Louise S. Dunn
Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting
1955 Indian Wells Trails
Pfafftown, NC 27404
Years ago, you may have taken the stance from a baseball movie that said, “If you build it, they will come.” Sounded safe years ago when first starting out – build a veterinary hospital, open it, and clients will bring in their pets for your services. However, as the years have gone by, are they still coming? Some of those early newcomers have changed, some no longer have pets, some have moved, some have older pets – many have changed in their needs just as much as their pets have changed. The key to having a profitable, successful business is to keep up on maintaining relationships with existing clients.
It is easier, statistically speaking, to maintain existing clients than to constantly search out new clients to replace departing ones. In order to formulate your practice’s client strategy, three areas need to be examined and used when making strategic decisions: understanding what client-driven means to your practice, how you will enhance the client relationship, and what metrics will enable you to monitor your progress.
Creating A Client-Driven Practice
Having a client-driven practice means that your strategies are based on client demands or expectations. It does not mean that you have handed over control to the clients, but it does mean that you are listening to your clients and adjusting your services according to what you hear. This strategic method not only affects the services you are offering and what fees you will charge; it will also affect your future staffing of personnel and delegation of resources (especially wages, inventory and training).
Developing and appropriately charging for services is a common dilemma facing most practitioners – what services do you offer and what is a fair price? When you bring in the concept of client-driven strategic planning then you have some reassurance that you are developing services being requested by your current client base. Using clients’ suggestions can build loyal customers who continue to use your service and prevent you from spending valuable time and resources developing a service no one will use – no matter how little you charge.
Utilizing a client-driven strategy will also affect your outlay of resources – staffing levels, wages, inventory, training, etc. If you are developing services based on client suggestions then you will certainly understand what the clients’ level of expectation will be and how you can best prepare your team to deliver that exceptional service.
Another beneficial aspect of being client-driven is the ease of attracting referrals. When you engage your clients and let them guide your strategy, you unwittingly create referrals because you are delivering exactly what your clients want and therefore they promote you to more and more of their friends and family!
Creating a client-driven practice is not without its caveats. We all know clients want the most they can get for their money and this is often in conflict with business interests. We also know that there are the “A” clients – those are your best clients and surveying this group to discover what they value and what they need will result in a better strategic plan than listening to every client, A-F. Engaging your best clients and letting them guide your strategy can give you an opportunity to differentiate your practice from the others.
How To Enhance The Client Relationship
Enhancing any relationship is really about creating value. Certainly, utilizing information from your best clients to develop services the client will value is one way to enhance the relationship with your clients, but there are other ways to add value and enhance the relationship.
Everyone appreciates it when roadblocks or snags are removed from their day. Your clients will appreciate any effort on your part to make their interaction with you less of a hassle and more of a positive experience. One way to address this is to map out the steps a client takes when they are interacting with your practice (Bettencour and Ulwick).
Mapping out every step in a process gives your practice an opportunity to create value by:
- Improving how your team executes the steps and what the client experiences
- Removing steps that are not necessary
- Re-sequencing the steps for more efficient and satisfying client experience
- Enabling a step to be completed at a different time so as to improve convenience
Think about a certain process your client goes through. Perhaps it is scheduling an appointment. How many times does your client encounter a negative experience, hear the word “no, that’s not our policy,” or have to repeat a step until an issue is solved? Any of these experiences are a roadblock to your client successfully scheduling an appointment and is a huge opportunity for you to create value by correcting any of these roadblocks.
Perhaps, while reviewing the steps, you do not discover any overt negative experiences but instead, you notice a gap. The gap may be an area where it would be very easy to drop the proverbial ball resulting in a poor client experience. Addressing any service gaps is another way to enhance the value your client receives from their experience with your team. Consider the frequency of an “oops” you hear your team talking about. Maybe it was an “oops” in missing a vaccination booster that was due, perhaps the “oops” was neglecting to get back to a client about a medication refill. These “oops” are actually service gaps, and repeatedly hearing an “oops” is your sign to take action and enhance the value your client receives from your practice.
Another important step toward enhancing the client relationship, and what they value, is to identify just what they value! Creating a strong value proposition will differentiate you from the competition and is a clear message to your clients about why you are the best choice for them. It is not a mission statement. Crafting your value proposition requires a bit of self-reflection on what is unique about your practice.
