As veterinary medicine professionals, we devote our time and energy every day to providing our clients and their pets with exceptional care and service. We often measure our success by not only the clinical outcomes of our patients, but on the strength of the relationships we build with our clients over time. What does client loyalty look like? At the most basic level, clients demonstrate loyalty by continuing to come back to our practices. They adhere to treatment recommendations. They recommend our practices to others. If our clients are demonstrating these behaviors, can we assume they are loyal? Perhaps not.
Did you know:
- Pet-owner adherence with recommended treatments fell from 29% to 22% between 2013 and 2016.
- Annual visits by pet-owners dropped from 4.4 to 3.2 during that same timeframe.
- Up to 15% of pet-owners have moved from traditional veterinary clinics to alternative non-profit, mobile, and retail-store providers (Brown, 2018).
Pet-owner loyalty is not guaranteed. Pet owners, like other consumers, will change service providers in search of higher service quality and better value. Client experience literature tells us that clients assess their experience with a healthcare provider on how their experience of care made them feel, rather than on the service that was actually provided (Beryl Institute, 2014). They come to us with expectations that, despite our efforts, we cannot always meet. Our challenge: the majority of clients who are unhappy will not express that to us; rather, they will demonstrate their dissatisfaction simply by not returning. We miss a key opportunity to make things right – at the moment a client is unhappy – unless we have created an environment in which it is easy and comfortable for our clients to tell us how they feel about their experience. How we communicate with our clients can be the differentiator in terms of the how we are perceived and the degree of loyalty our clients feel toward our practices.
Service recovery is the process used to “recover” dissatisfied or lost clients by identifying and fixing the problem or making amends for the failure in customer or clinical service (AHRQ, 2018). Effective service recovery accomplishes two objectives: it restores client trust in your good intentions as a practice and it restores the “balance” in the relationship by involving the client in the resolution as a trusted partner.
Is it calculating to have a plan in place for when we fail to meet expectations? Does planning for that scenario mean that we will not aspire to exceed expectations? Does apologizing for when we have disappointed someone put us at legal risk? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “no” (Santalucia Group, 2014). Creating a strategy for how to communicate and proceed in these situations is supportive to both our clients and team members. It will increase our likelihood of making things right before a pet-owner leaves our practice. Most interesting – if service recovery is effective, it can actually create an emotional connection with our clients that translates into a more resilient type of loyalty afterward (Brown, 2018).
So where to begin? Here are five steps to putting a service recovery strategy in place at your own hospital or practice.
Step One: Select a service recovery communication model for your veterinary practice. Teach it to your team and use it yourself in your daily work.
When we fail to meet someone’s expectations, it can be overwhelming in the moment. Leveraging a simple, step-by-step communication process in these times allows us to be proactive and consistent in how we achieve resolution. One that we are using at MedVet is the L.A.S.T. Method (Listen-Apologize-Solve-Thank) – if you attend one of our 2020 Continuing Education events, you can hear more about this approach. Regardless of the model you choose, what is essential is that the model you select is simple, easy to remember, and that it includes an actual apology in its framework.
Step Two: Make it easy for your clients to provide you with compliments and constructive feedback.
Wouldn’t you rather collect this feedback yourself than be surprised by, or have to harvest feedback, via social media? The most comprehensive method for collecting feedback is a client survey in which you elicit their thoughts on what is working well and where you have opportunity to improve. You may also opt to create an email address specifically for your practice and include that information on all client resources or create a “hotline” for client feedback. One of the most powerful methods of collecting client feedback is actually the simplest – ask for it at the end of each visit. These are the moments when you will use your service recovery communication model and get comfortable over time with responding to constructive feedback. The fact that you are asking for it establishes your clients as your equal partners in the relationship, which in turn drives loyalty.
Step Three: Identify your top three service “dissatisfiers.”
Although it is tempting to think that we already know our primary opportunities to improve, this step is best taken after you have started steps one and two. Remember that most clients do NOT share feedback with us when we do not meet expectations, and you will gain clarity as you have more data to work with. When you are ready, set aside some time to brainstorm potential strategies to address your opportunities – and then evaluate each in terms of required resources and anticipated impact. If you have a team, their participation is essential to ongoing ownership of your client experience. Pick one opportunity area to improve and then implement the action you believe will have a visible impact in the next three months.
Step Four: Create “protocols” that empower your veterinary team.
Have you noticed that many service breakdowns can be anticipated? And, that often there are standard operating procedures that you can put in place to address predictable breakdowns?
Let’s consider the most common example of predictable service breakdowns: excessive wait times. What is your threshold for deciding when a wait time has become excessive? What can be done for your clients to frame expectations? To help them make productive use of time spent waiting? To ensure that they are comfortable while waiting? To give them choices and control over their experience? What can members of your team be empowered to do – and decide – when clients are waiting – before a situation is escalated to you? Proactive communication of expected waiting times – framed up via your service recovery model – is a starting point for this work. Having these conversations with your team – or spending thoughtful time reflecting if you are a sole practitioner – ensures alignment of your good intentions with daily practice.
Step Five: Tell your clients about your improvements!
There is simply no better way to demonstrate to them that their feedback matters, which in turn reinforces their importance in your ongoing relationship. Sharing your challenges and asking for ongoing client feedback on your improvement efforts creates a different type of emotional bond – and loyalty.
Service Recovery Yields Stronger Client Relationships, Healthier Pets
It can be humbling to acknowledge that, despite our good intentions, we anticipate that we will fail to meet client expectations on a daily basis. Service recovery positions us to be proactive in addressing service breakdowns and creates a vehicle for us to have the type of client conversations that, when managed well, result in a stronger emotional bond and loyalty. Stronger relationships with pet-owners will foster the outcome that unites us – healthier pets.