As veterinary medicine evolves (read that to mean “as colleagues open new practices close by”), marketing starts to interest even the most traditional practices. As a client population is diluted by additional practices pulling clients away from the original facility, the veterinary team must look to increase the value of existing clients, or must start competing for additional clients. The latter costs about six times more than the prior; it is far more economical to internally market services. Internal marketing is simply letting your existing clients know everything that is available for their pet, when it is needed, and letting them say yes or no to the service/product.
The external marketing we have seen in the United States has not helped the veterinary profession. As neophytes, veterinarians equated marketing with discounting and the price wars started. No other healthcare profession has competed on price except the veterinarians, and it is a mark of amateur efforts. The profession was being hurt with depressed fees and poor business sense as we entered the new millennium; these discount coupon marketing efforts did not help the veterinary practice’s position. Once we got into the new millennium, price creep started, and was derailed by the 2008-2010 recession.
Internal marketing means to concentrate the practice’s attention on existing clients when offering services and products. Internal marketing is based on differentiating the practice in the client’s mind in terms that will clearly define professional excellence and wellness for their pet. It requires the entire staff to be “tuned in” and “turned on” at all times! Some proven methods have included:
Reminder postcards to clients whose pets need vaccinations (a series of three, if needed, and an immediate phone call to find why people did not come back).
Telephone follow-up on medical and surgical cases half-way to the recheck time.
A practice brochure and web site which introduces the practice benefits to a new client.
Educational aids for each client (video tapes, handouts, etc.).
A well informed, professional, outpatient nursing staff being available for courtesy consultations and questions.
Extended appointments (to 20 minutes) so there is enough time to talk to clients and explain the pets needs.
Coffee/tea/candy refreshment services within the waiting area.
Small gifts for children: pet-related coloring books, pins, etc.
Refrigerator magnets or self-sticking practice phone cards for their phone books.
Taking instant pictures of new clients/pets, posting them on a bulletin board and web site, then returning them as a first anniversary present when they return for annual vaccines or services.
Pet treats for good patients (vitamins or premium snacks).
Nutritional counseling, dental hygiene counseling, photonic pen, etc.
Sending sympathy cards for deceased pets, get well cards post surgery, and some hospitals even send birthday postcards.
A recurring and well written, by the staff, friendly newsletter/blog can help continue the bond with clients to the practice.
A special “new client” newsletter email to introduce the practice, the staff, and the services offered, with better descriptions than a brochure.
New puppy and new kitten welcome kits (most of the components are provided by pet food companies) which are explained item by item by the staff.
Special times for seniors with longer appointment times (Senior’s Club).
There are many internal marketing methods, all with the same purpose — to increase client loyalty and appreciation toward the practice. Please note that every one of the above “great ideas” is staff based. When the prospective client calls the practice, they will talk to a staff member. That is why staff members must be the “first client” of the practice. Every staff member must know WHY as well as the WHAT of the promotion, service, or product. They must believe in the need for the service and have pride in the offering. If the staff member has PRIDE, the client will perceive it as quality, and value will be added in the client’s mind.
These forms of internal marketing efforts are very hard to track directly, but indirectly, the word of mouth referrals will increase and over 60 percent of the new clients will come by referral. We usually recommend the client relations team receives a doctor-sponsored lunch ANY MONTH the 60 percent word-of-mouth rate falls in a “ten percent of all transactions are new clients” month. Remember to send a “thank you for the referral” note to the client who sends someone to the practice. All mothers know, BEHAVIOR REWARDED IS BEHAVIOR REPEATED. It is the same in veterinary practice, with clients and with staff; but that is another story.
If priorities are your thing, the above item, thanking the clients who refer others to your practice, is one of the best internal promotions available. Keep a list of clients who refer your practice, and do something special for those who send more than one person a year, such as sending them movie tickets with the second and third thank you of the year. After three, they are really your advocates, so start to think of new ideas, like zoo tickets, a certificate for a dinner for two at a local establishment, sports tickets, or similar special ideas. Sending candy isn’t nice to those on a diet, and flowers can get very expensive, not to mention the allergy concerns. Some practices send a “ten dollar referral credit” to clients, but that again gets a practice into the discounting habit (and it is not tax deductible like premium gifts) — it also isn’t a “no strings attached” type of thank you, which is preferred in professional circles.
Often, a busy hospital is perceived as not needing new clients. Some hospitals take a proactive approach to this premise and place a professionally constructed sign in the discharge area, “Thank you for referring your friends to us; we will give them the same compassionate care which we provided your pet.” Others have defined their “client position” with increased access programs, such as: promoting “walk-ins welcomed”, offering early drop-off services, adding extended evening hours, offering longer weekend hours, and ensuring an increased phone support by exceptionally trained and informed staff members. Internal marketing isn’t fancy, nor is it unprofessional. Uninformed people in this profession are making it too difficult and they degrade themselves and the practice with discount offerings, giving the impression that the rest of the time they and colleagues overcharge.
Spend the time to make clients feel appreciated . . . treat them better than what they would expect. Listen to their concerns and needs and answer those issues first! Use the four handbook staff series from the AVMA to develop the integrated client-centered philosophy and techniques within your practice. Exceed the client’s expectations whenever possible, and at least meet them the remainder of the time. Client-centered service means trying to understand what they are feeling, and what is behind the words they are saying. The ability to understand the feelings and hidden meanings is another form of internal marketing. It will bond clients to the practice, and if they do try elsewhere, they will use the compassion and quality experiences of the last practice as a yardstick of excellence. Make sure your practice is the standard others are measured by in the community and you will not want for clients. This is internal marketing at its finest.