Often the first port of call for clients, reception is an important part of any practice. It is all the more vital for equine practices as horse owners may rarely visit the premises. Alison Lambert explains how to make the most of this crucial point of contact, to increase client experience and appointments.
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Alison Lambert qualified from the University of Liverpool, before going on to work in small animal practice and later for Hills and Mars. She is the founder and managing director of Onswitch and a visiting lecturer at the University of Nottingham's veterinary school.
THE most important thing to remember about equine practice is that it is all about the telephone; 99 per cent of initial client contact happens in this way so it is crucial for every member of the team to be able to provide great customer care via this medium. Therefore, the practice's reception is inevitably at the core of a successful equine practice. Without the phone, as the standard veterinary business model listed below shows, there are no consults, no income and, therefore, ultimately, no business:
▪ Encourage in-bound calls;
▪ Call convert;
▪ Visit convert;
▪ Charge accurately for work done;
▪ Encourage recommendations via word of mouth.
Why would an owner call?
We recently undertook a study, mapping the call numbers and patterns at a typical equine practice, which gave us the following key insights. Call volumes peak on Monday mornings and then tend to tail off throughout the week, implying that owners do their research over the weekend and call several practices on Monday morning to compare advice. On average, a one-vet equine practice will receive 400 inbound calls every month. Furthermore, owners will call several practices and assess not only the advice given, but the way in which it was imparted and the level of involvement and engagement they received from the person on the other end of the line.
Why choose you?
The ‘average’ horse owner is very different to the dog and cat owner. Research among 1200 riders by the British Horse Society found that horse owners are older (20 per cent are aged over 45) and predominantly female (73 per cent) (The British Horse Society 2013). Equine enthusiasts are also generally much better informed about their animals' physiology and their potential problems than their small animal counterparts. Horse owners speak with a wide range of care providers regularly (farriers and equine dental technicians, in particular) and, indeed, these people are usually their first port of call for advice – not the vet. Genuine life-threatening emergencies are probably the only occasions when the horse owner will pick up the phone and call a vet first, without speaking to other equine professionals. Increasingly, owners tell us that they are more likely to use an equine practice when:
▪ The practice (or at the very least, the vet) does not also treat small animals;
▪ The whole team speaks ‘horse’ – receptionists, nurses and vets alike understand the ‘ins and outs’ of the equine world because they own and ride horses themselves;
▪ Receptionists are available to speak on the phone (no answer-phone messages);
▪ Genuine interest is shown in the horse as an individual, not just as an income stream;
▪ The owner's own experience and understanding is acknowledged and respected;
▪ Written estimates are given for procedures (there should be no nasty surprises when the bill comes);
▪ Full explanations are given as to what treatment is being recommended and why;
▪ Options are presented, where applicable, so that owners feel they have made an active and informed choice, not just been pushed helplessly towards the inevitable;
▪ The practice has been recommended. Our own data shows that the primary way in which horse owners first hear about their chosen practice is through a recommendation, either from friends and family (46 per cent) or by their yard owner (34 per cent).
The bottom line is that horse owners are looking for a horsey vet – someone who speaks their language. But what happens when there are two good competing vets to choose from? There seems to be a trend towards multi-practice usage among horse owners. Research conducted by Onswitch found that while 82 per cent of respondents told us that they only use one equine practice, 9 per cent regularly used three or more. For example, an owner might choose one vet for the routine stuff (because their prices are better or others at the yard use them, so it's convenient), another for emergencies and another for managing lameness (because they have heard good things from friends).
However, what we also know is that while price, reputation and convenience might all be factors affecting the choices made by owners, overriding all of these is the customer experience. Most owners won't tolerate poor service in order to benefit from lower prices, and they will travel further to a vet that they feel more comfortable with.
This is where the customer experience really comes into play, explaining why it is so vital that your practice delivers great customer care to every caller, every day. Research carried out in 2013 by the independent research company Opinion Matters for NewVoiceMedia found that an estimated £12 billion is lost by UK companies each year following an inadequate customer experience (NewVoiceMedia 2013). They asked 2034 UK adults if they had switched to a different business as a result of poor customer service:
▪ 50 per cent said yes;
▪ 28 per cent said they switched because they didn't feel appreciated;
▪ 22 per cent moved because staff were unhelpful or rude;
▪ 16 per cent switched because the buck had been passed in some way.
While this isn't uniquely equine data, these are also your customers – they have the same high standards for every company they deal with.
Owner treatment is important too
As part of a rolling quarterly programme, we regularly call hundreds of equine practices with common requests for information. The resulting data shows that equine practices have some way to go in terms of customer care delivery, compared with their small animal counterparts, and, as many horse owners also have dogs, they will make their own real-world comparisons between the differing care provided by each practice (see Table 1).
Our panel of callers (each of whom owns and rides horses themselves) regularly reports that the level of information given on these calls is very limited. The practice does not know that the caller does not have a genuine need for veterinary care – they might very well be new to the area and assessing their options as a very lucrative potential new client.
