If the slow economy has put a damper on business, use this time to step back and assess your practice. Identify the emerging opportunities you have to strengthen and grow. Veterinary practices are in a new situation, and new thinking is needed.
A large veterinary practice gathered its managers together at the end of 2008 and explained that business was down. The owners asked managers for ideas to streamline the practice.
The managers instituted more flexible staffing to match client demand and reduce overtime. They improved inventory management to order items just in time and just enough to avoid out-of-stocks, increase turns and control shrinkage. And they were more careful about purchasing new equipment and other items that could wait.
The result was an increase in profitability, even though gross revenue has not yet improved.
Inefficiency doesn't happen by choice. It develops in a haphazard manner over time, usually starting as short-term solutions that go unexamined during busy times.
A slow economy gives everyone a chance to take a hard look at their operations, make overdue changes and weed out inefficiencies. Just be careful to make smart cuts that won't compromise good client service and patient care.
Improve your Web site
Web sites are not superfluous. All reputable businesses need to have one and use it effectively as a business-building tool. Too often, practices that have wonderful literature in their offices to educate clients about fleas, heartworm, nutrition, senior care, pet dentistry and more, have a boring Web site with little information or information that is not up to date and in line with current standards of care.
This disconnect can confuse clients, who often go to that Web site to learn more before or after a visit. If the information they seek is not there or is contradictory, they will jump to other, possibly less reliable, Internet sources.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but put the hospital's telephone number and area code on the home page. This encourages prospective clients to call for appointments rather than e-mailing or taking no action. Give clear driving directions, too.
Provide downloadable forms for new clients and those whose pets are scheduled for surgery to fill out in advance. Make sure, too, that clients can request prescription refills and make appointments online.
To improve marketing effectiveness, create links on your site to and from other reputable sites whose visitors have an interest in pet care. If you are an American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) accredited practice, a link to the AAHA Web page will help clients appreciate what that means.
Finally, make sure that you have an online "Yellow Pages" listing that links to your site. Half of all clients today no longer keep paper telephone directories, but seek the services they need through the Internet.
Use e-mail reminders
The cost of sending clients a postcard reminder is 28 cents, and home mail delivery soon will drop to five days a week, so if you haven't considered sending e-mail reminders before, now is the time. More than 80 percent of clients today have e-mail access.
The effectiveness of e-mail reminders in the veterinary profession is still unknown, but outside firms that e-mail reminders for practices claim they see more appointments and more prescription refills than with paper reminders.
Plus, the potential printing and postage savings is at least $300 for every 1,000 postcard reminders.
Start by changing your client information sheets to include a space for their e-mail addresses and a box to check if they would like to receive e-mail reminders. Then try a test run. E-mail 100 clients and compare the number of appointments they make to the number from people who received written reminders. If you mail twice to the latter group, mail twice to the e-mail group to ensure a fair comparison.
Finally, call a random sample of the clients who were e-mailed to see if they received the reminders and ask if they liked having that option.
The Wow factor
Technology can create a Wow factor in practice that delights clients, builds team pride and creates positive word-of-mouth marketing.
Digital X-rays are a good example of an affordable technology for larger practices. The learning curve is fast. The digital radiographs enable better diagnostics and crisp visuals to share with clients in the exam room and on disk. Clients can take the disk home to show everyone Fluffy's problem.
Other technological advances to consider are scopes that allow clients to see into their pets' ears and/or computer-generated visuals that show inside pets' intestinal tracts, joints and more.
These help clients understand the value of your treatment recommendations. A copy of the pictures can be printed or e-mailed to clients to aid recall and improve compliance.
The caveat is to buy only equipment you can afford and will use enough to justify its cost.
You can gain attention also by creating new niche services that clients can't find elsewhere, such as health-care packages that address risk factors of different canine and feline breeds, home nursing visits for pets, pet hospice and pet behavior counseling.
Maintain human contact
Using automated answering machines, which force clients to go through a phone tree of options to talk to a real person during normal business hours, is not a good idea.
They are supposed to save time and money, but is that worth the client good will that is lost?
Knowledgeable, caring veterinary team members are the antidote to cold, automated answering systems. You and your people have the ability to bond with clients and build rewarding relationships.
Technology has its place and can do amazing things, but it cannot replace human contact. Any technology choices you make should improve human contact, not build walls.
When considering new equipment of any kind, weigh all the costs, including how it will affect client care, before you sign the check.
Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM, is a veterinary business consultant and nationally known writer and speaker. She is a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager and a founding member of VetPartners. She can be reached at: