Marketing. The mere mention of the word is likely to send some of you equine practitioners running in the opposite direction—for a lot of reasons. Maybe you were taught that product marketing was unethical. Maybe you don't have space in your mobile vehicle for extra products and materials. Or maybe marketing just doesn’t "fit" with your personality. But the playing field out there has changed: Someone is always trying to a better job appealing to horse owners. Local feed stores now carry the basic essentials of veterinary care, and if we want our clients to know why we should provide their veterinary services, it’s up to us to tell them—or face the consequences.
Avoid the sin of omission
Consider the very possible case of Mrs. Jones. Her horse Dakota is lame, and Mrs. Jones has no idea what might be causing the problem. Because she buys her dewormer at the feed store, she decides to see if there’s anything else there that could help her horse. At her next visit, she speaks to a 17-year-old store clerk who suggests a joint supplement that might help if Dakota’s lameness is caused by arthritis. Mrs. Jones buys an $80 tub of something that won’t even begin to address the problem.
Unbeknownst to her, Dakota has a simple hoof abscess, and two possible resolutions exist: either the horse gets much worse and requires a veterinary visit, during which Mrs. Jones complains about her bill because she’s already spent $80 on the problem, or, worse, the abscess breaks, drains, and quietly resolves on its own, leaving Mrs. Jones with the impression that the joint supplement worked, making it more likely that she will consult the feed store clerk in the future instead of paying a veterinarian to respond.
Veterinary marketing isn’t an old concept for many. Retail shelves at companion animal practices started out 20 years ago with an item or two, and most veterinarians still felt that their client relationships should be forged based on professional services they were trained to provide rather than bottles of shampoo or flea powder. With the blossoming of the pet product industry, however, everything changed. A typical small animal practice now displays flea and tick products, shampoos, joint supplements, specialized pet food, grooming products, and dental care products, to name a few. These items represent a significant profit center and put practices in direct competition with feed stores and pet supply chains.
Admittedly, there aren’t as many product options for horses as there are for cats and dogs, and the same “return on investment” analysis must be used to decide what products will be warranted. Penicillin, eye ointments, vaccines, hoof tools, triple-antibiotic ointments, dewormers, syringes, gauze, and more—the potential veterinary client can buy all that and more at a typical feed store and take a big bite out of your revenue.
Veterinarians may say they’ll leave the small retail market to the feed store and focus on veterinary care, but it’s obvious that doing so is also providing clients an alternative to the veterinarian’s expertise and expert medicine
Coach clients with calendars
Competing with feed stores for face time with your clients starts with a plan for preventive care and a solid system of visits and reminders. Here are three places to start:
Vaccinations. If you don’t have a specific vaccine protocol, it’s time to create one. If you don’t send regular vaccine reminders to every client, it’s time to start. Vaccinations continue to be the one reason we see a horse on an annual basis (or even twice a year), and that visit is often the launching point for a comprehensive exam or at least a reminder for the client that there was something wrong with Rusty that she noticed a while back. Most of these vaccines are available at feed stores and all of them are available on the Internet, but many horse owners still don’t prefer to give injections. If your fees remain competitive with other local veterinarians, you’ll hold onto this business.
Dewormers. Horse owners are confused by the variety of dewormers available. They want to know what to use, during what time of year, and how often. Create an annual deworming schedule and include recommendations for pregnant horses and foals. Print the schedule (along with your vaccination recommendations) as a marketing tool; call it an “educational” tool if you like. Every point of contact between your practice and your clients returns a certain percentage of revenue, so send deworming reminders. Many clients will jump at the chance to purchase a prepackaged set of dewormers for the entire year along with the schedule of what to give and when. This may reduce the number of visits to your practice, but it will also reduce the clients’ number of visits to the feed store.
Joint supplements. Some veterinarians may not put faith in supplements’ efficacy. For those who do, consider stocking them to compete with the over-the-counter market. Owners are taking these supplements themselves, they’re giving them to their cats and dogs, and they’re administering them to their horses. If their use fits your definition of veterinary care, even slightly, why let a nonprofessional working at the local feed store be the one who advises your client on when to give them?
Package your care
So now you’ve got your schedule set up and you carry the medically necessary products your clients want. What’s next? Education.
Take the time to create specialized recommendation handouts for foals, adult horses, senior horses, pregnant horses, and performance horses. When possible, offer prepaid annual packages using your own recommendations as the foundation. A foal program might include an initial visit to assess health at birth, a regimen of dewormers that your practice recommends for this developmental age, vaccinations, and whatever diagnostics you may suggest such as a fecal exam and IgG test. Tailoring different programs for the subtle changes in recommendations also helps educate clients—for example, the program for pregnant mares might include prepaid visits for anti-abortion rhino vaccines and strategically timed rectal palpations or ultrasounds.
Creating and offering prepaid plans allows you to offer a slight discount to those who purchase them in advance (an important incentive during these times), which is easily outweighed by the guarantee that all of the work will be done—or at least paid for. You can encourage clients to sign up by giving them alternative payment arrangements that could include third-party payment plans. They can make the upfront costs more affordable
Charge clients right
While “price fixing” with other veterinarians is unethical, there’s nothing wrong with keeping an eye on what feed stores charge and how your prices compare to those on the Internet.
Be proactive and price products that are commonly shopped online, even if it means considerably cutting your margin. When clients call you to say they’ve found something cheaper online, ask for the website and do the research yourself. Clients often confuse products or fail to notice shipping charges. To avoid manually checking the dozens of sites that feature equine products, try using the website nextag.com, which offers an across-the-board comparison of prices for a given product.
Mark the seasons
For years, companion animal practices have celebrated February as National Pet Dental Health Month, but the concept has never caught on in the horse industry. While February is a typically slow month for companion animal practices, it’s often the beginning of the busiest season for equine practices as breeding gets underway. Consider offering a special on equine dentistry during the month of October, taking the pressure off practitioners during the breeding season and helping to prop up business when it starts to tail off at the end of the year.
Using your practice’s recommendations for optimal care and the timing of that care, create a marketing plan that encourages clients to have their horses vaccinated when you think they should be, to be dewormed when you think they should be, and to have diagnostic testing when you think they should.
Teach to reach clients
I’ve already discussed how protocols, reminders, and prepaid plans can be educational for clients. But your marketing can be even more educational.
In addition to the many ways you market product and services, you can offer short educational seminars for horse owners to better bond them to your practice. Start with groups of no more than 25 clients, and invite them to your practice for a short talk on whatever topic you feel is important. Use your own care recommendations to create a series of evening talks to help clients understand the need for planned care and improve your compliance in the process.
Once you’ve created a template for these talks, consider expanding to larger groups and recruit pharmaceutical companies as partners to help underwrite the costs of bigger events. At this level, spotlighting guest speakers who mesh well with your standard of care helps create a culture among your clients that reinforces your recommendations.
It’s more competitive than ever out there, and the old notion that a handshake seals a lifetime bond between veterinarian and client doesn’t seem to work the way it once did. No matter what level of service you provide, you must offer added value to your clients by expanding efforts to market and educate. It’s the only way to ensure you keep their business.
Kyle Palmer, CVT, is practice manager at Silver Creek Animal Clinic, a mixed practice in Silverton, Ore.