Interview your team – ask them to describe to you, in 10 words or less, what they feel they deliver to your clients. Use this as an opportunity to look for any inconsistencies and to develop a strong statement that is clear to everyone on the team. The benefit of having a value proposition is in the clarity of your practice’s message – to both your team and your client – so everyone knows what value you are promising to deliver. Another added benefit is to formulate Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Having consistency in the team will deliver consistent, exceptional experiences to the client.
Many relationships can be enhanced via contact – positive contact that not only speaks to the needs of the pet, but also addresses the needs of the client. Social Media is fast becoming the method for delivering contact or touch points to your clients regarding pet needs and their needs as well. Consider “communities” for your clients (new pet communities, chronic condition communities), newsletters, cards, emails, blogs, etc. – all available for enhancing your relationship with your client. Profile your clients and flag where they are coming from, where they are getting a referral to your practice, and where they are most likely to hear about your practice.
Just because a client makes it through the puppy series of visits does not guarantee their return. You must nurture this relationship, explore ways to make it easier and more pleasant for the client and keep them in your sights with regular communication.
Which Metrics Can Monitor Your Progress
The title of this session is about “growing” and the only way to know if you are growing is to measure. However, measuring your relationship with your clients is not always easy. Across any industry, there are some common metrics you can hear about (Dixon, et al): Customer Satisfaction Score, Net Promoter Score, Customer Effort Score, Balanced Score Card, etc.
Finding out what your Customer Satisfaction Score may be the first step in monitoring your growth of your existing client relationships. This score is intended to measure satisfaction with the service the client received. The caveat, according to Dixon et al, lies in the fact that although it scores “satisfaction” it does not score “loyalty.” A Satisfaction Score of 4 out of 5 will tell you a client was not fully satisfied but does not tell you why they chose that score. Similarly, a 5 out of 5 will tell you the client was satisfied…but with what aspect of your service and will they recommend you to their friends? A useful purpose for this type of survey is for your practice’s perceived image and to assess specific, actionable areas for improvement.
Another Metric, Net Promoter Score by Fred Reichheld, is a way to gauge the level of promotional tendencies your clients feel toward your business. Asking just one question – How likely is it that you will recommend our practice to a friend? – You can track how many promoters you are gaining. As with any metric, the caveat is that your practice needs to have methods in place to respond to the feedback – especially in regards to the Passives and the Detractors. The Net Promoter Score is presented as a means of assessing future business growth due to the promotion of the business by your clients.
The Customer Effort Score is another metric to measure the customer experience (Dixon et al). Utilizing this metric means that your practice is looking beyond meeting expectations or delivering exceptional client service, and is trying to reduce the effort a client must exert to take care of their current problem. This metric is helpful when assessing the effort your clients go through in order to interact with your practice.
Dr. Carin A. Smith, in her book “Client Satisfaction Pays, gives us all great advice to follow:
- Remember, client expectations will continue to change, so remain flexible .
- Clients expect a personal relationship.
- Ask and Listen.
- Obtain feedback via different ways.
- Take action, implement a process and follow-up on it.
- Utilize client education to manage unrealistic expectations.
- Utilize the power of your team to uncover client expectations.
Any single metric should not be considered the ultimate tool. There is no one measurement or question – best practice is to use a combination (Brandweiner). Each metric has its usefulness in your practice based on what feedback is important and appropriate for your business. To put it in perspective – the real value of any “test” is what you do with the results.
Growing your existing client relationships is a multi-pronged approach. It involves staying focused on the needs of the clients, enhancing the personal experience your clients have each time they interact with your team, and monitoring your strengths and weaknesses. Taking the opportunity to promote your strengths as something your clients value, and correcting identified weaknesses can increase your base of loyal clients. The key is to use these measures to evaluate your relationship.
As with any relationship, it takes an effort on your part to make the relationship prosper. It is not just about knowing, but also about doing. It is up to you and your team to choose and prioritize action steps for bonding with your clients and creating a lasting relationship.
Bettencourt, L.A. and Ulwick, A.W. The Customer-Centered Innovation Map. Harvard Business Review. May, 2008: 109-114.
Brandweiner, N. Customer experience smackdown: Customer Effort Score vs NPS vs Satisfaction, 12/04/12. My Customer.com, http://www.mycustomer.com/topic/marketing/customer-effort-score-worth-effort/140474
Dixon, M., Freeman, K. and Toman, N. Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers. Harvard Business Review. July- August, 2010: 116-122
Smith, C.A. Client Satisfaction Pays. Lakewooe, Colorado: AAHA Press