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Reality is meaningless. Perception is everything to your veterinary clients.

Posted in Client Service @ Feb 27th 2014 - By Judy Gillespie, Vetanswers
Great service

So why do some people believe veterinary services are over priced? 

I’ve just finished re-reading the blog post by Dr Belinda: A trip to the vet shouldn’t include a scalping: A rebuttal from a veterinarian’s perspective, scanning through the 100 or so responses as well as re-reading the original article to which Dr Belinda has written her rebuttal. 

On one hand I’m always a little perplexed when I read articles such as the one in the Herald Sun.  I’ve chosen to work in the veterinary industry because of the people who work in it.  I see how much they care for animals and I see how much they genuinely want to improve the life of their patients and I’ve NEVER met anyone who was in it just for the money.

On the other hand I think I might know where the author of the article may be coming from - because I’m a pet owner.

I’m not a veterinarian or a veterinary nurse, I’m someone who has worked with the veterinary industry for quite some time AND I’m a pet owner – I’m one of your clients.  This puts me in a unique position as I have some understanding of where you’re coming from as a vet, vet nurse or practice owner but I also understand where your clients may be coming from.

I read a LOT of veterinary related information online (I share about 5% of what I actually read) which probably makes me a little more knowledgeable than the average pet owner but the more I read the more I realise how little I really know.  And I suspect that this is the first issue with the author of the original article in the Herald Sun (A trip to the vet shouldn’t include a scalping).  Journalist, Ruth Lamperd professes to be the daughter of a vet and let’s be honest this adds a fair heft to the whole ‘kick in the guts’ response you may be feeling.  Not only was her dad a vet who may or may not have experienced some of the same issues you’re currently dealing with, BUT her relationship to the industry adds weight to her allegations from the reader’s perspective.  However I don’t need to be a veterinary expert to realise there are many inaccuracies in her piece.  She’s shown fairly clearly that she has little current veterinary knowledge, which does make some sense as she’s a pet owner NOT a veterinarian/veterinary nurse. But what she does have is her perception.  Her perception of the veterinary industry is based on growing up with her dad who was a vet and all the experiences and stories she remembers from that time. 

It's all about perception

I also have to admit that Ruth isn’t alone in her views.  I’m often asked what I do and when I explain I manage an online business community for the veterinary industry that aims to help members run their business more successfully, I often then have to spend the next 10 or so minutes refuting some common misconceptions:  “No, all vet practice owners are not incredibly wealthy, in fact far from it” “No, vets don’t in fact charge like wounded bulls, in fact far from it”.  I usually do this by pointing out the huge expense of setting up a veterinary practice due to all the equipment that is required to offer the standard range of services. I also mention that although us humans often have to visit multiple medical specialist for a range of services and procedures, our pets are lucky enough to be able to have multiple services and procedures done by their veterinarian in the one location.  Sometimes I suggest that it’s like having your GP able to: take x-rays; take and analyse blood tests; perform a hip replacement; clean your teeth; and help you give birth all in the one location (although obviously not at the one time!).  Oh yes AND there’s no Medicare for pets!

To be honest, I’m not really sure how many people I convince as trying to change someone’s perception is not easy with a ten minute conversation.

So how have some pet owners developed this perception of the veterinary industry?

Most people tend to develop perceptions from what they experience, what they hear from friends and family & what they read (& believe) in the media.

If you want to change someone’s perception the best way is to change their experiences but depending on how ingrained their perception is, that may take time and multiple experiences to make any difference.

If a person believes that vets are ‘just in it for the money’ and every visit will involve a ‘scalping’ then what they’re really saying is that they don’t believe they are getting value for money.  The reason they don’t value the procedures that you believe to be essential for the health of your patient (e.g. a dental for their pet, annual checkups) is often because they don’t have the same level of knowledge that you have.

Perception is often based on knowledge (or lack thereof)

Now I’ve got a confession to make. Until I became so enthusiastic about Dental Health Month in 2013 I knew nothing about my dog’s dental health. My dogs are 18 & 7 years old and they have always received regular checkups, vaccinations, etc. but neither had ever received a dental.  Now I’m not suggesting that in all that time a vet had never discussed dental health with me.  I am suggesting however it was not discussed in a way that ‘stuck’ for me (see ‘I’m a relatively intelligent pet owner & so are (most) of your veterinary clients’).  I was never given any handouts, eBooks, etc. on the subject and the implications of my dog having bad breath were never made clear to me.  In fact it wasn’t until I received a guest blog post from Dr Christine Hawke (Talking Teeth in Pet Dental Month) that a light bulb went on in my head.

Now my perception has changed... 

I now have absolutely no doubt in my mind as a pet owner that my dogs need regular dental care, preferably involving digital x-rays and that’s just one of the things I’ve learned from my (slightly obsessive) online reading of all things veterinary.

However your clients are NOT obsessively reading all things veterinary so I thought it might be useful to list just some of the things I’ve learned that I can guarantee you many, many of your clients may not know.

Dental Health (thanks again to Dr Hawke for these – see link above!)

  • Pets with severe dental disease will continue to eat DESPITE their pain. Animals will continue to eat until it becomes so painful that the option of starving to death becomes more attractive.        
  • Bad breath is NOT normal and is a sign of infection associated with dental disease NB: Don’t use the term ‘Dental Prophylactic’ as your clients will have no idea what you’re talking about (for some reason I still always imagine a fake nose when I hear that term, I think I’m getting confused with prosthetic!)

Pain in animals

  • Animals do not show pain the same way we do and therefore we may have NO idea of what our pets are actually experiencing because they are so very, very good at hiding it.

