3 ways to spread the word about your equine practice
Marketing your equine practice is essential during good economic times, but during challenging times like those we're experiencing these days it can be a lifeline of opportunity. Why? Marketing helps you develop financial stability now and prepares you for growth down the road when the economy improves.
This was the message attendees heard at the recent American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) convention in Baltimore, Md. The business keynote speaker was William Lowell, an author, lecturer, and internationally recognized expert in the fields of marketing and brand perception who's putting his talents to work in the equine industry. Lowell cites a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin concluding that indiscriminately cutting a marketing budget to save money—a tactic many businesses fall back on during tough economic times—can make it more difficult to recover from a market downturn.
Instead, Lowell suggests using a proactive—and cost-effective—three-step marketing plan as a strategy to grow your business. The plan doesn't necessarily involve creating a website with all the bells and whistles or developing slick and expensive brochures. It's about building a positive business reputation—a brand—through the use of good customer service practices that lead to positive client experiences.STEP 1 DRIVE CLIENTS TO YOUR DOOR BY MEETING THEIR NEEDS
First, Lowell tells equine veterinarians, remember that you're not in sales. Sales is about meeting the needs of the seller—turning prospects into clients. Instead, he suggests, focus your marketing efforts on the needs of your clients. Marketing is not a dirty word but rather a customer-oriented, evidence-based method of strategically driving clients to your doorstep.
And Lowell says a poor economic climate is the prime time to initiate this marketing plan if you don't already have one in place. Not sure where to start? Ask clients what they want and need from their veterinarian by conducting surveys and holding five-minute chats at the end of farm calls. There's no need to assume or guess. Then brainstorm with your staff to determine what you're doing right and where improvements and changes need to be made. Finally, make the necessary changes.
STEP 2 BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUR CLIENTS
Kelly Chu, PhD, an advertising professor at DePaul University in Chicago, defines branding this way: "Branding is building relationships with your customers and then having those customers talk to other customers about you."
This statement emphasizes the importance of relationships in any marketing strategy. As Lowell says, "Branding creates emotion and personality for a company. It can create a preference between two seemingly identical products. It's about your vision, your core values, your staff, and, of course, your image."
Lowell stresses the importance of reviewing your brand periodically: Are you authentically and consistently representing yourself and your practice? He suggests that you Google yourself and your practice to learn what clients are saying about you. (See list at right.)
STEP 3 TRAIN YOUR EMPLOYEES TO PROTECT YOUR BRAND
Ask yourself this question: "What makes my practice different from my colleagues' practices?" Lowell suggests that it isn't your equipment or drugs—differences in those aren't usually profound enough for clients to notice. What makes your practice different from others is your staff and your clients' experiences with your staff. Your employees create your internal branding, Lowell says. Lowell is supported by a study from Northwestern University in Chicago, which found that internal marketing is one of the top three indicators of a business's financial performance.
Internal branding is based on the belief that marketing starts from the inside out. Lowell suggests that you educate your employees about the abilities and expertise of all veterinarians on staff and all aspects of your practice. Team members are the first and, in most cases, the last contact your clients will have with your practice, so employees need to sing the praises of the veterinarians and practice at all times.
Lowell says your employees also need to know what the practice stands for, to deliver on promises made to clients, and to provide peace of mind. This can be accomplished by training them to deliver a consistent message to clients.
Hold your employees accountable for their actions, because those actions influence your brand. Ensure that your team members provide a positive total experience for clients from the moment they're greeted, through assistance and answering questions, and until they're professionally and courteously sent on their way at the end of the appointment. Your employees must provide a high level of client service, one that matches your high quality of equine medical care.
In order for your employees to do all these things, you must see to it that they are well trained, that they feel appreciated, and that they feel like part of the team. And one way to build strong team relationships with employees is to use active communication, Lowell says. If team members are greatly satisfied with the practice and their role in it, they will be loyal to the practice. And this will lead to them creating a positive atmosphere for all your clients. In the end, this effort on your part will translate into more referrals to the practice.
Knowing how to strategically deal with an economic downturn is challenging, but according to Lowell, attending to these three marketing steps will foster improved customer satisfaction, greater employee loyalty, more client referrals, and higher profits for your practice.
Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. James Guenther, MBA, CVPM, is owner and president of Strategic Veterinary Consulting Inc. in Asheville, N.C. Send questions or comments to [email protected]