Strategic options to increase your cat business
2/ How to solve the “cat paradox”
In this section, we propose a three-step approach to improve the feline side of your veterinary practice:
• The first step involves conducting an honest, realistic self-assessment of where your practice stands in relation to the feline side of the business.
• The second step will focus on learning from successful examples (benchmarking), the idea being that the feline side of your business can be improved by imitating or adapting ideas that are working well for other veterinary practices.
• The third step will look at how to set up a realistic action plan that will guide you in the direction of maximising the feline side of your business.
A) Step 1: Where is my practice positioned?
Reading and answering in writing the self-evaluation checklist below, ideally as a group exercise with the practice team, can be an eye-opener for most owners. The questions have been grouped by management themes (Finance/Control, Marketing/Communication, Strategy/Operations, and Human Resources).
No practice (unless there really is such a thing as perfection!) can be expected to answer “yes” to all of the questions in the self-evaluation checklist. There is no correct number of affirmative answers, as some of these ideas may be more applicable than others depending on the particular situation of each practice. Their purpose is to raise awareness about the size and potential of the feline market if you are willing to make the effort. It is also important to remember that it can be useful to go through the checklist together with the practice team, and confirm whether you all share the same view of the current situation.
B) Step 2: What can I learn from cat veterinarians?
When preparing this publication, the authors identified and visited a selected group of veterinary practices in four different European countries (Germany, UK, France and Spain). These practices differed in size and structure, in their competitive environment, and in the range of services they offered, but they all had one thing in common: a loyal, well-established feline clientele. During the individual, in-depth interviews that we held with the owners of these veterinary practices, we identified some common trends:
• Knowledge, respect, but above all, a passion for cats. Most of these successful practice principals have owned cats for a long time, and recognise and understand the special needs of these demanding companion animals. These veterinarians regularly attend lectures on feline medicine, they enrol in specialist associations, and enjoy talking to and educating cat owners.
• Special attention to sensorial marketing. These practices have invested a great deal of effort to ensure a positive experience for both the patient and the owner: soft colours, absence of loud or sudden noises, an obsession for cleanliness and absence of odours, warm surfaces and special hospitalisation cages; all of these combined with exquisite physical handling of the patient: quoting one of the interviewed veterinarians, “Handling cats well is not a science, it is an art that you must learn and master”.
• Absolute belief in the power of ‘word of mouth’ recommendation amongst cat owners. For this reason it becomes critical to ensure that every single feline visit is a positive experience. In this sense, less is more: it is preferable to see fewer cats every day but with a higher level of patient care and client service.
• Investing time and effort in client education. These veterinarians have realised that the “veterinary experience” of their clients starts when the cat leaves home on its way to the practice. They therefore make sure that the clients learn how to transport their cats in a safe and stress-free manner.
• Central role of support staff in the “patient-client-veterinarian triangle”. Feline clients and patients highly appreciate well-trained and friendly staff, and continuity in the team. The visited clinics tend to have low staff rotation, high empowerment of team members, and a relatively high support staff to veterinarian ratio.
• Strong client to veterinarian bond. Cat clients like (even more than their canine counterparts) feeling special and important to the practice. They love the feeling of being recognised, understood, and even pampered. This may explain why in many of these practices the feline patients were always assigned to the same vet, to minimise the cat owner’s stress and to enhance this perception of the personal touch.
• Willingness to adapt operational protocols to the needs of feline patients. For instance, allocating specific times of the day for feline consultations, allocating longer time slots for feline consultations (with an appropriate increase in fees), and showing the feline patients directly into a quiet consultation room when the reception area is busy.
In summary, these successful practices with cat patient owners appeared to be quieter than traditional vet practices. Staff, from receptionists to nurses and vets, allowed more time and paid more attention to patients and owners; they were able to prescribe, adapt and perform services responding to their feline patients’ and owners’ needs; and they offered high quality products selected for cats. All of these usually resulted in loyal feline clients, with lower numbers of transactions but higher average transaction values than canine clients.
C) Step 3: Action plan
1) Measuring where your clinic stands on “feline business”
As the famous management aphorism says, “what gets measured gets done”. Therefore, and not surprisingly, before you start designing an action plan to improve the performance of your practice in relation to feline clients, you need to establish some initial figures.
We suggest, in consistency with the checklist that was previously detailed, to start by doing some homework and measuring the following:
• What % of the active patients in your practice are feline?
• What % of the yearly turnover of your practice is generated by feline patients?
• What is the average number of transactions per feline patient per year in your practice?
