By Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (Avian)
Article reprinted with the permission of DVM360, February 2014, Veterinary Economics is a copyrighted publication of Advanstar. Communications inc. All rights reserved.
In 2010, I went against the advice of my friends and colleagues and opened my own all-bird and exotic pet hospital. They said I wouldn’t get enough clients to survive. But I was determined to make it work, and with a little time and money and a lot of creativity, I did. Here are my top tips for tooting your own horn:
1. Create a website and market it well
Every practice needs a website. But the “build it and they will come” theory doesn’t apply here. To establish your brand, you need search engine optimization (SEO). SEO is the process of using specific key words in just the right places on your site to help Internet surfers find you.
For example, most people find my services on the web by searching “rabbit veterinarian” or “bird veterinarian.” SEO picks up on those words and directs traffic to me. Competition for a spot on the first page of an Internet search may be stiff. In this case, you’ll need to do some search engine marketing (SEM) with Internet ads. This particularly makes sense if you’re a veterinarian with a unique skill or interest or if your practice offers specialized services. SEM can boost your listing above local competition in Internet searches. I hired a professional SEM company to tailor my ads for maximum play with minimum spending. The company determined what keywords were best, whether I should pay per-click on an ad or set a maximum daily budget for the appearance of all the ads, how to ensure that my ads appeared at specific times of the day and how to target them to people in my area. Following this company’s advice has saved me more than $1,000 a month in Internet advertising and increased my exposure.
2. Connect via social media
To withstand the competition, you need a strong social media presence. But it’s not just a matter of setting up social media sites and posting as often as you can.
It’s really about two goals: Using social media sites to establish your brand and making a plan for posting on these sites. You must strike a balance among entertaining, educating and soliciting a call to action from your audience.
Different kinds of posts or tweets draw different audiences, so include something for everyone. And make the process less cumbersome and more fun by assigning multiple staff members to post. Involving more people can lead to more creative posts.
3. Go the extra mile
All veterinary hospitals say they provide excellent client service, but actions speak louder than words. At my hospital, we’ve implemented several programs that show our clients we go the extra mile. Here are a few services that clients love:
We give a token gift to every new patient. To keep costs low, we barter with local pet stores for these. In exchange, we put a tag on the toy saying which store donated it.
We link all products that clients purchase from the hospital that have codes to a refill request button on our website. Clients can scan these codes using a smartphone app.
Clients can make appointment requests online.
Online boarding care request forms expedite the boarding drop-off process.
Clients receive text-messaged photos of their postoperative or boarding pets.
Owners of large numbers of pets enjoy house calls.
Mass e-mails, targeted to owners of certain species of pets, get clients’ attention.
After-hours emergency phone consultations are always available, with special training given to local emergency veterinarians for exotic pet care.
4. Create a knock-out facility
You’ve probably heard that new clients determine the quality of a hospital’s service within the first three minutes, and that clients are more apt to make an appointment at a hospital that has curb appeal. Here are the successful things I’ve done to make my hospital stand out, inside and out:
- A show-stopper sign featuring the hospital’s logo, name and the silhouettes of the exotic pets we treat. All well-lit, of course.
- An eye-catching façade. In our parking lot and flanking the front door, we feature colorful life-sized statues of the various species we treat. Many people see them from the road and stop to take photos.
- Floor-to-ceiling windows in the boarding room at the front of the hospital. Here, clients can see all of the novel patients we board.
- A cage in the waiting room housing two parrots that entertain clients as well as serve as blood donors for sick patients. We also use them to demonstrate bandaging, feeding, and medicating.
- Hospital tours for new clients and a hospital tour video on our website.
5. Reach out to the community
The best way to draw the community into the hospital is to go out into the community first. Some of our favorite ways to get involved include:
Attending community events, including bird and reptile shows, wildlife center events, career days at schools, pet store events and small-business club meetings.
Hosting educational events right at the hospital.
Forming an advisory panel to provide constructive feedback about the hospital’s services.
Providing discounted services to local pet stores that bring sick pets into the hospital for us to treat.
6. Be camera-ready
In the veterinary world, the camera is your friend. People would rather learn by watching than simply by listening. Use this to your advantage. For example, we post informational animal care videos to our hospital’s YouTube page with a link to our website. Our video on syringe feeding a rabbit has come in handy when panicky clients call late at night, too distraught to remember what I showed them at the hospital.
7. Talk it up: blogging, writing, lecturing
Veterinarians should take every opportunity to blog, write and lecture about what they do. Many veterinarians cringe when they hear this. But blogging, writing and lecturing aren’t as complicated as many people think. A good writer is someone who writes the way he or she speaks, so writing should theoretically be no harder than speaking about something you do every day. These efforts create free advertising for your practice and allow you to highlight what makes your practice special. With my supervision, some of my staff members have even blogged on occasion.
Marketing a veterinary hospital may take considerable time, effort and money—but it can also be fun and creative. And involving your whole team takes the burden off of you. Obviously, you won’t use all of my ideas. You surely have more that I haven’t listed. But if you give some of my ideas a try, I bet you’ll be surprised by what happens.
Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (avian), is the owner of Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, NY. Please send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org