4. ‘Senior Care’ at your veterinary practice
– a service for the future
Thanks to modern medical care, the patients at our veterinary practices live longer and longer, and with our specialised support, they can enjoy their old age with an excellent quality of life.
Our clients expect their pets to benefit from all the achievements of modern veterinary medicine, and to be communicated with in a manner that is easily understood and logical. As such, designing a programme for older pets and offering it to our clients as a special service is an obvious step.
When designing a ‘Senior Care Programme’, the first issue to take into consideration is to clarify the term ‘senior pet’. A senior pet is not only an old pet, but an adult in the second half of its life and the age at which that individual enters senior age differs according to breed and size.
A ‘Senior Care Programme’ supports the pet and its owner during the latter stages of life. Its goals include the following:
• Using targeted screening to monitor the health of senior pets at regular intervals and to detect and immediately treat incipient diseases at an early stage
• Using the right products (food and medication) to delay the onset of certain diseases typically associated with old age
• Treating existing illnesses in the best possible manner to ensure continuing quality of life.
For the veterinary practice, a programme for senior pets offers better utilisation of existing equipment and the team, thereby increasing client loyalty and generating higher profits.
For clients, ‘Senior Care’ means receiving competent support during this important phase of their pet’s life, sharing the responsibility for the health of their beloved pet with the practice team and, last but not least, providing them with the peace of mind they have done everything possible to ensure their pet will continue to enjoy good health even as it grows older. The status of the pet as a family member means that clients will clearly wish to take advantage of the best service your practice can offer. The practice team needs to be aware of this situation and a shift in mindset needs to occur from an attitude of “Your pet is old. There is nothing more we can do” to “Let’s work together to do whatever we can to take care of and promote all aspects of your pet’s health”.
Steps to designing a ‘Senior Care Programme’
A) Defining the objectives
At the outset, and before a new programme can be established, the practice team must define the objectives they wish to achieve. This means answering the questions, “Why are we doing this?” and “Is the effort worthwhile?”
Statements such as “We want to offer our clients with elderly pets a new special service” are too vague and not specific enough to develop a plan or to achieve the overall objectives.
It is a good idea to set objectives according to SMART criteria. With these criteria, an objective is broken down into the principal components, which are taken into consideration and serve as a basis for planning any type of new endeavour.
SMART is a well-known acronym tool in standard management literature and stands for:
S = specific, i.e. the objective must be formulated in such a way that it is well-defined. Objectives such as “We would like to increase our clients’ interests in Senior Care” are visions, not objectives.
M = measurable, i.e. achievement of the objective must be measurable and the criteria for measurement (measurement unit) should be defined. Results can be expressed by figures such as higher sales resulting from the uptake of a new service, increase in sales per client or increase in the number of clients.
A = action oriented, i.e. the various components of the overall objective must be actionable. They must be practical, feasible and it must be planned and defined within the available resources: WHO does WHAT, WHEN and HOW?
R = realistic, i.e. it must be possible to achieve the objective that has been set, if appropriate efforts are undertaken. An objective such as “We want to use a Senior Care Programme to double our previous year’s sales in six months” is unrealistic. Setting unrealistic objectives is a (primary) reason why many ambitious plans fail.
T = time related, i.e. there must be one or more deadlines by which the objective or milestones should be reached.
B) Definition and analysis of the target group
The first step in developing a ‘Senior Care Programme’ involves defining the target group to be contacted within the total pet population contained within the database of your practice.
According to a consensus among the authors of relevant veterinary publications, seniority or the onset of maturity is defined as follows:
Cats: 7 years
Small dogs: 8 years
Medium dogs: 7 years
Large dogs: 5 years
As you can see, the larger the pet, the earlier the onset of old age. For instance, at five years of age, a Great Dane is already a senior whilst a Jack Russell Terrier may just be entering its ‘prime of life’. Be this as it may, it is a fact that a pet that appears to be healthy and completely fit can already be affected by the insidious onset of disease or age-related degeneration, since pets, especially cats, tend to instinctively hide their weaknesses.
For this reason, it is absolutely necessary to define an overall, lower age limit for the target group when designing and introducing the programme.
Thus the target group for a senior programme should be all clients with a pet five years of age or older.
