What Do Pet Owners Really Want From Their Vet?


Hands up who knows what pet owners value most about their local vet?  

Put your hand down if you think that the price of treatment is the most important thing to pet owners.

Despite all the usual complaints expressed about the cost of treatment, the reality is that pet owners remain prepared to pay for not just for outstanding veterinary care but for an experience that makes both them and their pet feel valued.

We conducted an online survey recently asking pet owners to talk about the factors most important to them when choosing a vet. Aside from highlighting the self-evident importance of their vet being technically competent, several things other than price were deemed to be of greater importance. 

Whilst cost is not always uppermost in the mind of clients looking for outstanding care, we should not run away with the idea that it is completely irrelevant. There is a somewhat lazy view that assumes that pet insurance is some kind of universal panacea. Whilst it is undoubtedly better for owners to have pet insurance than not, owners of animals with a chequered health history may find it impossible to secure insurance at an equitable price or be presented with a policy with numerous exclusions.

Whilst it is not our place to comment on your commercial arrangements, there is certainly hay to be made by the practice that can offer an economically sustainable deferred payment plan.

The oft-misquoted Jean Giroudaux famously said: ‘The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made!’ We are, in the main, very astute at working out whether their vet feigns interest in their animal’s symptoms or whether they genuinely care.

Our poll showed loud and clear the importance of feeling that vets ‘love’ and care for their animal patients. This is not something you can teach – you can either adequately convey that care for your patients or you can’t. But you can make sure your team follows some of the advice below which time and time again, pet owners have told us matters to them.

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You had me at hello ...

Your vet has probably read about the importance of the ‘customer journey’ and has maybe wondered whether it is something that is important to their clients. The results of our survey strongly point to the fact that it is – and the journey starts even before they set foot in the surgery.

This was one of the main problems our poll highlighted. Our experience of reception team varies enormously from the surly and unresponsive - to the friendly and welcoming. Irrespective of how good the veterinary care is, the experience will be influenced greatly by the extent to which we are made to feel welcome and our business valued.

The way in which we are greeted upon arrival or over the telephone can set the tone for the visit. op issues hightlighted in our poll:

This means that it is important for reception teams to observe the obvious rules and not ignore people upon arrival and instead acknowledge their presence even though they may be on the telephone or dealing with other clients.

When answering telephone calls, vets should remember that tone is as important as what is actually said. We have lost count of the number of times reception staff have sighed heavily or became abrupt when we have posed as potential clients of the practice and asked a few innocuous questions. People do not want to be made to feel that they are an inconvenience – being busy is no excuse and if clients feel their business is not valued then the vet not be busy for too much longer.

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Communicate Effectively

The single most important aspect of the owner/vet relationship based on our poll is communication. Practices that consistently attract 5 star ratings on the Good Vet & Pet Guide are generally great at it and those that find themselves on the 'avoid at all costs' list are consistently poor in this area.

The great irony is that both sets of practices are probably of comparable technical ability - the difference is that the first group have worked out how to engage their customers and the second are still struggling with the concept. The net result is that the first group are lauded as outstanding practitioners and the second are described as either incompetent or uncaring, neither of which may apply in reality.

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Let's take an example to illustrate the importance of the need to communicate effectively with clients.

A pet owner takes their animal into their local vet.

The animal exhibits a number of symptoms which are indicative of several acute conditions.

Because the animal cannot describe its symptoms, the vet commences a programme of treatment based on the most likely cause.

Two weeks later, the owner returns complaining that the animal has shown no signs of a recovery. The vet has therefore eliminated the first potential cause and instigates treatment based on the second most likely ailment. Unfortunately, this too fails to address the symptoms and the animal remains unwell.

At this juncture, the owner concludes that the first vet is incompetent and transfers the care of the animal to another practice.

The new vet quickly establishes the extent of the treatment previously given and having eliminated these potential conditions commences treatment on the third most likely scenario.

After a few days, the animal returns to full health. Net result - first vet is incompetent, second vet is outstanding.

First vet receives one star, second vet receives five stars.

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This somewhat crude example above appears time and time again. We have even discussed this with the RCVS disciplinary department who deal with the most serious complaints against the profession and they confirm that communication (or lack thereof) features to a lesser or greater degree in nearly every case that they see.

Vets should remember to make clear to their clients that veterinary medicine, like its human counterpart, can sometimes be a process of trial and error where a number of possible diagnoses are made. This is more pronounced because animals cannot communicate their symptoms. Pet owners will respect and understand this. Simply because a course of treatment fails to yield results immediately should not give rise to concern. Veterinary surgeons, like General Practitioners, will diagnose the most likely condition first. In most cases, this will prove to be the correct judgement call but on some occasions a programme of treatment will simply serve to eliminate one of the possible causes.

The message to take away for vets is that you must explain to clients what you are doing and most importantly why you are doing it. There is no shame in explaining that there might be several possible causes of the animal's illness and that a process of elimination is the only way in which a successful resolution may be achieved. By setting your stall out, the owner is under no illusions about the treatment stages which may follow, including likely costs.

If it is possible to undertake treatment or tests simultaneously, then the opportunity should be taken to diagnose as many conditions as possible at the outset or at least give the owner this option. Owners often perceive that treatment programmes are unnecessarily protracted in order to maximise revenue. Whilst this is rarely the case, veterinary surgeons must acknowledge that owner funds are finite and if economies of scale can be made by testing for more than one condition contemporaneously, then every opportunity should be taken to do so.

A good vet will always be happy to answer any questions pet owners may have - in fact, they should welcome the opportunity to explain their diagnosis and the subsequent treatment programme. As one vet with whom we work commented, "I always worry a little when the owner does not ask questions." In the final analysis, however, if an owner feels that the veterinary surgeon is less than committed to the treatment plan, they owe it to both parties to make alternative arrangements.

The Good Vet & Pet Guide encourages pet owners to call their vets for advice; not because we are in the habit of wasting people’s time but because we know from experience that client engagement of this type, properly handled, is a good way for practices to engage directly with their clients and build loyalty.

Good vets should always be able to find five minutes to call a client back. The chance to speak to a vet over the telephone is nearly always hugely appreciated by the owner who nearly always perceives such a call to be an example of outstanding client care.

We accept that talking to a client over the ‘phone will not always make money - but it will build client loyalty. And if you don’t, someone else will.

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