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As a specialty practice manager, how do I market our services to the pet-owning public without offending the general practitioners we serve?

Marketing your own services without jeopardizing your relationship with the surrounding general practice community depends on the demographics of the area and how much competition you have, as well as the strength of your relationship with the general practitioners (GPs). Approaching direct-to-consumer marketing from the angle of education can be effective, so long as you explain the typical relationships among the GP, specialist, and pet owner.

Do not simply reach out to the general public and bypass your primary source of casesthe GP. This would be akin to competing with your largest customer. A direct analogy in the music industry is a record label selling through distributors but then deciding it can make more money selling directly to the public. Not surprisingly, the record stores will launch a rebellion. Your GPs are, in essence, your distributors. If you are going to overtly compete with the referring veterinarians (rDVMs), you will have problems. Competing with a client is typically a setup for disaster.

Do everything in your power to assure primary care veterinarians of your intentions to provide specialized care only and then return the cases as deemed appropriate for the medical condition. Then do as you say. Over time, you will win over a portion of this audience. For those you cannot convert, just know that at some point they will retire!

Until then, provide educational value and participate in charitable events where you can create awareness of your practice with the public, and continue to take the high road when it comes to explaining to pet owners how referral relationships work. If a handful of general practitioners won't comply, savvy pet owners will understand who is causing the roadblock.

What is the most cost-effective means of reaching the pet-owning population to market specialty veterinary services?

The most cost-effective means of reaching the pet-owning population to market specialty services is general practitioners, because a relationship with them means you have access to their hundreds of clients. This is probably not what you were expecting for an answer. It is likely that 90 percent or more of your cases are coming via referrals from primary care veterinarians. If this is the case, 90 percent of your marketing time and resources should be directed at satisfying the needs of your referring community. (The case for emergency services differs, as discussed below.)

If, however, you are not getting good results through the veterinarians, you might try two things: First, do a better job of working with the GPs, as there is clearly room for improvement. Second, be active with the pet-owners in your area. If you can serve the community through charitable causes and educational events, and potential clients can see you acting in service to the community, you will benefit on many levels. Use these opportunities to educate the public about how you work with primary care veterinarians, and if you meet individuals whose veterinarians have not made a referral, you can be sure they will take that complaint back to their vet. Your goal is to let them know you are there and that specialists can be an integral part of their pets' health care team.

If an emergency service is part of your referral practice, you should reach out directly to the public to make them aware of your location and 24-hour access. This does not mean you can or should preclude working with area veterinarians. In fact, working in tandem with area veterinarians can help you access hundreds if not thousands of pet owners. But not everyone sees the vet on a regular basis, and they may experience an emergency whereby you are the best resource. Therefore, advertise in places that have a strong pet owner readership. Partner with similar businesses to gain referrals, and provide them with magnets or brochures to give their clients. You must be where clients are, so find concentrated populations and go to them. If you are participating at a community pet expo or 5K run for charity, put your best foot forward by using a professional pop-up tent or display and offer well-designed materials and clever giveaways with your practice's name and contact information on them. And have the team dress like a team, including a big smile! Then go have fun meeting your potential new clients.

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