The word "communication" comes from the latin "communis" which means common, that belongs to several. We know that communication represents much more than the simple linear relationship between two individuals. On the contrary, it relies on an interrelated system, of reports and exchange, a perpetually moving system that generates reactions. Communicating is transmitting, revealing, sharing knowledge and information. For some, to communicate it is also to please and to seduce.
Development of practical supports
Next to general communication techniques and their applications, there are several types of tools that contribute to pass messages on. These supports are today essential means for efficient communication. One of the primary principles for good communication is to make sure that the same message is repeated in time and space. In addition veterinarians and staff cannot afford to tell clients all they need to know at all times on all topics related to their pet's wellness. We mentioned the limitations of human resources, and therefore an important place remains for communication tools. It is also true that willingness to communicate with our clients directly can vary with time and with our "mood". As a colleague practitioner once told me: "my ability to communicate with clients will drastically change if it is Monday morning and the appointment book is empty, or if it is Friday evening and the waiting room is full".
How can we handle this dilemma concerning our lack of availability and willingness to serve our clients at times? First, by forcing ourselves to adhere to our schedule and time we devote to each person. True. But secondly we can also use tools that will help us to be consistent, that will save us time, that will please our clients because they appreciate these kinds of documents.
Today, the more a practice grows, the more there is a need for high quality services, the less human resources are available and the more these forms of communication relays toward our clients are useful or even indispensable.
The Concept of Message Relay
To increase service value it should be accompanied by a tangible and objective feature because the service is now substantiated and reinforced.
The Intangibility of Services
The fundamental feature of a service is that it is intangible. It cannot be palpated. And yet these are the services we sell. In addition most of these services are consumed as they are produced. Finally another important feature of service is that it cannot be stocked and kept for later use. What we failed to provide today is lost... It is important to generate documents that would transform our services into tangible products.
This is the role of most communication tools. The classical example of this concept is the invoice (which we should use at all times). Other common examples are the vaccination booklet, examination forms, post surgical forms, prescriptions, surgical reports, lab reports, hospitalisation forms, the patient medical file & data, etc. in other words all documents that quantify and materialize services.
Communication Tools for the Reception Area
I like to say that "veterinarians are not selling, they are helping their clients to buy". There is a clear nuance and this should help most practitioners that are sometimes reluctant to act in a commercial manner.
Most of these promotional table posters or displays are very often given by drug companies that are obviously interested in promoting their products on the practice counter, simply because it will increase their sales by 20%, 30% and sometimes much more... The purpose of an SPP is triple.
To Remind: this is a reminder of some communication elements given elsewhere in the practice (the consultation room, the waiting zone, etc.)
To Inform: about the specific product or service, and its features, for example its price or its use (i.e., for old dogs) etc.
To Stimulate: this is part of the "impulse purchase" concept
In Europe according to "Consumer buying habits study" (CB News n°407, 2002), 20 to 55% of purchases are "impulse purchases" (65% in the USA). In that study it was interesting to note that the mean reading time of a consumer in front of an SPP is 7 seconds... This is not long at all and yet quite sufficient. This is why there is no need to have long messages on "information message displays". Be concise and efficient...
Most clinics today use part of their reception area to display products including and for the most part nutrition products. Today it is no longer possible to simply install products on a shelf. There are specific techniques, dedicated furniture and an entire set of concepts, including specialised professionals (merchandisers) from a marketing division or specialty called merchandising. Merchandising can be assimilated to a form of communication based on the optimized presentation of products and services with adapted supports (displays, racks, shelves, etc.). This art of presenting products is tailored to consumer's buying habits as well as to the architecture of the premises. Instead of using standardized displays, most often proposed by drug or pet-food companies, that rarely fit the practice environment, it is preferable to adopt a personalised solution. This is what is done in other business such as pharmacies, beauty shops for example.
The Waiting Area
A prolonged waiting time is among the most common client complaints.
