Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE, Diplomate American College of Healthcare Executives
Dogs have owners or stewards, but cats have people who wait on them. Observation of Reality
|Courtesy of Frank Siteman and Delta Society|| |
A human's best friend may be the dog, but it appears that cats have replaced diamonds as a woman's best friend. The domestic cat population has increased steadily and in 1989 they finally outnumbered our canine companions. By 2001, there were 70.8 million cats and 61.5 million dogs; by 2007, there were 81.7 million cats and 72.1 million dogs. The better news is that according to the AVMA, Charles Charles & Associates, demographic update, and subsequent reports from the AVMA and Pet Food Institute, felines have also increased their annual visits to veterinarians; over 65 percent report seeing their veterinarian annually.
Your Practice Demographics
The current USA data says that about 40 percent of the dog households have cats, that "cat only" households average 2.5 felines, and that the 60 percent of the USA family units have pets (1.7 pets per household). I challenge you to evaluate 100 consecutive medical records in your files and compare your own practice demographics to these figures.
The science of demographics makes veterinary marketing a little easier. For instance, American Demographics recently published that Portland, OR, has the highest demand for dry cat food. For a practitioner in that city, it would be wise to target this market by highlighting feline nutritional counseling as well as the premium diets available through the veterinary practice. Depending on personal comfort zones, this could be a client newsletter, a target mailing to cat owners on a postcard, or even a coupon system in a local media source.
What if you are not in Portland, OR, or do not have that comfort zone for target mailings. Your own practice demographics can still tell you if you are asking the right questions of your clients. Do you ask about other pets when a new client accesses the practice? Are all the pet records in a single household screened by the receptionist each time an established client visits? Has the receptionist staff been empowered to discuss the routine pet healthcare needs with the client, such as saying, "I noticed your kitty appears past due for some protective vaccinations. I have made a note in the medical records so that the Doctor will remember to talk to you about it." Try some of these ideas routinely for 90 days, then screen another hundred records. Most practices will be surprised by the difference the receptionist's concern makes in gross and return visits.
Marketing to the Feline Owner
Marketing is not always comfortable, but it is not always advertising either. Walk in your own reception room, stop and look around. Is the room "dog heavy" with pictures and books, or is there a balance between cat and dog graphics? Can cat owners sit away from massive canines that look like they would swallow a cat whole? Does the reception area offer a Plexiglas holding box with a white rug and clear lid for unruly or nervous cats? Pick up your hospital brochure and see if your practice is feline friendly, in word or by picture (the same logic/observations goes for Web page graphics). Move to the consult room and review the image the walls give. Are the exam tables built low for large dogs or have certain rooms been raised for cats? Is there a cat consultation room, with no dog smells? Do the routine handouts balance dog needs with cat needs?
If you are deeper into marketing, look at the yellow pages in your community. How many people have targeted the growing feline market? A simple listing that reflects special cat healthcare hours without dogs present, or special feline boarding facilities, or cat bathing/healthcare supplies may be all it takes to differentiate your practice. These same features could be just published in a special tri-fold, low cost feline brochure available at the front counter.
Many practices are starting to stock "impulse buy" items near their discharge counter. Look at your discharge area. Is it for dog owners or cat owners? Many cat owners are looking for that real catnip, a good way of watering their multi-cat household, or even an escape proof carrier. In some practices, we have built a gazebo (Lowes and Home Depot have kits) and then hung a sign, "cats only" - it is fun to watch those kitties which like to look at the dogs through the slats, and clients prefer the segregation.
The Competitive Edge
In today's veterinary marketplace, there is competition - like Duh! Not only from our colleagues, but from drug stores, pet shops, and those emerging mass marketing animal food stores. They all want our clients to come to them. In marketing we are taught to do the unusual as if it were usual, or do the usual as if it were unusual. Most practices have a slow mid-day period, so why not target that in an unusual manner, such as "exclusive time for feline healthcare appointments." An example of the unusual as usual could be simply joining cages by a small door and marketing them as cat condos (extra cage space for an additional fee in times of low occupancy). This reverse approach has proven profitable in more than one boarding complex.
It is the responsibility of each practice to target those clients who they want to attract and retain. I am surprised at the number of good practices that complain about their client mix. They do not realize that their clients are exactly the ones they have developed over the years; they are the clients they deserve! A practice starts to develop its own client mix after the first few months of operation. Each practice should have a written plan on where they want the client mix to go during the next six months, one year, and three year period, and how they plan to achieve that goal. Does each staff member know their role in making the goal happen?
