Would your veterinary practice survive a secret shopper?

Practice consultant Sheila Grosdidier, RVT, went undercover to see how one practice flourished—or failed—in possible client satisfaction.
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Jun 16, 2014

Has your practice used a secret shopper? What did you think? Tell us at ve@advanstar.com.

“Hi, I’m Cynthia Hawkins. I have a 4 pm appointment with Dr. Andrews.”

No, I’m not really Cynthia Hawkins. She’s my mystery shopper persona. Have you ever tried to call yourself by another name? It takes some practice, but in this situation, it was going to be a great learning experience for the practice, the team and myself.

Sheila's disguise
Sheila went undercover for this visit, not wearing her usual clothing or makeup.

Baby is my feline cohort in this secret shopper escapade. She’s a senior feline with a kind personality and a fine example of oozing feline condescension. The goal of this exercise was to review client service, execution of protocols, efficiency and effectiveness, and then compare the perception of the team and practice owners to reality.

Before I get to my real secret shopper experience—and how this real practice did under my critical eye—let’s look at my five criteria for judging:

1. Pre-visit interaction
2. Introduction to the exam room
3. Veterinary technician time
4. Veterinarian visit
5. Check-out

Now let’s see how this practice did. (Yes, the names have been changed to protect the innocent…or guilty.)

1. Pre-visit interaction
Most people get their first big impression of a practice on the phone. I’m always looking to see how I’m treated when I set up an appointment and whether the call greeting is standardized (a big thumbs-up in my book).

In this case, I called 
three times and hung up twice to check. “Hello, thank you for calling 
Brennan Veterinary Hospital. This is Autumn. How can I help you?” 
And, in all three calls, I could hear
 the smile in her voice. Pleasant, cordial and welcoming: a nice start
 by the receptionists.

After listening to the description of my cat’s needs, but not completely sure of what I need, Autumn
 demonstrated she was listening by:

> Using my name and my pet’s 
name
> Paraphrasing perfectly what I had stated
> Smoothly transitioning the conversation toward a recommendation to bring my cat into the practice.

Autumn gave me two possible times for appointments. She then reinforced that Dr. Wonder loves cats and that everyone will look forward to seeing me on Thursday. Autumn even thanked me for calling. I was feeling pretty good right now.

Pre-visit interaction score: 18 of 20. Excellent.

What would it take to get a 20 out of 20? Two things:

> Offer an online website with information to read in advance on how to get the most out of my visit to Brennan Veterinary Hospital. Tell me on the phone or email me (yes, get my email address over the phone).

> Remind me of the name of the receptionist and that you will be there Thursday, looking forward to meeting me and my kitty, Baby.

2. Introduction to the exam room
I arrived 20 minutes early to see what the front-desk team would do with someone that far in advance. As I walked in, the receptionist stood and welcomed Baby and me to the practice. Her body language and facial expression made it seem like I was the most important person in the building.

When she reviewed the check-in information, I was immediately shown to an exam room despite the fact I was early. There was not a word of, “You’re early and we aren’t ready.” It was easy to see that they were very busy, but every team member I met was pleasant, professional and never appeared to be rushing me or the appointment. In three minutes, I was in the exam room and the receptionist let me know that she would advise the team of my arrival and the technician, Kristy, would be in shortly.

Exam-room introduction score: 18 of 20. Excellent, with a professional, timely and cordial transition to the exam room.

What would make it a 20?

> The practice knew I was coming in with a senior cat. What if I was shown information on cats and senior cats to review in the exam room? What if a convenient QR code could send me on my phone through a virtual tour outlining services and the history of the practice?

> A display in the exam room could show videos to entertain, educate and keep me from constantly looking at my watch. (Have you checked out the wonder of Apple TV or ChromeCast? Create your very own selection of media content in an easy and cost-effective way.)

> Offer beverages in the reception area or exam room. (I was offered a bottle of water or coffee by the veterinary technician after she completed the initial history.)

3. Veterinary technician time
When she showed up in the exam room, the technician made immediate eye contact, introduced herself to me and my cat, then gave me a quick view of what will happen during the course of the exam. She gathered essential information from me and identified three areas for recommendations on diet, flea preventives and laboratory testing for senior cats. I told her I needed flea prevention, but needed to know more about lab testing before I make a decision. “The diet that Baby is on is fine with me right now,” I told her. The technician said the doctor would be in shortly and offered me a beverage. Then I was left to myself in the “isolation chamber,” err, exam room.

Veterinary technician time: 16 of 20. Good, but not great.

Hey, you have someone locked in your exam room! Wouldn’t you want to find something engaging and beneficial for them? Here are some options:

> digital display with before and after pictures of feline dental procedures.
> questionnaire on how to identify changes in older cats
> handout explaining benefits of laboratory testing in older cats.

And how about letting me know you have free Wifi in the building—with a link to your website. Maybe some music instead of the sound of barking dogs?

4. Veterinarian visit
I was by myself in the exam room, so I rummaged through the drawers and looked in the cabinets. Interesting, they were full of stuff and didn’t look too organized. An abundance of cords, plugs and a pile of computer equipment took up three-quarters of the counter by the sink. Should you keep a computer right next to the sink?

