Client conversations with Steve Dale: Win the Internet game

Offer advice to clients about where to move their mouse.
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Aug 29, 2012
In this exclusive monthly column, Steve Dale, CABC, radio host, syndicated newspaper columnist, and contributing editor at USA Weekend, will look at some of the key issues of the veterinary industry, always with an eye to the perspective of the client and pet owner. This month’s entry? The Internet.

According to the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, there are six primary factors that explain the decline in veterinary visits. One of those factors is the Internet. The Internet isn’t going away—so how do you deal with the problem? And can this “problem” be transformed into part of the solution? I think so. Veterinary medicine is a profession that has fundamentally been based on trust from the first day the first veterinarian helped Bessie the cow give birth. Even in our increasingly cynical society, this hasn’t changed. In fact, today more than ever, people are starving for trusted service providers, because there seem to be so few. What does trust have to do with the Internet? Everything. You’re dealing with three types of clients:

  1. Those who never go to the Internet. They follow a veterinary discussion or diagnosis because they aren’t computer savvy, don’t care enough, or just blindly do anything you say (as long as they’re financially able).
  2. Those who go online because they don’t really trust the veterinarian. They may actively seek to prove your diagnosis is incorrect or seek alternative pricing or alternative treatments. Many of these clients become “instant experts” by reading uninformed blog posts and inaccurate websites. Some seek to prove their case with printed-out articles and blogs, which they confront you with in the exam room.
  3. Those who trust their veterinarian but yearn to learn as much as they can about a suggested diagnosis or treatment. Along the way, they may discover alternative treatment plans or information that their veterinarian may be able to use. Be honest, even the savviest veterinarian isn’t as up-to-date as the Internet.

The first group sounds good—they’re compliant after all—but what you should really want are clients who fall into the third group. These clients want whatever is best for their pet, and they spend their own valuable time looking for that. As a result, they will agree to and endorse the best possible treatment and care. These informed clients are a good thing. So help those clients to quench their thirst for knowledge. Offer recommended web resources on your website and via social media. Consider websites such as the non-profit Winn Feline Foundation or the nonprofit Morris Animal Foundation (which funds studies for various species) that offers offer published reports of research they’ve funded. And you can usually trust any website ending in ‘.edu’

How the Internet changes face-to-face communication
Here’s an example of how you can use a website while conducting an exam. Say, a client wonders out loud why an annual heartworm test is necessary. Of course, offer an explanation, then suggest the client check out the independent and nonprofit American Heartworm Society’s website. Some clients might even check it out on their phones as you leave the room momentarily. Welcome that! Don’t be afraid of the Internet—it can be your ally. Be proactive. It’s better to point your client’s toward the reputable opinions of the American Heartworm Society than some rogue veterinarian who regularly blogs about how heartworm tests are a waste of time and money.

For me at the peak of the mountain of credible sites are the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association. Of course, there are dozens more great websites. If you’d like me to suggest more, let me know in the comments below and I’ll happily offer some of my favorites. I know that for every reliable website or blog, there are many more crackpots and well-meaning but ill-informed advocates. That’s why offering sites you can trust to clients is so vital. And clients will go to those sites, if they trust you.