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  • Dr. Bill Wagner

Clients aren’t doctors: Don’t just communicate cost, communicate value

This morning I was reading a study on the dimensions of pet-owner loyalty, trust, and perceived value and one line in particular stood out to me:

“The cost and perceived value of veterinary services are not in alignment. Most respondents (91.7%) agreed that the veterinary care that their pet received was good value for the money. However, nearly a third of respondents (30.1%) agreed or strongly agreed that veterinarians offer additional services just to make money. This finding suggests that the totality of care that a pet requires has not been fully explained in a way in which the pet-owner understands, or values.”

The top reasons for pet owners not returning to a veterinary clinic include cost of care (21.4%), perceived poor care (17.9%), veterinarian personality (15.7%), and customer service (14.3%). I think that all these complaints can be rolled up into a single category: Failure to communicate value. Rising standards of care and a generally ethically well-aligned veterinary workforce means that most pets today receive excellent medical care at veterinary hospitals, both by objective standards and relative to veterinary medical standards of care of the past. Also, while the cost of veterinary medical care has outpaced inflation in recent years (although one could argue that this is a justified catch-up, as veterinary prices lagged inflation by roughly 25 percent from 1972-99) the cost of veterinary healthcare relative to comparable care provided to humans is significantly lower. For example:

US median cost of an anterior cruciate ligament repair for a dog: $1,900-2,116

US estimated cost of an anterior cruciate ligament repair for a human: $20,000-50,000

While part of the price gap is explained by the difference in the liability profile, this still begs the question: If veterinary hospitals are providing excellent medical care at an arguably very reasonable price (at least relative to what comparable care is billed in the human species), why do so many pet owners leave visits from their veterinarian upset about the cost and/or quality of the care that their pet received?

1) Clients usually aren’t doctors, so they are reliant on you to explain not just WHAT needs to be done, but WHY. Skimping on explanation is an easy temptation for a busy clinician, especially on busy days. However, there’s strong statistical evidence to support that even a small amount of “going the extra mile” in communicating value to clients will have a significant impact on how they perceive both the value and the quality of the care that their pet received. A failure to understand why the provided care was necessary and important directly correlates with perceived poor quality of care. This is important as a clinician and as a business owner: You can perform excellent care and achieve an excellent medical outcome but if you communicate value poorly to a client, they will think that their pet received poor care.

2) Loyalty is built on trust, and trust is built through honest and robust communication. “Pet-owners who express attitudinal loyalty are more inclined to utilize one veterinary clinic exclusively, are more likely to forgive service failures, may be willing to pay premium prices, and are willing to proactively recommend a veterinary practice to a friend.” Loyal customers are the bedrock of successful businesses. The best way to build loyalty is to take your time and be a good teacher to your clients.

3) Most pet owners want to like their vet! The veterinary profession enjoys a largely positive public perception, with trust and satisfaction figures both sitting in the range of 90% at a time when other categories medical professionals have suffered from erosion in both of those categories. Effective communication is the key to capturing the inherent trust and positive perception that most new clients come into veterinary hospitals with and turn it into compliance and loyalty.

How do I communicate value better?

1) Like any skill, communication benefits from training and practice. Treat your communication skills the same way that you treat your medical skills: Continually educate yourself and your team, collect data on outcomes (exit surveys are an underutilized tool!), reassess often, and correct negative trends.

2) Every “what” should be accompanied by a “why”. Discussing a treatment plan and the costs associated with it should include a value statement for every action that you’re going to take. For example:

“This item on the estimate is the pre-anesthetic bloodwork and it costs $100”

This a “what” but doesn’t provide a “why” to explain to the client why the bloodwork is being performed and how it is providing value. Adding a value statement turns that explanation into:

“This item on the treatment plan is the pre-anesthetic bloodwork and it costs $100. We perform bloodwork before anesthesia to make sure that organ function, electrolyte levels, and blood cell counts are all within safe limits for an anesthetic procedure. This gives us an opportunity to identify a potential anesthetic complication before it occurs and prevent potentially life- or health-threatening problems.

The value that the client perceives in these two scenarios is drastically different. In the latter scenario they understand why that bloodwork was performed and how it contributed to their pet receiving excellent care.

3) Narrate as you go. One of the common complaints among clients is the cost of exam fees. An efficient physical exam performed by an experienced clinician might not take very long and will not look to a client like much was “done” even though their pet has received a comprehensive external examination during which a large amount of information was ascertained about their pet’s health. Narrating your physical exam findings as you go is a very effective way to build perception of value, as it gives clients insight into the massive amount of information (even if most of it is just confirming normal limits) that is gathered during their pet’s physical.

Whether it is communication skills, operational excellence, or financial excellence, AVP is a dedicated business partner who is committed to taking your veterinary practice’s growth to the next level. Our equity partnerships are aimed at boosting veterinary practice performance, improving work-life balance for practice owners, and provides the peace of mind of a guaranteed and financially rewarding exit strategy.

See? Value statements work!

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