In order to identify this important target group, the practice software can be used to search and collate the clients in question. Most veterinary software programmes facilitate a client or pet search facility to be filtered according to certain criteria and owners with senior pets thus identified can be stored as a list. As potential candidates for the ‘Senior Care Programme’, all active clients should be identified who have a dog or cat over the age of five and who have presented their pet at the practice, at least once during the past two years. This client group serves as a target group for receiving information on the ‘Senior Care Programme’.
C) Defining and designing the ‘Senior Care Programme’
In order for a new health care programme to succeed, the individual components, just like the formulation of a good medication, must be meticulously selected and combined. It is important to match the service options with the client’s needs within the wrapper of a worthwhile programme, to continually interest the clients and the practice team and keep them motivated. A programme that is overloaded with services and products is guaranteed to end up overwhelming both the practice and the pet owner and is doomed to failure. This is a fairly common occurrence in practice, when for example a team member comes back from a seminar and is fired up about the idea of a ‘Senior Care’ service. Full of enthusiasm, they launch a new programme in the practice, but within a matter of months, the senior programme disappears from the radar screen. Not even the client can recall it. In order to keep this from happening and to ensure that a truly high-quality programme remains successful at the practice in the long run, a structural framework is an absolute must.
Since the fundamental concept of the ‘Senior Care Programme’ is based on developing a special service for older pets, this service must also have a special name with specific components, so that clients can recognise it as something different from the usual annual check-up their pet has previously had.
1) The basic programme
The following services and products can serve as components of a basic ‘Senior Care Programme’ with the objective of ongoing and frequent health check-ups for older pets:
• Individual counselling on the general subject of ageing, but stressing the particular risk factors for the individual because of its particular breed or medical history. This can also serve as preparation for additional procedures that may be required, depending on the results of the general examination, but that are not included in the basic programme.
• In addition to the usual questions on the patient’s health, specific questions on symptoms of typical age-related illnesses are raised in order to reveal subtle changes in the pet’s condition. Close questioning of the client regarding the pet’s behaviour may reveal discrete changes, pointing towards possible problems. In many cases, pet owners do not report things they have noticed until they are specifically asked about them, because they do not think they are important.
• A thorough general clinical examination with a particular focus on symptoms and indicators of the beginning of organ degeneration and diseases. In particular, these should include heart function, kidneys, brain (often recognisable through behavioural changes) as well as the skeletal system and teeth.
• Lab screening with blood and urine tests, using parameters that are especially useful for early detection of age-related illnesses.
• Results-oriented consultation based on the findings of the clinical examination, history and laboratory tests and, if any abnormalities are suspected, a recommendation for additional tests.
• Advice regarding the special dietary requirements of an ageing pet; the recommendation of a specific product to support the pet’s health and targeted treatment of any organ systems that are already diseased or compromised.
• Inclusion of clients and their pets in a dedicated reminder system that recalls them to the next ‘Senior Care’ check-up. To do this, the practice has to define the frequency of these check-ups; once a year or more often? For ‘young’ seniors, that are still in overall good health, in many cases it is sufficient to carry out the ‘Senior Check-up’ once a year. As the pet gets older or if it already has manifest ill-health, it is a good idea to arrange check-ups twice a year or even more frequently’.
2) Additional options
As an adjunct to the basic programme, additional services can be offered as “elective services” depending on the case, the capabilities of the practice and its areas of specialisation. These may include:
• A “Heart Diagnostic Package” consisting of an ECG, ultrasound and radiographs; the prescription of suitable heart medication and a diet that supports the cardiovascular system.
• An “Arthritis package” consisting of a specific examination of the musculoskeletal system with a separate examination of all accessible joints at rest and in motion as well as relevant radiographs; subsequent to this, the prescription of medications and a senior diet containing ingredients that support joint function and delay the progression of arthritic processes.
• A “Dental package” consisting of a special examination of the conscious patient and assessment of the degree of damage to the teeth and gums; depending on the circumstances, anaesthesia, additional radiographs and subsequent dental repair work may be indicated; here too, it is important to emphasise prevention by adjusting feeding habits and providing a diet with plaque-reducing properties.
It goes without saying that for a new service, a fee must be calculated and explained to the client. As a special service, the ‘Senior Care Programme’ justifies a higher fee than the annual health check-up, for example:
• Multiplication of the fee for the basic check-up by a factor of 1.3, i.e. the senior check-up costs 1.3 times more than the annual health check-up.
• Lab costs are charged separately and individually.
• Additional services are charged separately.
