Mind Over Miller: A little more conversation, a lot more loyalty
Because I began practice in 1957 in a rural community that had never before had a local practicing veterinarian, I had to let the local (small) human population (who owned a huge animal population) know of my availability. The professional ethical code of that era forbade any advertising other than one local newspaper publication of the professional’s business card. Advertising, coupons, signs or other sales techniques were forbidden.
So, in order to let the public know of my existence, I did several things: I joined the local Lions Club and a couple of other groups in town. I visited local ranches to ask if they could board my wife’s horse. This inevitably led to conversations that included the question, “What do you do?”
I explained that I was opening a mixed-animal and house- and farm-call veterinary practice. This invariably produced a joyful response such as, “Oh great! We really need a vet out here. We use Dr. _____, but he’s 35 miles away and sometimes not available, so we’re glad to know someone else is here if we can’t get him.”
When we reached a staff of eight doctors, we were told that we were the largest general practice group in the United States. Of course, that was almost half a century ago, and large group practices are now commonplace.
One reason our practice grew so rapidly and so successfully is because, although I never violated our strict ethical code, I found a very effective method of recruiting loyal clients—the telephone.
Today, unsolicited telephone advertising is a plague, but that isn’t what I did. What I did do:
1. Even when my entire practice was ambulatory (large and small), if I was late I would telephone the client, explain why I was late, apologize, and tell them when I expected to arrive. People almost invariably were understanding and appreciative.
2. The year after I began my practice, our team got its first telephone answering service. At first, the owner of the business did all the answering herself, and she was excellent. Eventually, as our community and her business grew, she hired other operators. I asked the owner to allow me to personally train each operator as to how I wanted the telephone answered:
—Not “Veterinary service!” But “Dr. Robert Miller’s answering service, how may I help you?”
—Not “Is this an emergency?” But “Dr. Miller is off duty now, but he is available if you need to speak to him.”
I told them that it does not need to be an emergency for me to speak to the caller, at any time, if they were concerned or had a question.
The above became a permanent practice policy even after I opened an office and even after we had grown into a large group.
After I established a clinic, whenever I completed a surgical procedure, I personally phoned the client to reassure them that the patient was doing well (if it was). This usually elicited words of relief and gratitude.
Often, long after caring for a patient, I would call a client to say something like, “This is Dr. Miller. It’s been three weeks since we treated Brownie’s ears. Is he still comfortable?” Or, “Several months ago, we removed Pal’s tumor. I have an identical case and I thought I’d call and find out if Pal is still doing well.”
The surprise and appreciation expressed by clients after such calls was so common and so effusive that it invariably built our practice. A common response was, “I wish you were my doctor.”
When, inevitably, our practice grew to the point where the doctor did not always have time to make such calls consistently, the calls were assigned to practice employees who were polite, friendly, patient and understanding.
In human and veterinary medicine, such a call is a rarity. This is unfortunate.
You say you are too busy? I was never too busy to make such calls. The result? A practice that grew and grew and grew.
Today, the automatic answering machine and recorded messages are available to “relieve” the busy doctor from making such calls. But remember that the client who calls about their animal is usually concerned. A response acknowledging that concern reflects the doctor’s sympathy, compassion and understanding.
Unanswered phone calls, brusqueness, indifference, impatience and forcing callers to leave messages are not practice builders. Importantly, such “call backs” are informative to us as to the efficacy of our treatments. What I don’t want to hear is, “Dr. Miller? Oh! Pal died the day after you sent him home.”