The "waiting-room concept
One should no longer call it "the waiting room"! Who wants to wait nowadays? This word is no longer adapted to a client service because it implies a "waiting time". Consumers do not care to wait, so let's decrease the perception of a waiting time by all means. I suggest using the term "reception area", or "welcome area" no longer care to sit in a closed room (historically "the waiting room") as in the past.
Consumers should actively participate in the service and feel part of the community that delivers that service. This is the reason why walls and doors should be removed between clients and staff in the reception area. Today the "waiting zone" should be integrated within the reception area. People should ideally be in contact with one another (staff vs clients). This form of environment is seen in many different businesses where clients see, and participate in the action.
Internal Communication Tools (placed and used within the practice itself)
It is helpful to differentiate communication tools that are available and consulted by clients within the waiting and reception area from those that clients may take home and use at distance. Both internal and external communication should be used concomitantly and be synergetic.
1. Printed Documents
It is amazing to see that clients are still high consumers of paper and written documents, despite the era of electronic and multimedia they are living in. Clients like these paper leaflets, and other simple printed documents and appreciate taking them home.
Veterinarians receive nice posters from drug companies, wholesalers and other pet-food distributors... Some of these posters are generic (no products are mentioned) or directly linked to a product.
b) Brochures and leaflets
Drug and pet-food companies are inundating veterinarians with different sort of brochures and leaflets on products and services The purpose of these documents is to inform and educate clients about their pets' needs and to contribute to the veterinary communication.
c) Magazines and newspapers
As a rule, clients will not read while in the practice. Should we place magazines and newsletters? If you should decide to place a people publication in your practice, remember that the most successful item remains the local daily newspaper
d) Small ads panel board
Your clients belong to a community: your practice. Help them to communicate between themselves by installing a board that they can use to place small ads and announcements. Such panels or boards contribute to the "community" bond and help clients to identify with it.
e) Pictures of human resources
It is a nice way to highlight the practice team and to include a frame with pictures of the veterinarians as well as of the staff.
f) Guided picture tour of the clinic
Most clients enjoy visiting the "back-stage" of the practice. This is not always possible. Therefore taking some nice action pictures of the "back office", showing your equipments and services, are valuable.
g) Practice photo album
All veterinarians receive pictures and thank you notes from happy clients. Why not use these testimonials from clients and place them in a "practice photo album"?
h) Multimedia concepts and products
In a veterinary practice the environment is particularly favourable because the clients have a certain waiting time, they are sitting at least part of that time and they are concerned about their pet's health. One of the objectives of visual supports is to entertain while people are waiting. The program should therefore be attractive, amusing, and yet informative.
Today dedicated cartoons or animated movies are the ideal form of programs for veterinary practices. It is also interesting to notice that people identify better when watching a cartoon instead of a movie with real animals in action, probably because the animal actors in these movies are always different from their own pets. On a cartoon this is not a issue...
i) Multimedia DVD cartoons and programs
In certain European countries (France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Holland, UK) there is a product that fulfils most of the requirements for an ideal multimedia program for clients within the practice (Vet'Kiosk®).
j) Computer with an Internet access
Some veterinarians have produced their own web site and offer these new media to their clients to learn about additional services. It would be logical for those who have a personal Internet site to offer a computer station in the practice with Internet access, including a direct presentation of the clinic web site.
Communication today is an integral part of so called "total customer management" (TCM) that places the client as an actor in the service activity. The challenge is no longer to prescribe or sell a high quality product and service. Today, this is a "given" feature of veterinary medicine services, but to include these products and services in global client management.
This is where communication becomes essential and contributes to client satisfaction that makes the difference.
The emergence of new technologies will influence the use of communication and the tools that are associated with it. We see this already with Internet, personal digital agendas (PDA), cell phones with image and message transfer, etc. The power and role of communication in marketing and managing services will therefore become more and more important.
1. Philippe Moreau: Les outils de la communication : pourquoi faire ?, La Dépèche Vétérinaire, 2002
2. Philippe Moreau, Christophe Buhot: Manuel de Practice Management: la communication du cabinet vétérinaire, 2004