It’s long past time for the profession to embrace the fact that veterinary medicine isn’t just a personal calling – it’s a business, too. Businesses don’t survive on just enthusiasm – the imperative of paying rent, staff and suppliers demands a more, well, business-like approach to practice. Success in veterinary practice requires owners who pay attention to the same issues that all businesses must: control the cost of goods, efficiently staff and price right. In addition to managing what you do, all businesses need to grow or else expect profits to suffer.
There was a time when a veterinarian could put up a shingle, do good work in the community and expect their practice to grow and prosper. It was a simpler time and worthy of nostalgia; today, there is too much competition and, in many communities, too little expectation of population growth to make this a viable strategy. Keeping up a steady flow of new clients and assuring regular visits from existing ones is vital to assuring financial well-being. And that means a focused marketing strategy.
What is marketing?
It’s not a dirty word. One good definition is that it is the activity that creates, communicates and delivers valuable products or services to clients. It’s doesn’t have to be deceptive and shouldn’t be annoying – after all, the goal is to match up people who can provide things to the people who want or need them – even if they didn’t know they wanted or needed them.
Where do you start?
Most businesses start out with consumer research, and it shouldn’t be any different in veterinary medicine – but it is. We understand less about what drives our clients than most other industries, especially on the pricing side. Market research is complicated and expensive, and what has been done isn’t likely to be specific to your practice or even your community.
However, most veterinarians live in their communities and carry around a working knowledge of their client’s expectations. It can be difficult to know how well your own practice meets those expectations – or it was before online reviews existed. Reviews can be a great window into what matters to clients; you just have to get over the occasional unfair negative review and listen to what they say.
Knowing what matters to clients (or potential clients) helps you to focus your efforts on how and what you offer. Client surveys can be useful as well: how much demand is there for Sunday hours? Is your reception desk doing a good job? Are waiting times a problem? The more your service mix matches what clients want or need, the more successful the next phase.
Getting the word out
There was a time when professional advertising wasn’t just frowned on it was actually illegal, until the Supreme Court changed the rules for lawyers and everybody else. Then, choosing the size of your Yellow Page ads was pretty much all the effort practices spent on marketing. Now, when everything is an option, the decisions can be much more complex.
Let’s make it simple.
- Choose the message – you can tie it to a specific offering (Pet Dental Health Month) or to a new service (like acupuncture) or can be focused on what’s unique about the practice and its mission. The message should be simple and clearly communicate the value to the client.
- Choose your audience – existing clients, lapsed clients or new clients. The messaging and the medium to reach each most effectively will be different
- Set a budget – similar businesses generally allocated 1-2% of sales for marketing. Very few individual practices do this, and yet are hungry for more client visits. You don’t want to waste money, but don’t skimp.
- Pay attention to reminders – every dollar spent here is worthwhile. You’ve made your case to your existing clients, and they have a demonstrated need to come back for further care. Whether it’s a wellness check-up, vaccine boosters, drug monitoring or medication refills, be sure that you understand your process and carefully execute it.
- Think electronic – digital communications are the most efficient way to reach your audience. Make sure you’re collecting email addresses from existing clients. Plan your Internet strategy to conform to today’s consumer behaviors. You should always be running a Google AdWords campaign to attract new clients. AdWords Express makes it easy for a practice to do a credible job on their own.
- If you’re spending money on phone books – don’t. Really, stop it.
To be a successful practice these days, veterinarians need to think more like business owners and a little less like doctors. Make your practice a destination for pet owners, make sure they find out about you – and then deliver on the promises.