In the face of unprecedented competition, the veterinarian and his/her team must provide their patients & clients the best scope of medical and surgical care but also a variety of services and products related to their pet's wellness. For most pet owners, these services and products are expected to be provided by the veterinarian. They wish to find at the veterinary practice all necessary advice, but also products and animal health services. It is therefore mandatory that veterinarians know and try to match as closely as possible their client's expectations.
For some veterinarians these services & products are not considered to be "ethical" or part of their responsibility. However in the eyes of the owners, the veterinarian is the expert, so it is quite normal and "expected" that he or she would fulfill these needs. The "animal doctor" is expected to propose such services or products. However, it is well known that there is a potential cultural conflict. Most veterinarians will mention that they have not studied medicine and surgery to "sell dog food, or shampoos". In such case the barrier is the veterinarian, not the owner.
Definition of client's expectations & needs
Expectations are what is expected, wish, hoped, and desired. In the word "expected" one can perceive the necessity and potential for dissatisfaction if this expectation is not or no longer fulfilled. In other words clients may be initially impressed because a service was beyond their expectation. However it then may become a need and a request. This is the continuing challenge of trying to achieve excellence in client service by exceeding client expectations.
A few years ago when you called a veterinary clinic, or any consumer service oriented business you received the typical welcome such as 'hello'... today a correct welcome would be something like "Welcome at the Samaritan Animal Hospital, Jenny speaking, how can I help you?..." to the point that when we don't receive such type of personal greeting, one wonders if he or she did not dialed the wrong number?
There are several kinds of expectations. Those who are expressed or so-called 'explicit' and those who are not expressed by the customers or so-called 'implicit' expectations. It is quite important to know what are our client's implicit expectations since by definition these will not be mentioned by people. A perfect example is the fact that people expect the personnel and staff in a veterinary clinic to have a ' professional medical look' (white or medical types of clothes...), if it is not the case, people may be surprised or even upset...but they will not mention it...it is implicit for them. Veterinarians specifically need to have a good understanding of that category of expectations. Some classical implicit expectations of the consumers include:
Availability (no wait, flexible hours, easy access & parking, sufficient stock, etc.)
Transparency (prices should be clearly marked, invoices should be itemized, etc.)
Choice (various products & services, 'freedom of choice', etc.)
Environment (comfortable, neat, clean, odorless, friendly, modern, etc.)
clarity of the offer (prices listed, estimations, badges, etc)
services (various services adapted to their needs as pet owners)
Clients cannot judge the level of medical and surgical care you give, but they can and do judge the level of service they receive. In the client's eyes, the only major factor that may distinguishes you and makes you unique from other practices, therefore striving for excellence in client services is essential.
Various surveys have shown that what clients were looking for in a veterinarian was by order of importance his or her:
capacity to listen, and only after:
his or her competency!
Why does competency only rank in fourth's position? Simply because all veterinarians have the same diploma and therefore the same level of competency to treat pet's common medical problems... Don't we react the same way with our family doctors? A recent survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1996 revealed what were the factors that influenced people's choice to select their veterinarian:
hours & availability (31%)
road signs (7%)
What is quite remarkable in this study is the fact that proximity is the major factor, but recommendation has a very strong influence. I believe that for this part of the world, 'pricing' is overestimated in this survey as it is an American study and in the USA pricing and 'tele-shopping' is a much more sensitive issue and part of the American culture. One also would notice the paramount importance of "recommendation". This is our best (and only?) marketing tool. Everyone knows that there are good and bad recommendations. These are very powerful. Specialist mention that one dissatisfied client will talk to 10 persons around, while it requires 5 satisfied persons to obtain one good recommendation!
Measuring client satisfaction in a practice can help maintain a more stable, satisfied client base. Satisfaction will often be a measure of client perception of quality. The highly satisfied client will feel they have received a high quality service, whereas the dissatisfied client will be disappointed by the quality of service.
Client service is the ability to meet client requirements. Services are experienced, and veterinarians, as service providers, are as much in managing the client's experience as in providing technical expertise.
The first law of services summarizes this concept by Maister: Satisfaction = Perception-Expectation.
In other words, if the client perceives services as better than expected then satisfaction is high. We are all consumers at one time or another and this is indeed the way we also as consumers analyze the services that are provided to us. The aim of a veterinary staff is that every client who comes to the practice goes away satisfied with the services they have received. This is the way the business should be build. Another survey in France (STIV 1994) has shown what were the client's expectations for pet services given by veterinarians:
Preventive medical care (63%)
Nutrition (60%)-Behavior (44%)
Emergency services (30%)
Animal training (15%)
It is quite important to realize that people expect veterinarians to provide non medical or surgical type of services. The veterinarian is expected to deal with the healthy pet and no longer only with the diseased animal. Clients expect the veterinarian to advise them what is the best nutritional regime, the best food for their pet. This is again an important client's expectation. As one of the leader of the British Veterinary Practice Management Association once said:
"Any business that wants to succeed must be aware of its customer's requirements...failure to do so is a missed opportunity to satisfy client needs and to maximize profits." (Dr Geoff Little, 1994).
Many practitioners are focused on the medical & technical issues. They do not realize that their services do not match necessarily what their clients expect and do not listen to them.
How to create a loyal client base
As Marty Becker states "in the face of unprecedented competition veterinarians and their team must fight back with better skills, increased attention to detail, and a commitment to exceed client expectations"
Today veterinarians may still value their business by evaluating their client base. Loyal clients are those pet owners that when they think of animal health, product, care, service, advice, think veterinarian and not any other place (pharmacist, drugstore, supermarket, pet-store, grooming, dog trainer, etc). There will always be people that will use other sources for certain services & products and it is normal. However in our society people's time is so valuable that many customers are looking for a one stop purchase (no need to travel somewhere else to get the food or the flea product). Also clients are often looking for specialized and customized services and high quality products, this is again the reason why they select premium products and services provided by a professional, by their family veterinarian... This is the basis for establishing a loyal and faithful clientele. The clientele that will use the practice service not only for the sick and injured pet, but more so for the healthy one. The American have even invented a new word for their dictionary: "wellness".
In order to make loyal clients, veterinarians and their team need to possibly do everything that is required for the people to be happy and to come back as often as possible. This is more than meeting client's expectations ...It is exceeding client's expectations.
Marketing surveys have shown that a loyal client to a veterinary practice visits the clinic about 2.8 times /year and spends about $140/year (excluding pet food). Therefore there is indeed a direct economical impact as well as an emotional one since it is rewarding and motivating to work with clients that follow your suggestions. I believe that this is an important reward in our busy days of labor. A form of work satisfaction.
I like the following statement that came from one of my favorite author: Walt Disney! "We will do what we do so well, that the people who see it will want to see it again, and bring their friends"
Isn't this an excellent way to summarize what veterinarians should achieve when it comes down to creating a loyal client base?