Researchers also report that equine practices invariably ask whether they are registered and, if they say ‘no’, the tone changes and any information offered is basic and minimal. Often they are ‘pressurised’ (their word) to register before any information can be given.
Index data clearly shows that equine practices need to get much better at talking with callers, who are all, let's not forget, either current clients who can choose to leave or potential clients who could chose to bring a lifetime of loyalty to your practice.
Delivering an excellent experience over the phone
As already discussed, the telephone is a key source of primary contact with a practice. However, without the benefit of face-to-face communication, many elements of the conversation are lost.
Mehrabian's seminal research into this topic found that the vast majority of the meaning of a spoken conversation is interpreted via body language and facial expression. Mehrabian's communication model (Mehrabian 1981) identifies exactly how an average conversation breaks down:
▪ Only 7 per cent of the message is communicated via the actual words spoken;
▪ 38 per cent is determined by the tone of voice;
▪ A massive 55 per cent comes from body language and facial expression.
Clearly this crucial visual aspect of the conversation is entirely missing from a telephone call, but by practising ‘active listening’ the customer care team can ensure that callers still feels that they have been listened to and empathised with:
▪ Paraphrase the owners' question or concern;
▪ Repeat their words back to them;
▪ Clarify what they need;
▪ Summarise advice and recommendations.
The owner will then come off the phone feeling positive towards your practice and inclined to spend money with you.
Address needs, not wants
Horse owners tell us that they ring around local practices when their horses need preventative and routine care (eg, dentals, vaccines, visits). At least one of the practices they speak with will get their business. Therefore, show them that it should be you. Referring back to the veterinary business model, now that the call has come in, make it count by converting it into income. Otherwise you're running an advice centre, not a business.
Successful equine practices routinely convert 80 per cent of their incoming calls into visits by addressing the very real needs that these callers have, and we have developed a five-step process to help customer care teams:
(1) A great greeting
Always start out with a warm ‘good morning/afternoon/evening’, while keeping your tone bright and friendly. This should be part of a standard practice greeting, which should be agreed upon ahead of time and used by everyone who answers the phone. While on the phone, remember not to speak too quickly or mumble. Ultimately, the caller needs to know that they are speaking with a real person who cares about their horse, not an automaton paid to efficiently process calls.
(2) Establish and use the horse's name
It's a good idea to have a pen and paper on hand just to jot down names during each call that comes in, and also to listen for the owner's tone to try to gauge their mood. Are they sad, happy, worried, angry?
Your aim is to use this information to personalise the call, using the horse's name naturally throughout the conversation and changing your tone to accommodate the owner's frame of mind. This will help make owners feel that their problems are valued and understood, and, therefore, more likely to engage with the practice.
(3) Love, value and price – in that order
While you want to be transparent about cost, remember not to answer the price question before you finish telling callers everything that is included, which shouldn't just be what you do but also a description of the client-focused way in which it will get done. The important thing is to keep your callers in mind and make it easy for them. For example, they have busy lives, so if you can offer visits in the evenings or at the weekends, this will be a big plus for them. Particularly in emergencies, it is important to help owners by being decisive, so act fast and communicate clearly.
(4) Give more information
Next, always make sure to direct callers to your website or social media page so that they can have access to more information about the practice once the call is over. Another good approach is to ask callers for an e-mail address so that you can send information through to them. Finally, thank them for ringing and offer to send new clients a welcome pack or further information, either by post or via e-mail, in order to strengthen the customer experience and help remind them of the practice's services later on.
(5) Offer an appointment
Offering an appointment to callers is the crucial, final step. They called you and that means that they have a specific need in mind, which they already think you can address. So take them up on their assumption and offer to see them as quickly as possible.
At this point in the conversation, it is helpful to ask questions that will encourage the caller to make an appointment. For example, asking ‘When would be convenient for you? The vet could be with you at 15.00’ is much more likely to see the caller book a visit than asking ‘Would you like the vet to come out to see Blaze?’, which is easier for the client to decline.
Critical call conversion
Delivering an excellent customer experience is actually pretty simple. By demonstrating real interest and empathy, you show that your practice will deliver the best treatment to callers as well as for their beloved horses, and they will want to choose you. Never forget that owners have choices, so if you can't show that you are able meet their needs, other practices certainly will.
You will win more clients by focusing on call management, so get into the habit of making proactive calls too. Follow up visits with courtesy calls and ring owners in advance when routine care and treatment is due. Ensure that there are sufficient lines and staff available to cover busy periods. In short, make the phone a priority. Set goals for your call conversion rates, then measure and track your performance towards them.
Change can be hard, but persevere. A small, but growing, number of equine practices are already reaping significant financial benefits by focusing on implementing positive changes to their practice's reception and by putting the customer experience at the heart of everything they do. You can do it too.
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