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:
4. Pet owners don't understand the need for veterinary care
5. Sticker shock
6. Feline 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 recession
It 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.