Dr. Wonder and Kristy the technician entered. The veterinarian was quick to introduce herself and start the conversation with the assurance that she had reviewed the information about my pet. As a cat owner, I particularly liked that she gave me specifics about what my cat needs based on the pet’s age and lifestyle as well as her specific recommendations based on the responses I gave her—not just what she thought I needed.

Doctor, you listened, kept control of the conversation without interrupting and verbalized the comprehensive physical examination. My kitty-loving meter was going off. Her recommendations on laboratory testing were attached to the physical exam findings with the physical exam. When she found that Baby had an issue with one of her ears, she showed me the problem and told me what needed to be done to identify what was going on. I agreed to the tests she recommended on the ear and on the lab work for older cats. Baby was off to have her blood work and would return. The doctor reviewed the exam-room report card with me and highlighted the good job I was doing with Baby’s care. She also let me know that would she would be calling personally with the lab results.

Veterinarian visit score: 18 of 20. Well done, team!

The high score represents not only what the doctor and the technician did during the exam portion of the visit—it represents what they didn’t do. It’s fair to say that my look and attire (I didn’t wear makeup or my usual clothes) were suggestive of someone who was lucky to put on clean clothes. And not once did anyone in the practice appear to judge my appearance and decide what I would or would not do for my pet.

But, of course, the nine minutes I waited for the veterinarian and the return of the technician in the exam room was another chance to educate, reinforce recommendations and show some clinic personality.

5. Check-out
When the veterinary technician and the doctor returned with Baby, they were all smiles and told me how well she did. That must mean she didn’t draw blood from any team members with those razor-sharp claws, nor did she take the opportunity to try out her canines on any hands. The doctor reviewed the findings of the ear cytology/smear and what medications were needed. While treating the ear, she asked some questions about my being new to the area (I told her I was new to town earlier.)

Now, here’s a point that impressed me: During this discussion, I mentioned that I relocated here because my 75-year-old mother had found a boyfriend online and had moved here about a year ago. I’d ditched my job, dumped the boyfriend and took the cat to this new land of masculine abundance.

The doctor turned to me and with a completely straight face said, “That’s pretty cool to have a mom who has that kind of computer skill.” Not one thing I could say would change her pleasant and respectful demeanor. The doctor thanked me for coming in and let me know that Kristy would review the medications and had my flea medication.

Then Kristi thanked me for coming in, walked me to the front desk and introduced me to the receptionist who would check me out. That receptionist explained the invoice items and did an excellent job of explaining two of the charges I asked about and thanked me for my visit.

Check-out score: 17 of 20. Not too bad.

I made it easy on everyone, wanting them to feel comfortable and see how they responded in the majority of their appointments. Most of your clients are nice, so why do we choose to remember the ones who aren’t? Remember, mystery shopping is initially about evaluating execution of standards and then to identify your personality and what makes you memorable.

Overall, this was a strong performance, I asked the practice owners in advance what they wanted clients to think about them. They used the words “compassionate,” “knowledgeable” and “professional.” What standards did the team not fulfill on their list? They did everything the exam room protocol identified and they had been trained for. What could they have done to get the perfect score? They could have incorporated some tips and tools to improve the chance that will return:

> New clients should be given a personal gift. For example, a coffee cup full of candies with the clinic contact magnet wrapped together in cellophane and a ribbon. What about a cat toy or collapsible water bowl with goodies for the pet and the people in side? Include a business card with links on how to give a review of the practice online.

> Set up an iPad or computer kiosk where clients can share quick feedback as they’re checking out.

> Follow up with clients not just to give them lab results, but an email with links to your online information for cat owners and an electronic thank-you card.

> Consider a wall painted with chalkboard paint or a dry-erase paint that clients can use to write comments right onto the wall for other clients to see. (Maybe try it in the exam room and find out what your clients are really thinking.)

All’s well that ended well
Total score? 87 of 100. Pretty impressive for a first pass by a mystery shopper.

As you read about this mystery shopping experience, I bet you thought of a lot of things you’d do differently. Good! But remember that my goal was to measure the success of my visit against what the owners had identified as their standards, what constituted their idea of a perfect visit. This varies from clinic to clinic; what practice owners most want to know is whether they’re protocols and standards they’re training and coaching are being consistently applied.

Practices really benefit from regular mystery shopping for three huge reasons:

Perception is reality to your clients. What you think you do and what
clients think you do can vary widely. Isn’t it about what they think, not what we think they think?

Your practice is built on executing protocols. Make sure your standards are clear, and get an unbiased perspective on how the entire process start to finish is viewed from the other side of the exam table.

A survey only says so much. Service standards, client experience, efficiency and consistency in recommending services and products are the foundation of a successful practice. Don’t leave it up to surveys or occasional feedback to make sure you’re doing things right. Test the system and make sure it works.

The worst that can happen with a mystery shopper is, you find out your practice delivers above your standards and your team is doing an excellent job of creating loyal clients who can’t wait to return. Even in that case, what team members wouldn’t benefit from hearing from a client’s perspective just how outstanding you really are as caring people who help clients and heal patients.

The "Management Matters" blog features the writing of veterinary practice management consultants Monica Dixon Perry, CVPM, Mark Opperman, CVPM, and Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, MCP, PHR. Come back every month for their unique take on current and future trends in veterinary practice as well as tried-and-true tips for improving patient care, team member morale and practice revenue.