Referral Marketing
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2011
Peter Weinstein, DVM, MBA
Southern California Veterinary Medical Association, Cypress, CA, USA

Acquisition marketing helps you to build your existing client base or replace clients that you have lost. Retention marketing helps you more firmly entrench your existing clients into your practice family. With Referral Marketing, you are using marketing ideas directed at your existing client base to have them assist you in the acquisition of new clients.

Referral Marketing can be one of the most rewarding aspects of your practice. It is such a great feeling to have your existing clients act as cheerleaders and fans for your practice. It sends the message that you are doing things so well that they are talking about you to people they know, they meet, or are related to.

However, asking your existing clients for referrals isn't easy. It is easy to put up a sign asking for referrals. But, really asking for them is outside most people's comfort zones. How can we create a Referral Marketing program that adds new clients to your practice that stay, pay and then refer more people just like them? You must create a system whereby the receiving of referrals is a cornerstone of your marketing efforts!!

With a referral, the person referring to you has confirmed that their friend, family member, or acquaintance not only needs, but wants what you offer and they are ready to visit your practice.

Why is Referral Marketing so effective?

1.  Credibility: A referral from friend to friend is a transfer of trust in your practice from your client to their friend.

2.  Spending: People who are referred to your practice tend to spend more money. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, your clients will refer others to your practice that are already 'pre'- qualified and not price shoppers.

3.  Cost Effective: Even with reward based programs it is the least expensive form of marketing.

What To Do

How can you get your current clients to give referrals? Ask them!!

Have you instructed them? Motivated them? Made it easy for them? Or even let them know that you are seeking new clients?

Getting referrals takes planning and preparation!

Step 1. Make a List of All the Clients Who Might Be a Referral Source For You

You would hope this is every client. In reality, the clients that you want to refer to you are your best clients. The concept is best refers best. Those clients that are most compliant, most agreeable, most likely to follow through, are those most likely to refer the same.

Clients who spend the most money will hopefully send in new clients that have money to spend.

Clients who are most agreeable and easy to work with will hopefully send in new clients that are agreeable and easy to work with.

Start by segmenting your client list to those that you want to see as your referrers and feel most comfortable approaching.

Step 2. Identify Clients That Are Already Referring People

Having identified those that might be a referral source in Step 1, now identify those that are already known sources for referrals. Your practice management software should be able to print a list of your client sources. Of course, you must be entering this information into the system to make it work.

Action item: This is a must. For each and every new client that visits your practice, for each and every "Welcome" Form that is filled out, the question, "how did you find out about us?" must be completed. The client is not to leave the hospital without sharing this information. No referral marketing program, and no marketing program in general, will work unless you religiously collect this information, document it, save it and can retrieve it. There are many, many sources for referral that may be put as a list on the form, however, I have found the best way to find this out is to simply ask: How did you FIRST find out about us? Why first? Because, there are a lot of Yellow Page and Internet referrals that started out as discussions at the Dog Park or on line at the bank. You must find out how people found you.

Back to Step 2. You must be able to create an active list of who is sending in the most clients to you as a referral. These Referrers are now on your radar screen for this program.

Step 3. Help These Selected Referrers Help You!

Having identified your referrers it is time to let them know:

 How much you appreciate their referrals

 How they can help other pet owners like them by referring to you

 How you would really love to see more clients just like them

 And, how you will reward them for their dedication, support and referrals through a special referral program

Step 4. A Referral Reward Program

This is based upon the premise that behavior rewarded is behavior repeated. Currently, what do you do when a client refers someone to you? Do you send a thank you card? The same one for each referral? Do you send a thank you gift? Is there an escalating scale for each referral? Or do you do nothing?

A client that sends in a friend, co-worker, colleague or acquaintance, is probably not expecting anything in return. How do you think they would react if they did receive something? Anything?

An Escalating Scale system creates a series of rewards with increasing value as they are given. They may start at a $10 value and progress to hundreds of dollars over time.

The use of in-house gift cards rewards people that are already spending money at your hospital with a discount for coming in for future care. They may start out as a small amount off on their next visit and increase from there. They could progress to free baths or boarding.

The use of gift cards from other businesses can result in a reciprocal program whereby you purchase gift cards from that business for your referring clients and they do the same from your business for their referring clients. This may lead to both businesses getting new clients.

Or consider a variety of different cards at different levels from pet stores and coffees shops to hotels and restaurants.

You are asking yourself how can I afford to do this? I can't afford to give clients $25 for each client they refer!! Actually, you can't afford not to!! If a client refers in one patient and the new client spends $300 over the next year and $3000 over the next decade, was the $25 investment worthwhile? Making a small investment to bond a client for a lifetime makes common sense.

Another idea for a gift program is to use a menu of options similar to a rewards point program that an airline or credit card may offer. Thus, a client may choose from the following list of gifts for the first referral, a different list for the second referral, etc.

Whichever program you choose, it must be consistent and it must be handled in a timely manner. The timing after the visit is important to the referring client so that they know you care about them!!

Another thought is the Annual Gift Program. For that client or a group of clients that send in the most referrals, create a little competition to see who can refer in the most clients. The client that refers in the most clients gets a special award and recognition in the hospital and in what they are gifted.

Are these bribes to get clients to refer to you? Absolutely. They are ethical bribes and done every day and in every way.

Step 5. Public Accolades

Clients like to be recognized for their contributions also. A sign in the waiting room acknowledging all the clients that have sent in their friend and family members. A place on the website. A box in the newsletter. Just a quick note (besides the Thank You note you are sending already) to let other clients know about the support you are getting from your existing clientele.

Step 6. Build It and They Will Come

So, you have this great client recognition program but nobody knows about. What good is it? None!! So, how do you professionally, let clients know about his program?

Signs in the Lobby

 Ask Us About Our Client Referral Program where you can get rewards for letting us care for your friends and family members pest.

 "We Grow from Your Referrals and You'll be Rewarded for them, too."

 "Ask us how you can benefit from sending in your family and friends."

Client Communications

 Messages at the bottom of the invoices can express the same as noted above.

 Notes in the newsletter can do the same.

 Special letters written to expressly ask for client referrals are very effective and best sent those clients you identified earlier.

 If you don't ask you'll never know what might happen.

Asking is the hardest part. It is hard for the veterinarian, it is hard for the staff. But you must learn how to do it. Creating scripts is one way. Touching on relationships that exist is another. It will be uncomfortable at first. But if you don't ask they can't say NO and when they start to say YES, you'll be amazed.

And when this gets rolling, these same clients will be the ones more than happy to create testimonials for you.


Referral based marketing is all about relationships and extending the relationships that you have build through client service, value, caring, compassion, and concern. It is all about the bond that you have created between yourself, your practice team and your clients. To create this bond, you have given your clients the individual attention, acknowledgment and a feeling of being genuinely appreciated. Their friends, family and acquaintances are seeking the same. Let your clients know that you are eager to help and then deliver.


Speaker Information
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Peter Weinstein, DVM, MBA
Southern California Veterinary Medical Association
Cypress, CA, USA