Veterinary care was so much cheaper in the ‘good old days’

  • Veterinary care was so much cheaper in the ‘good old days’ because there were fewer treatment options available (I don’t think many people talk about the ‘good old days’ of human medicine!)    
  • Advances in medical/veterinary science have given veterinarians many more treatment options – all of which come at a price and none of which as a pet owner you HAVE to accept but a veterinarian would not be doing their job if they did not make their clients aware of ALL the treatment options available
  • Dr Belinda sums it up well (A trip to the vet shouldn’t include a scalping: A rebuttal from a veterinarian’s perspective) : The term pre-emptive pain relief was also not around then, so many animals experienced painful operations without any pain relief whatsoever. Just because it was done then, does not mean that it is right now.”

Your role as ‘pet’s advocate

Looking forward...

I know it’s painful, frustrating and a ‘kick in the guts’ every time you read an article in the media that basically insults everything that you do and claims you’re only in it for the money when in fact the opposite is true. But I think the real question is why so many people buy into this argument and sadly have the same perception?

Your clients will only complain about the price of something if they perceive the value of what they received to be less than the price they paid.  They are not experts in veterinary medicine - they don’t have the knowledge and expertise you do.  And most of the time they have no idea what it is you’re actually doing because no one tells them or shows them. Or if they do, it’s not in a way that ‘sticks’.

Shout it from the roof tops... Communication is the key!

As much as you may hate having your photo taken, or putting your opinions out there or talking about yourself in any way - now is not the time to hide what it is you actually do and believe:

  • Explain your personal views on the role animals play in our lives and where you fit in to the picture
  • SHOW everyone the awesome equipment in your veterinary practice and what it can do (keep it simple!) - why not write a blog post on each piece of equipment you have and how it works (it may not appeal to everyone but the tecchies out there will love it) 
  • Make it clear (in a not too technical way) all the procedures and services you can offer – I’d love to see a list of all the services & procedures you offer next to a list of all the specialists humans would have to visit for the same services!  
  • Show and explain why it’s so important for pets to receive annual checkups (e.g. Dr Belinda - Top 5 reasons your pet needs an annual health check )
  • Show and explain ALL common problems you see, the implications of NOT treating them and exactly what you can do to help (e.g. Now THIS is what I call a worm!)
  • BE the expert source of information and publish: blog posts, newsletters, handouts, eBooks, diagrams,

Talk up what you do ...every... single... day. 

This has been a really difficult blog post for me to write as there is just so much I wanted to include.  The fact is you play an important part in developing the perception of the veterinary industry that is held by all of your clients.  The veterinary industry as a whole is also responsible for the perception held by society as a whole.

If you want clients (or society) to willingly accept your recommendations and comfortably accept a pricing structure that allows you and your team to be fairly compensated for your skill and expertise then I believe it comes down to three important things:

1.       Trust – do your clients trust you?

2.       Value – do you clients value the services you offer?

3.       Respect – do your clients respect you, your team, your knowledge & your expertise?

And there you have my next 3 blog posts!

It’s not all bad!

One last thing – for every person that complains about your prices, recommendations or the colour of the walls in your reception – there are probably 5 people who think you are AWESOME! 

It’s great to learn from those who so willing give negative feedback (thanks Ruth Lamperd!) but it doesn’t help to dwell on it.  It does help to remember all those who have sent you notes, cards, chocolates, flowers or just gave you a heartfelt “thank you” for helping make the lives of their pet that much better and then have a think about how you can improve the experiences (perceptions) of the others.

So what do you think?  Feel free to tell me in the comments section below.



Gillian Shippen @ Feb 28th 2014 9:22am
Nice perspective You may remember some time ago I wrote a blog about peoples perception that After Hours emergency was about gouging too...fits right in to this topic Incidentally back on that AEC...had a client who we had often encouraged to have the female dog desexed (predominately because of their ethnicity, we felt an accidental pregnancy would not be good for her after her pelvis was broken when a pup...but the owners were adamant they wanted her to have puppies and she could always have a caesarean, after all it was common place with humans! Fortunately she never got pregnant) The owners even had a nasty argument with our locum who pushed hard to have the dog desexed - the client blasted us later for the locums rudeness and arrogance. He did not wish to spend unnecessary money when there was nothing wrong with the dog. We told him it was a risk for her not to be desexed at her age (by this time she was about 12 yo) advising him of the risk of pyometra and the associated costs that could be involved with an emergency hysterectomy. Well the poor little dog did get pyometra...late evening Christmas eve, requiring emergency after hours surgery. The client bitterly complained about how much it cost - to which we said, "well we did tell you of the risks, if you had her desexed earlier when she was healthy the cost would not have been so much" He ended up telling "well that B... of a locum was right after all"!
Belinda Parsons @ Feb 28th 2014 4:33pm
I just had a read of your blog post and you hit the nail on the head. Communication is key. I've seen it time and time again. It also comes down to bosses communicating with their staff about the cost of treatments. If the staff think you're ripping the clients off then that's going to come across to the clients as well.
Judy @ Feb 28th 2014 4:42pm
Thanks Gillian for your comments - there are some clients who will never listen no matter what you say! I also do remember the blog post you mentioned: Veterinary After Hours Care - Why such a bad rap?
Judy @ Feb 28th 2014 4:51pm
You've made an excellent point Belinda - staff will always project their own beliefs to clients. I think it's a great idea to bring your staff in the whole 'economics' discussion - after all if they don't know how much things cost they're not really understanding the business they're working in. Here's a blog post that might help practices explain the financial side of things to your team: Does your veterinary team understand the financial facts of life?

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