Become Feline Friendly
This is a practice philosophy decision, so let's just assume from the above discussions that you want more cat clients. First, the consultation room for cats needs to be a "cat room," if there is a window ledge, so much the better. Have cat pictures and cat resources in this room and it can be "more cozy" than a dog room, which means less square feet. You can have the Kong Toys for cats on a 2' x 2' peg board on the wall. Also, if space allows, please have the cat ward away from the dog ward, and have it clearly marked so clients believe that you believe in the segregation.
For boarding dogs, we have always seen runs as the special benefit. We have even sold them at higher costs. We also have seen "play time" enter the canine boarding market. What is the equivalent for cats in your care?
1. Cat condos - Many cage manufacturers have established cat condos now, which allow vertical or horizontal movement between cage units. This allows the cat owner to purchase more "rooms" for kitty, and for the practice to realize a greater net, during non-peak boarding times. The second "room" is generally offered at a reduced rate to the standard "cage fee."
2. Feline Habitats - This concept was first called a "cat closet," more as a descriptive term than a client bonding phrase. We call them "habitats" and offer play time in them for an additional fee. At one practice, small three-foot to four-foot runs have been converted to habitats, each has been painted as a "vacation land" such as Disney, Tahiti, New Orleans, Las Vegas, etc., and "twice-a-day kitty vacations" are being offered to cat owners who board their cats. Some have asked to lease the vacation land habitats full-time for their kitty, and for $18-plus a day, the practice does allow this.
3. "Cages" - New cage units have come on the market, such as the white injection molded units, which can be "back lit" by fluorescent tubes so the "cave syndrome" becomes history. Also, changing the doors from bars to clear Plexiglas makes the units very client friendly. This has also occurred with dog cages. Using small wall light sconces, chandeliers, brass beds, framed pictures screwed to the cage wall, and other accessories makes these "glass door" units really seem like up-scale bedroom units. The practices which pursue the "no bar" boarding units charge above the community top dollar and they all have waiting lists.
4. Play Time - For practices without habitats or condos, allowing the cat out of the cage to freely roam in the ward has been tried, but you must ensure FeLV, FIV, FIP and vaccination status on all feline boarders then!
Many of your feline owners worry about "locking kitty away" for a period of time. How much your practice can excite them about the "environment" kitty will be in can cause greater client satisfaction and greater practice liquidity. Cats are quieter and cleaner than dogs, they have teeth and claws, which, while dangerous, need veterinary care. One animal caretaker can generally support 32 dogs in an eight-hour shift, but the same person can support over 45 cats in the same time. So don't just sit there, make a decision of what you want to do, and get the practice team to understand "why" you want to do it, now!
Empowering Your Staff
We are all well aware that the veterinarian produces the gross but we often forget that it is the staff who makes the net happen. The staff of any practice is the difference between success and frustration. Ask your staff what the three primary practice goals are for this year. If their answers do not agree, you have found one of your problems. As you develop a feline practice philosophy, make the objectives very clear to the staff and empower them to make it happen. Allow them to talk cats with clients or to go to local cat shows and talk with breeders and exhibitors. That is how a staff can make the difference in developing your feline practice.
If you are brave, ask a staff member, "How's your number one?" In the best of cases, they should reply with one of the practice core values, with one of the practice's short-term objectives, or with one of their performance plan targets for this quarter (but that is another leadership topic all together). In most practices, the staff members just stumble and stammer. In program-based budgeting, the new service or new product is a new income center. The new program only works if the practice staff believes in the "why" of the effort. They must be proud of the new program or new service.
Some of the ideas shared above will make most any staff member proud, such as no bars on the cage doors, cat habitats, representing the practice at a cat show, etc. It has been shown in human healthcare that when pride is the input by the staff, the client perceives quality as the output of the healthcare encounter. This is the magic competitive edge that bonds a client to the practice, and the ideas shared above are targeted to bond the "cat person" to the practice. Now, share the what, help the staff understand in the why, then and stand back. The how and who is a zone team decision, and the check and balances needed by a "control freak owner" lies in the joint negotiations to define the mile stones, time line to completion, and measurements of success when the project/program has been implemented. Train to trust, build mutual respect (Appendix A) and then watch as the Magic occurs.