Veterinarians: Be choosy about choosing

Veterinarians: Be choosy about choosing

Too many options from a veterinarian can be confusing – streamline your clients' and eliminate their frustration.
Jun 30, 2012

On a recent overseas flight, I was reading one of those airline publications when I came across an interview that caught my eye. It was about choices, decision-making and their outcomes in business management.

Reading the article reminded me of the experiences I had just had in the marketplaces and bazaars of India. These venues were crammed full of crafts, rugs, pashminas and more smells, sights and sounds than you can possibly imagine. It was literally sensory overload. Even more overwhelming was the fact that virtually every shop, booth and stand carried essentially the same items. Nothing differentiated one stall from another. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of offerings were available and there were no clear signposts to identify brand name or provide product information. How could I decide whose item I would purchase? There were too many choices, there was too little differentiation, and there was no way to make an informed decision. Sound familiar?

I have been in a number of veterinary practices that seem to think they must inventory every option for pet owners. Every flea and tick control product, every heartworm preventive and every non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. After a certain point the choices become not only confusing but pointless. How many kinds of chewing gum do you need?

It is time for us to stop overwhelming our clients with choices and decisions that, frankly, they're not informed (nor qualified) to make. "You can do A, B or C" provides no guidance to a pet owner trying to decide on a vaccine protocol, pet food or a parasite control product. Studies have repeatedly shown that when people are faced with too many choices for them to process, they are unlikely to make a decision. In the end, they may walk away with nothing. If they do make a purchase, they're even less likely to be satisfied with their decision.

The perception of choice

Life would be a lot simpler if one size fit all. However, while a universal pet healthcare protocol might cover critical areas, it may not be appropriate for many patients. Fortunately, clinicians have tools at their disposal to help them make implementable and actionable recommendations to their clients that will reduce confusion, enhance credibility and improve adherence.

The most important tools are medical guidelines. Medical guidelines are science-based recommendations for treatment and preventive healthcare that, when coupled with a personalized risk assessment, will lead to a recommendation that can be clearly explained. For example: "Based on what we know about your pet's health and risk factors, we recommend the following." This approach can shape the way you and your clients discuss non-core vaccines, specific dietary recommendations, parasite prevention and control products and more.

Another tool involves understanding the psychology of choice. How people choose has become the subject of much research and analysis in the last few years. Professor Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, and Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, have all studied choice and the process of taking action. Their consensus? People believe that every little difference matters; therefore, every choice matters. While most of us equate choice with freedom, not everyone thrives under the pressure of making decisions. To force clients to make a choice, particularly from a range of similar options—nutritional products, parasite control products, medical treatment possibilities—frequently leads to paralysis. They simply can't choose and frequently end up frustrated and confused.

Look at your own hospital pharmacy. How much overlap exists among products? Unless there is a demonstrable difference that you can easily explain to your clients, you are not doing anyone any favors by presenting unguided options rather than advocating for a single recommendation. Again, how many types of chewing gum do we need? The value of choice relies on the ability to appreciate differences between options.

Of course, Americans place great importance on choice. It's the "you can have it all" mentality. Look at where we shop—big-box megastores where the purchasing of a single item can be an overwhelming experience. But where does this cultural value of free choice get us? Studies have shown that too many options interfere with consumers' ability to make choices and, perhaps just as importantly, they can prevent consumers from being satisfied with the choices they do make.

Make choices meaningful

When considering products or services to provide in your veterinary hospital, don't ask, "How many choices can I give my clients?" Rather, ask, "How can I make the client experience more meaningful?" This means offering just a small selection of choices with easy-to-understand benefits and advantages. Most people can identify the differentiating factor between choice A and choice B, but trying to differentiate among choices A through Z is simply too much.

So how do you present choices for the greatest acceptance of and adherence to your recommendation? First, reduce the number of choices offered. Studies show this step alone will increase acceptance of recommendations. Additionally it will lower inventory costs and ultimately result in an improved experience for the client.

Second, make it real. Make sure you point out implications and advantages of each choice.

Third, break things into categories and give options in each category. For instance: dental care, vaccinations and parasite control. Walk the client through one choice per category before going to the next.

Fourth, take it easy. Some choices are more complex than others. Approach the simplest choices first.

The goal is to advocate for the highest-quality choice and avoid causing confusion with needless options. Remember, you'll clarify by simplifying the client's choices.

Dr. Paul is a veterinary consultant and a founding member and former executive director/CEO of the Companion Animal Parasite Council. He has served as president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies.