Bizvet, Inc.; Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Walpole, MA, USA
Marketing is the process of planning and executing the development, pricing, promotion and distribution of goods and services, with the purpose of achieving practice goals. By anticipating and satisfying the wants and needs of the consumer, products and services flow from the practice to the pet owner.
Marketing sometimes gets a bad reputation amongst veterinarians, but there is nothing immoral or unethical about meeting the health care needs of patients. In fact, in these days of heightened awareness of compliance, it might well be considered unethical for practices not to make their clients aware of products and services for which their pets may benefit.
Marketing is not about selling unwanted services, but is a method of meeting the needs of clients by informing them of what they should be doing for their pets and how the veterinary hospital can help meet those needs. Today's marketing is about developing long-term productive relationships with clients. It is a client-oriented business philosophy that stresses customer satisfaction as the key to achieving practice goals.
Internal marketing directs marketing efforts towards existing clients, while external marketing efforts target new clientele. To be effective, a marketing plan must address both concerns. Future growth in veterinary practices comes from increased utilization of services from those existing clients as well as the entry of new clients to the practice (which must at least offset the regular attrition of clients in the practice). Dramatic gains can be made in many practices simply by providing needed information to the public and to existing clients. Traditional "selling" need not be part of a professional marketing plan.
Internal marketing deals with promoting services to existing clients. Existing clients are already a well-defined population whose healthcare predilections are easily accessible. Compliance studies have shown that existing clients are rarely following existing protocols for most veterinary hospitals, so marketing to existing clients is both medically necessary and cost effective.
The Need for Internal Marketing
Organized veterinary medicine is failing the vast majority of clients that are already using veterinarians for their pets' health care needs. The failure is not one of medical incompetence, but of limited information sharing. Seeing veterinarians on a once-a-year basis means that pet owners are getting information from other potentially less-informed sources the remainder of the time.
Internal marketing is not about selling; it is about educating. Veterinarians need to inform clients about the proper ways of caring for their pets. The more complete the picture provided, the more likely there is to be compliance and good choices made by clients. Similarly, the more often clients hear the same message from different individuals from within the hospital, the more likely they are to act on it.
Effective internal marketing requires knowledge of the pets being served by the practice, contact information for owners, and some way to measure compliance. Whether the system is computerized or manual, if the information is not available in the records, then it is hard to use it productively for internal marketing efforts.
The practice must be able to track this information and direct client educational materials to those owners who have been notified but have not yet acted. The information of what services are outstanding for any individual animals must be available as a central resource, not just buried in the medical records.
Personalized Pet Care
As a profession, veterinarians have tended to make generalized rules for patient care, but in the age of the Internet, clients are expecting customized solutions and deserve such. Is the medical care of a Labrador retriever really that similar to the needs of a Shih Tzu? Groomers certainly appreciate the differences, as do boarding facilities, but veterinarians for the most part still embrace a one-size-fits-all healthcare philosophy. The profession is just coming to terms with the frequency of vaccine administration as a general ruling but have yet to address similar concerns--should a Chihuahua receive the same vaccine dose as a Great Dane? Should a Doberman pinscher receive vaccinations on the same recommended interval as a Shetland sheepdog? Are all pets considered senior (geriatric) at 7 years of age?
Each breed has its own risk factors for diseases, and veterinarians would be well served to understand these differences when developing internal marketing efforts.1 Similarly, protocols should be established for monitoring patients on therapeutic or preventive regimens. Sometimes, delivering doses of medications on a monthly basis to owners is superior to selling them a year's supply if they are prone to missing doses. Animals on most medications should be monitored periodically for therapeutic benefits as well as for adverse effects. All animals require some form of periodic monitoring, even if they are otherwise healthy and just on preventive medicine regimens.
Personalized pet care requires more effort, but it is infinitely more responsive to the needs of clients and pets. This is even more significant when it comes to disease screening. Each breed has its own risk factors for diseases, and veterinarians would be well served to understand these differences when developing internal marketing efforts.
Along with having systematic documentation of patient needs that are easily accessible, it is also important to have functional reminder systems. At the end of every client visit, there should be a reminder generated for the next visit. Logically, pets should be seen at least twice a year, but even if the practice adheres to a once-yearly evaluation, a reminder should be generated in the system. Give the client several options for reminders, and most clients who lead hectic lives will not consider this an intrusion. Some options include e-mail, text messaging on cell phones, mail, and telephone calls.
Since mailings are the most expensive and sometimes the most neglected forms of contact (by recipients), having the other options available are convenient for both client and practice. If all reminders have been sent and the client has still not responded, the practice should send one final notification that it is assuming that the client is not interested in continued veterinary care at the practice and that unless it hears otherwise, the patient's medical record will be removed from the active medical files. If veterinary care is being provided elsewhere, then the practice offers to forward relevant medical information to that practice, upon notification by the owner. Above all, the message should be that if the pet is not receiving care at the practice, it is the hope that the pet is receiving its needed care elsewhere.
If clients do not respond to this message, there is no point in sending additional reminders. If the client does respond, the staff should schedule the needed appointment and then inquire as to the form of reminder notification preferred by the client.
External marketing deals with increasing the exposure of the practice to new clientele. In contradistinction, internal marketing deals with promoting services to existing clients. Attracting new clients to a practice depends of creating value within the practice, differentiating the practice from others in the area, and then promoting this value to the public.
External marketing is important, because it is a necessary growth strategy for practices. Clients will be naturally lost to attrition over time and new clients are needed not only to fill the lost client positions, but for the practice to thrive and grow.
Internal marketing should not involve selling clients services that lack intrinsic value. For most veterinary practices, internal marketing should focus on delivering those services, which the hospital team already believes is valuable, but which is not currently being delivered in a reliable fashion. Consultants refer to this as "low-hanging fruit". Whereas veterinarians may be tempted to buy expensive equipment that can be marketed to clients, there are so many routine services that are not being consistently delivered and that warrant increased attention by practices.
Pet owners are at a disadvantage compared to parents of children, who tend to have a variety of resources at their disposal for the anticipated care and expenses of dependents. Armed with this knowledge, emphasis is placed on routine medical visits, preventive care, proper socialization, education, and insurance to mitigate the costs of medical care.
For too many years, pet owners have been trained to expect that a one-time neutering surgery and occasional vaccination is all that is needed unless an animal is ill. Compliance studies support the notion that clients do not appreciate the level of care they should be receiving, and veterinarians overestimate the care that is being provided on the basis of their instructions.
Today's clients are value shoppers, and it is critical that veterinary practices invest in future growth through effective marketing campaigns. In this competitive environment, it is important to differentiate one practice from another, and one must be able to demonstrate how one's practice provides value relative to its differentiation.
No part of this material may be reproduced or copied in any manner without express written consent of author. Some of this material has been abstracted from Management Basics for Veterinarians, with permission.
1. Ackerman, L: Business Basics for Veterinarians, ASJA Press, New York, 2002
2. Ackerman, L: Management Basics for Veterinarians, ASJA Press, New York, 2003
3. Ackerman, L: Five-Minute Veterinary Practice Management Consult, Blackwell Publishing, 2006
4. Stowe, JD; Ackerman LJ: The Effective Veterinary Practice, Lifelearn, Inc., Guelph Ontario, 2004