Welcome back to Ethos Exchange, our veterinary practice management series. Our final topic of 2020: turning our customers (we call them clients) into community.
Our clients in veterinary medicine (the pet owners who bring their pets to our hospitals) are the lifeblood of our business. But as this Harvard Business Review article illustrated, they can be so much more! Community-driven companies such as LEGO, Porsche, and TEDx have turned their customers into community by including them in decisions, designing, ideas, and more. This turns your business, or in our case your hospital, into a community of people rather than a “you vs. them” model.
So how do we turn our clients into community in veterinary medicine, and can it work in our industry?
Why Should You Collaborate With Your Clients?
First: the why. Why should you consider building your hospital’s clients into communities? The potential benefits could mean real long-term success and fulfillment for your practice.
Innovate your hospital
The obvious benefit: innovation. Including your clients in decision-making can drive meaningful change, because who knows about your clients’ experience and things that need fixing better than your own clients!? As an owner or manager, you don’t know everything and once you embrace that you’re already on the right path.
“It’s that whole concept of ‘it’s hard to learn if you already know.’ We think we know what our clients should be experiencing; that may not be their experience at all.” – Luanne B., Director of Client Communications at Ethos.
Invest your clients
Another benefit is buy-in, where if your clients are part of developing a process/system, they’re going to be happier with that system. It turns them into somewhat of a stakeholder and they’ll naturally want to help your practice thrive and succeed. They’ll be proud of the decisions they’ve helped make and become an ambassador for your hospital.
Legitimacy & authenticity at your hospital
And finally, including your clients makes your solutions and decisions more legitimate. If you can backup why you’ve switched to emailing discharge instructions instead of printing them out with actual client feedback, then complaints and questioning become easier to manage.
It also makes your hospital more trustworthy. If you reach out to your clients for feedback on your appointment confirmation process, compile the suggestions, and actually follow through with that change, your clients will see that you’re authentic and listening.
Of course, there are risks with starting a dialogue with your clients. One is engaging with your clients, and not actually addressing or acknowledging their feedback.
“The risk is that we’ll have good intentions and then fall down on the follow through.” – Sommer A., Creative Marketing Director at Ethos.
If you ask for your clients’ input on a process and don’t carry through with it, that could be more damaging to your clients’ trust than not asking at all.
How Do You Collaborate With Your Clients?
Next: the how. Other than the old reliable email survey, how do you build your hospital’s clients into a community?
Use your champions
Understanding who your clients are is integral when you go to ask for feedback. Whittle down who you ask. If you ask everyone who walks through your doors which communication method they prefer, you’re going to get all the answers.
Instead, pick a handful of the passionate, deeply vested clients who want to help the practice. They may be your long-term clients who have been there since the beginning, or former employees turned clients, a community leader who knows your town better than anyone, or an animal fanatic who only accepts the best for their pet.
And use your critics
Your critics can be just as valuable as your champions. You know those scathing Yelp reviews or angry client phone calls? Instead of tossing those aside as just a bump in the road, try working with those client complaints (especially if there’s a trend among them.)
“Almost every one of those conversations brings something back to the practice.” Dr. Peter Bowie, Medical Director at PESCM.
Practicing situational humility is hard, as it can be difficult to step back from your own emotions and pride in your practice. But if your clients aren’t happy with your front desk team’s communication during curbside veterinary care and take to Google reviews to tell you that, then maybe it’s time to start listening. Open up that conversation, talk with them (not at them), and you may learn something while building out your community.
Let your community lead
Consider taking the passenger seat and let your clients & veterinary community discover your solutions.
At one of our specialty veterinary hospitals, Peak in Vermont, the Hospital Director had noticed a problem between one of the specialty services and a referring veterinary hospital. So, she organized an open-ended dinner that resulted in real problem-solving:
“It led to some changes in the service, and that was incredibly valuable to us. We had a purpose without any expected outcomes other than engagement around that purpose.” Deborah U., Hospital Director at Peak Veterinary Referral Center.
Instead of going into the dinner with solutions ready to pitch, they let the community guide them. Similar to a customer advisory board or focus group, try hosting your community in a brainstorming or problem-solving event.
Engage for the sake of engagement
There doesn’t have to be a problem to fix for you to engage with your clients. It could be about how you make them feel like they’re part of the community from being a client of your practice. This may mean community events such as hosting a blood bank, adoption days, charities, or hospital tours (all things to think of in a post-COVID world).
It may also mean engaging because you enjoy your amazing clients, and if you get something from it, great! If not, you still had fulfilling conversations.
“We’re all, at Ethos and in this field, hardwired to be achievers and we want to see results. It can be hard to take a sidestep and say ‘let’s just do this because it’s fun and because we enjoy doing it.’” – Nadja, Director of Marketing at Ethos.
- Include your happiest and least happy clients in decision-making: both can produce meaningful takeaways and valuable change.
- Be open to the fact that you don’t know everything and there may be problems you didn’t even know existed.
- Engage with your pet owning and veterinary communities through open-ended discussions that you don’t already have an answer prepared for, even if it’s just for fun!
Thank you to Nadja Torling, Director of Marketing at Ethos Veterinary Health, for leading this discussion!
Richardson, Bailey, et al. “Turn Your Customers into Your Community.” Harvard Business Review, 16 Jan. 2020.