friendly place to bring a cat. In these surveys, participants were asked why they did not regularly bring their cat to the veterinarian. Forty-four percent of responders thought veterinary care was too expensive, and 13 percent said it was too difficult to transport the cat to the practice. However, 60 percent of respondents indicated that preventive care was their primary reason for bringing their cat to the veterinarian.
To better educate clients, the program first sought to educate veterinary practice staff. Staff education consisted of Web-based training sessions and access to reference materials. Webinars addressed the reasons behind the decrease in cat visits and provided methods staff members could use to encourage clients to bring their cats in for examinations. One cat-friendly suggestion was to create a cat-only waiting area.
The training materials and other resources are designed to give staff members a “language” to reach cat owners. CATalyst has several online resource videos available to educate staff and clients--for example, there’s one on how to put cats in carriers. Study participants were given the video to download and put on their practice websites.
“It also gives a talking point,” Brunt says. If someone calls about an appointment and voices a concern, the practice team member can direct the client to the video on the website. “It’s teaching the communication and having the resources right there for people to point to,” she says.
Brunt believes cat owners simply like being asked if they need help--it makes them feel like practice employees care. “Then if you provide the service, satisfaction goes up,” she says.
Even if the average practice doesn’t have access to the webinars available to program participants, Brunt suggests looking to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, which has a Cat Friendly Practice certification program, and the American Animal Hospital Association for standard resources. But she says the key to success is actually fairly basic. “It’s mostly that internal agreement that we’re all on the same page--everyone understands what you’re doing in regard to cats’ needs,” she says.
Once everyone is on board and education and resources are available, Brunt says, the number one factor is communication and the understanding that the cat-friendly practice makeover is a process.
For example, team members should be aware that, according to the study, 83 percent of cat owners also own dogs. So when clients with dogs come in, it’s likely they own a cat as well. That knowledge gives team members the opportunity to better identify cat owners and address their needs. The study also found that 97 percent of primary-pet dogs in a household had been to the veterinarian within the previous 12 months, compared with only 80 percent of primary-pet cats. In households with multiple pets, there was a “substantial decrease” in annual visit rates for dogs and cats not considered the primary pet.
While the veterinary team is one of the most effective marketing tools for reaching clients, often the problem is getting pet owners into the practice in the first place. In these cases the message must reach them somewhere else. Accordingly, the cat-friendly makeover also utilized print, online, video and direct mail strategies. Each practice received a custom marketing piece bound to a copy of Healthy Pet magazine. Practices were also given access to a customizable online pet medical and wellness resource preloaded with a personal pet website for each pet owner. The site included information about the owner’s pets and provided articles and information targeted toward the pet’s specific species, breed and age.
Practices were also enrolled in an automated e-mail program that sends out quarterly life-stage updates and birthday notices. The e-mails were positioned as coming from the practice and personalized to each pet by name. A monthly e-newsletter was made program-specific for participating practices and included subject matter specific to cat health and education on the importance of veterinary visits. “The online presence for cat owners is pretty huge,” Brunt says. “There’s not a dog park for cats--it happens online.”
Television monitors and computer equipment were also provided for practices to display streaming video in their waiting rooms. The 30-minute video loops included cat-related content to educate and entertain clients. In addition, clients who had visited their practice within 15 months received direct mailings with special offers for products ranging from pet food to pet health insurance.
Crucial to program implementation was the commitment to collecting data to track changes. As such, the practices sent out post-program surveys to their clients to see if the strategies had made any difference. Results indicated that 37 percent of clients thought veterinary care was too expensive, 11 percent said it was too difficult to transport their cat, and 65 percent were driven by preventive care. The numbers indicate the program’s education and marketing seemed to improve client perspective on the importance of preventive care and the value of veterinary services from May to September 2011. The pilot practices increased feline visits 5 percent more than the control group of practices and increased 2 percent in feline total revenue.
Although most practices cited the client direct mail program, life-stage e-mails and e-newsletters as helpful, the study found no correlation between those strategies and the success of the program’s top-performing practices. However, the study did find that the top-performing practices had a higher mean percentage of staff webinar attendance. Most of the practices indicated that the webinars, reference materials and information on cat-friendly transport were helpful and all participating practices reported they thought the program was helpful in educating staff members about cat care. Fifteen of the practices said they would continue targeted messaging to cat owners and 11 indicated they thought the program was helpful in growing their business.
“It’s going to help them, it’s going to help their teams and it’s going to help their clients,” Brunt says.
Participating practice staff members were provided the following reference materials during the cat-friendly practice makeover:
-Program overview document
-Feline wellness program implementation guide
-Feline life-stage chart
-Telephone skills document and talking points
-Feline wellness standards of care review and checklist
-Feline reminder items overview and recommendations
-Optimal cat-handling techniques
-Cat-friendly facility procedures
-Tips for cat-friendly transport
-Tips for easing the stress of traveling with a cat
-Telephone calling script for non-responding cat owners
The CATalyst Council believes clinics can achieve similar results as the Cat-friendly Practice Makeover by implementing these five strategies.
1. Hospitals should set up a basic feline wellness program with recommendations about the frequency of preventive care visits (the CATalyst program recommends two examinations a year), vaccinations and other health screenings.
2. Educate staff about the importance of preventive care for feline health and ensure that all staff members, from receptionists to veterinarians, are on the same page so that messaging throughout the practice is clear, consistent and repetitive.
3. Create separate waiting areas and examination rooms for dogs and cats to make visits less stressful for clients and patients. Also, consider introducing feline pheromone diffusers into examination rooms to help soothe cats.
4. Train staff in feline-friendly handling techniques. Go to the CATalyst Council website at www.catalyst council.org/resources/video for videos to assist in staff training or to the American Association of Feline Practitioners website at www.catvets.com for additional print resources.
5. Offer clients tips on how to make transporting and traveling with their cats less stressful. A video on the CATalyst Council website at www.catalystcouncil.org/ outlines five steps to help owners.
Go to www.catalystcouncil.org/www.catalyst.org for resource videos.