It is also important for clients to receive straightforward information regarding fees, so that they are not unpleasantly surprised when they receive the bill. The costs of the ‘Senior Pet’ check-up should be mentioned both directly during the consultation with the client, within the accompanying promotional material and for instance on a price list displayed in the waiting-room.
Offering the programme at your practice
Due to the special trust-based relationship between the veterinary surgeon and the client, it makes sense that the offer to join the ‘Senior Care Programme’ should come from the pet’s regular veterinary surgeon. For more information about how the practice staff can support the veterinary surgeon, and for general tips on planning and carrying out a sales and advisory consultation, see the previous article "Bringing your clients onboard".
1) The Dialogue with the client
A good opportunity for initiating a conversation about starting senior care is the last regular annual health check-up. Ideally, the pet will still be healthy and fit, but there may be the first slight signs of the onset of ageing that can be used as a starting point for recommending the enrolment of the pet on the ‘Senior Care Programme’.
Here, veterinary surgeons have the following responsibilities:
• They must clearly point out the differences between the senior check-up and the standard health check-up that has been carried out every year, to date, so that the clients realise it isn’t merely the same programme with a different name, but rather a completely different service.
• They must explain the objectives of the check-up, and that it will be specifically tailored to the particular pet in question.
• They must explain the new cycle of the senior health check-ups and the reasons for them: perhaps twice a year instead of annually.
The consultation must focus on the benefits for the client and their pet. They must understand why ‘their’ veterinarian recommends the programme and what the positive benefits for them and their pet(s) are. These benefits are personal, in that that they can be different for each client and are dependent on their basic motivation. For some clients, safety is important, which means they prefer to buy products that give them the feeling they have received protection from adversities such as illnesses. Other customers are ‘trend followers’, meaning they prefer to buy products with which they can be seen as trendsetters, giving them the feeling they are getting something new that not everyone has (yet). Other types are ‘laid-back’ clients, who prefer easy, pragmatic solutions, or ‘price-conscious’ clients, who are particularly aware of the price-performance ratio and ‘nice’ clients, who like to buy things that are considered by the outside world to be lovable and positive. You can sense what type of client a particular pet owner is when speaking with them. In addition, you can ‘read’ their preferences in their records or simply ask them. When you ask your clients the following question (the best time to do this is as you are introducing a sales consultation) “What is important to you with respect to the health check-up for your pet?” you will find out valuable information on the client’s motivation for making purchases, seeing as the motivational factors are synonymous with the benefits. When the motivational factors have been revealed, the client can be presented with the appropriate benefits and he or she (generally) will not be able to resist.
2) Media promotion for the ‘Senior Care Programme’
To support the dialogue during the consultation, the new programme must of course be advertised and presented via media within and outside the practice.
In addition to the media presented previously, the following media are especially important for any ‘Senior Care Programme’:
• Targeted mailing: a letter addressed to the target group with the key points (keep in mind: less is more) of the ‘Senior Care Programme’ and an incentive for visiting the practice, such as an introductory discount for a certain period or a coupon for nutritional counselling.
• Promotion in the waiting-room, addressing the topic with posters, flyers, interactive displays and for example, a ‘true story’, a report about a pet owner and their pet, in which names, pictures and quotations show how both parties have profited from the ‘Senior Care Programme’.
• Presentation of the ‘Senior Care Programme’ on the practice Website, for instance, where the pet owners can complete an interactive quiz which, for example, provides answers to the following questions: What signs should I look for in my pet that indicates the onset of ageing? At what point should I take my pet for a senior check-up?
Monitoring and compliance
In order to successfully establish a ‘Senior Care Programme’ as part of the practice profile in the long term, it is a good idea to:
• Check at regular intervals whether the objectives that were defined initially have been achieved and if not, adjust the tactics accordingly.
• Check the rate of compliance on the part of the clients for the programme, i.e. count how many clients quit the programme. If it can be observed that a large number of clients do not appear at the follow-up appointments after they have started the programme, it definitely makes sense to contact them and ask why. The only way for the team to have the opportunity to learn and improve is by addressing the reasons for non-compliance.
This article was kindly provided by Royal Canin. If you would like printed copies of this material or other Focus publications please contact your Veterinary Business Manager:
1. American Pet Products Association (http://www.americanpetproducts.org/).
2. Chambre syndicale des fabricants d’aliments préparés pour chiens, chats, oiseaux et autres animaux familiers (FACCO) (http://www.facco.fr/article67,67).