Keeping the client

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keeping the client
Photography: Iulia Iun – 123RF

The average relationship between a vet and the patient is only four to six years, before the pet owner goes elsewhere. So, how do you hang onto that patient—and its owner—for the pet’s full life cycle? By John Burfitt

The figures vary from report to report, but one thing is clear when it comes to the lifetime value of a veterinary client—only a few clients remain in long-term relationships with the same vet through the full life cycle of their pet. 

The lifetime value of a client is calculated as the total revenue a practice can reasonably anticipate from a single client in the care of their pet. In simple terms, it’s the average fee of a consultation, multiplied by the number of visits per year, multiplied by the number of years that pet remains in the care of that practice. The ensuing revenue can be as much as $10,000 per animal.

According to a recent report into the costs of acquiring and retaining clients by US agency Park Marketing, the average relationship between a vet and a client and their pet is between four to six years. It also stated most vets lose half their clients every two to three years.

With the average life span of domestic dogs between 10 and 13 years and indoor cats 10 and 15, it means most pets are moved on to a new veterinary clinic at least two to three times in their life. On average, most pet households have two to three veterinary visits per year. 

There are, of course, a multitude of reasons for relationships coming to an end. Clients move, pets die, vets retire and sometimes, the fit between the practitioner, the client and their pet just does not work.

Veterinary coach Dr Diederik Gelderman believes the concept of the lifetime value of a veterinary client is foreign to many practices.

“Looking into the lifetime value of a client makes you approach each client as a long-term proposition, rather than someone who drops by with their pet twice a year for a quick consultation,” he says. “Very few practices have this approach—but they should as it can prove a very successful way to work. 

“I doubt many practices lose clients because they have crummy vets, but they leave as the clinic usually does not have the right retention systems in place. It could be the vet is difficult to deal with, the clinic has neglectful customer service, or there’s no follow-up care.”

Dr Gelderman says his own clinic adopted a strategy of focusing on the lifetime value of veterinary clients a few years ago, and it has paid off in stronger retention rates ever since.

“Every time we deal with a client and their pet, our aim is to build a long-term, lifetime relationship with them,” he says. “As the saying goes, it costs far more to attract a new client than hold on to an existing one.”

The main mistake practices make when dealing with clients is taking what Caroline Ucherek of CJU Medical Marketing calls “a transactional approach”.

A bonded client who has already been educated to the value you create in your clinic has rapport and trust for accepting your best health care recommendations, and ultimately, the fees you charge.

Dr Matthew Muir, All Natural Vet Care

She explains, “This completely ignores the lifetime value of a veterinary client strategy to instead rely on a process that when the client’s pet gets sick or needs a vaccination, they bring it in for treatment, they pay the bill and the interaction rarely goes beyond that,” she says.

“Practitioners need to think about breaking out of the transactional relationship mode to start offering more, so it becomes an ongoing relationship. Give real value so the client sees you and the practice as an essential part of their pet’s life.”

Such relationship-building might include free in-clinic and webinar workshops, quarterly EDM (electronic direct mail) newsletters offering advice about pet care, referral system rewards and follow-up calls in the days after a procedure.

“Offer your clients a sense of engagement, something that keeps their interest beyond the next time they’re going to make a payment to you,” she says. “If clients know you are genuinely invested in the ongoing wellbeing of their pet that goes beyond a transaction, then they will not want to move on.”

Among the strategies Dr Gelderman recommends are being personable when dealing with clients, delivering upon promises and going above and beyond where possible, and being in regular communication. The latter can take the form of birthday cards for pets, gift vouchers to the clinic, SMS reminders for vaccinations and regular update calls when a pet is in recovery after an operation.

“This is about being consistent and also being a genuine part of that animal’s life, so the client thinks of you whenever their pet is in need,” he says.

He also suggests establishing a referral program so when a client refers someone they know to your practice, they receive a $200 gift voucher as a reward.

“If that new client then becomes a long-term one, the lifetime value of treating their pet could be around $6000 to $10,000 in business,” he says. “In that case, I’m very happy to spend $200 on a voucher to get that kind of repeat business and revenue.”

Aside from the financial benefits, successfully maintaining a relationship with the client also offers significant ongoing development opportunities for the practitioner, Dr Matthew Muir of All Natural Vet Care says. 

“It jeopardises our continued learning and skills refinement when we are unable to experience the impact of our preventative health programs over the long term, whether we are effectively managing or resolving chronic diseases,” he says. “A bonded client who has already been educated to the value you create in your clinic has rapport and trust for accepting your best health care recommendations, and ultimately, the fees you charge.”

And this can be a definite case where familiarity over the years breeds content with the standards of service. “Retaining clients for the senior years of their pet is also a time when the larger vet bills are likely to be ethically needed and, as a result of the relationship, well understood.”

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