• What was the average transaction value for feline patients last year?
Most practice management software programmes will generate this data without too much trouble. If your software system performs the calculation on the basis of clients (as opposed to patients) you will need to keep in mind that there is a relevant percentage of multi-cat owners, and also a certain percentage of cat and dog owners, and you will need to make the necessary adjustments in your calculations.
2) Raising your team’s awareness; obtaining their input and gaining their commitment
At this point, it is necessary to sit down with the practice team and get them involved. A useful approach can be to start by asking them to provide their best guesses as to the answers to the questions raised in 1, and to continue by sharing with them the actual practice statistics. Hopefully this will generate some reaction and an open exchange of ideas on why the numbers are what they are. You can then move the discussion to the next level by introducing the following formula:
Revenue from feline patients=
number of active feline patients x average number of transactions per patient x average transaction value.
Next, you can divide your team into small groups of 2-3 (ideally with at least one veterinarian and one member of support staff in each group) and ask them to work separately on generating initiatives that will help the practice improve on each of the three “fronts” (number of feline patients, number of transactions, and transaction value). Some staff members will clearly become more engaged in the discussion and appear more sensitive to the whole “feline issue”. They will be the best future candidates for leading some of the projects that will evolve from this process.
Let us imagine that after running this exercise in a practice you obtain the following feedback from your team:
• Enhance our vaccination reminder protocol by calling all our feline clients personally (instead of sending an e-mail or a text message).
• Call all the feline owners we lost during the previous year to find out why they left.
• Redesign our website to make it more attractive and friendly to feline owners.
• Rearrange our reception area to allow for a “feline corner” where cats enjoy more privacy and a more relaxed environment. Make sure that we communicate this properly to all our existing and prospective feline clients!
• Produce a “feline only” brochure that we can selectively distribute in our client catchment area, as well as mail to any cat owner who calls the practice asking for information.
• Organise a cat information evening every quarter, open to clients and non-clients, where we can discuss useful tips with cat owners to help them to deal with transportation, behavioural problems at home, etc.
• Organise internal training for the support staff, by bringing in an external expert, on how to improve our cat handling skills.
(Note: this is not supposed to be a comprehensive and detailed list; it is just an example!)
You can then list all of the ideas on a clean sheet, and ask your team to rate them on the following three criteria: ease of implementation, cost to the clinic (in terms of either money or time), and their potential to generate additional feline revenue. A four-point scale (very low, low, high, very high) will work best to avoid “score centralisation” (i.e. everyone rating “average”). Another tip is to give a limited number of points to each team member so that they are forced to choose/prioritise the different ideas.
3) Writing an action plan and sharing it with the team
With all of this information, the practice manager (and/ or the senior partner) is now in a much better position to write the “CBIP” (Cat Business Improvement Plan). Some ideas to keep in mind when designing this plan:
• Focus first on the priorities that can make a difference (“the basics”). It does not make much sense to rebuild the practice’s website or to start a “member get member” promotion to attract new cat patients if you have not fixed the central elements of the client and patient experience when they visit you. If we review our learning from successful feline practices, it is evident that sensorial marketing combined with exquisite patient handling should be at the top of your list. In other words, first you fix it, and then you explain it.
• Assign clear responsibilities, resources, and timings. If one of the key projects in your plan is to “create a cat friendly zone in our reception area”, it should be clear from the start who is responsible for making that happen, what are the resources they can count on, and when do you expect it to happen. For instance, you could designate the nurse/reception team to be in charge of the project; you could also assign them a budget of €3,500 to invest in re-arranging the layout and decoration of this zone, and you could offer to help them by facilitating a couple of visits to other veterinary practices where they can borrow some ideas.
• Having a “cat champion” in every team. Ideally, you should have at least one veterinarian and one nurse/ technician in your team one of whom is given the role of feline advocate in your clinic. These people should be real cat fans, passionate about feline medicine, and have the will and intrinsic motivation to disseminate their knowledge and skills amongst others in the team. As a well-known management principle says, ‘responsibility should go hand by hand with authority and compensation’… meaning that if you really want to empower this role of “cat champion” in your clinic, you need to enhance it with a formal title (i.e. “feline veterinary coordinator”), provide it with some real authority (i.e. they must review and agree to any new protocol or equipment that may affect feline patients) and recognise it via performance review and compensation (i.e. having an economic incentive linked to results). The practice could also consider the possibility of communicating this role to clients as a kind of feline advocate or even “feline ombudsman”.