Providing High Quality Client Experiences in a Range of Practices
My “thing” is helping vets provide an exceptional client experience through superb customer service and communication. Often, that can incorporate a lot of bells and whistles in terms of practice infrastructure. So what about the majority of practices, that don’t fall into the high-end / boutique category, and are already pinching profit margins? How can they offer the same level of client experience, while staying profitable?
“Good customer service costs less than bad customer service.”
– Sally Gronow
The first thing to realize is that your margins are affected by the quality of your client’s experience. The choice isn’t whether to invest resources (time, energy, money) in the experience at all, but rather where to do so. You can either invest in creating positive experiences, or in reacting to bad ones.
Positive experiences may cost a little more to, but they also pay off with increased average transactions, repeat business, referrals, and ultimately a loyal customer base. Negative experiences don’t just result in occasional complaints and headaches; they also lead to declined services, poor client retention, and a need to increase marketing to maintain practice growth.
The benefits of providing good customer service compound, as do the costs of not doing so. Because of this effect, practices with the narrowest margins and slowest growth are those with the most to gain—and lose—in this arena. They can’t afford not to invest in the client experience.
“The first step in exceeding your customers’ expectations is to know those expectations.” – Roy H. Williams
The problem of how to do this boils down to the essence of what makes a good experience in the first place. Ultimately, it consists of meeting—or ideally exceeding—a client’s expectations. Clients will be satisfied if you meet their expectations, disappointed if you fail them, and thrilled if you exceed them. Having a text messaging system, 40 minute appointments, in-house specialists, etc., is nice, but is only valuable if it is what your clients want.
Warby Parker changed the landscape of eyeglasses by delivering stylish, direct-to-consumer prescription glasses in an affordable price range. They’ve been hugely successful, not because they charge more than their competitors or offer a luxury service experience, but because they redesigned the process to better meet the customer need. Their base glasses retail for $95 including lenses, and even their high end price range only reaches $250-300.
They achieved this by focusing on what their target customers wanted – stylish glasses that were also affordable – and eliminating the things their customers didn’t care about – brand name designers and same-day service. The goal is to prioritize services that your customers will value, so you can deploy practice resources efficiently, and exceed expectations without blowing up your bottom line.
No problem, right?… So how the heck do we actually do it?!
The prerequisite to any practice delivering an exception experience is to consider its target clientele, determining what needs and expectations they have. You’ve probably heard of this process before in a marketing context: it’s commonly referred to as developing client avatars, and is an invaluable step before making any significant changes.
Just as your practice is different from others, your avatars will be different, and will determine what resources are worth investing in. If you aren’t a boutique practice, you probably don’t have clients with boutique expectations, so you don’t need to provide those services to create an exceptional experience. Once you know who you are trying to serve, and what they want, you can start strategizing the how.
I’ve written a bit more about the importance of avatars on my own blog if you are interested in going deeper here!
The final thing to recognize in creating an avatar is that you can’t be all things to all people. We know this… but it’s time to truly take it on board and apply it to your practice. Instead of trying to be available to help every client with every need, decide what clients and what needs you are going to serve. Essentially, you are deciding which clients you want to attract and retain, and what aspects of their experiences need to be supported to do so.
When you are ready, I break down the process of consciously taking control of the customer experience into four steps:
1. Design an Experience Cycle
This step can seem overwhelming at first. I recommend a giant whiteboard at a staff meeting as a good jumping off point. I’m a visual person, so I always start this step with a literal circle, but flow charts are another good option. The goal is to physically lay out the phases of your relationship with a client, from the first time he/she makes contact with your office until he/she stops receiving services.
For example: Client Googles “Vet in Our Town” 🡪 Finds our website 🡪 Calls for an appointment 🡪 Comes to appointment 🡪 Receives reminder card 🡪 Calls for another appointment…..
This may seem like an inane task, but it will help you understand each piece of the puzzle, and identify areas where you may be inadvertently failing to provide needed support to clients. It will also help you to parcel out future changes into manageable projects that can be implemented step-by-step.
2. Determine Wants and Needs
For each step listed in the cycle, determine what your clients need and what they want. For example, they need an appointment to update vaccines, and they want to make it right now, while it’s on their mind. They need the appointment this week, and they want to see the same doctor as last time.
This step is about integrating your client avatars into the practice. What do they expect from you? These specific wants and needs are your opportunities to add value to your existing services. Tip: if you are stuck in this process, think back to client complaints (and compliments!); eliminate the ones from clients who don’t match your avatars (aka clients you’d be happy to see go), and focus on those from clients you treasure and wish you could clone.
I encourage you to also go through this process from the practice point of view—for example, you need to see 20 appointments a day to be profitable, and want to evenly distribute them over the shift. Looking at both points of view will help get your creative juices flowing for the next step.
Each want or need can be matched up to a phase in the experience cycle you drew in Step 1. By matching up what clients expect with when they expect it, you can get a better picture of areas to focus on in development.
3. Come Up With Solutions
Now that you have a framework for a cycle and a potentially extensive list of wants and needs, it’s time to get creative. Take a look at each step and consider how it could be handled more effectively to address wants and needs. Start with a wide range of brainstormed ideas and then narrow down to the ideas you think clients will appreciate and are within the realm of possibility.
For example: If you determine that new systems for reminders and appointment bookings would be helpful, consider implementing a texting system that includes the reminder due and a link to book an appointment right away.
Your practice may not have a texting service set up, or online booking for that matter. But if you can see that they would greatly improve the client experience, and streamline work your team is already doing, you may discover that they would not only be a way to add value to the client experience, but reduce costs at the same time.
Pick a few changes that you think will have the biggest impact within the allotted resources (aka the budget!), and proceed with them.
4. Systematize Every Step
Once you know what you want to achieve, it’s time to make sure it moves forward and is successful. Decreeing to staff, “We will now call all of our clients the day after their appointments!” isn’t going to win you boss of the year, and probably isn’t going to have the end effect you want. Team members are more likely to roll their eyes and mutter something about trying to fit one more thing in on top of their already hectic to-do lists.
For each new process you implement, you need a clear [and functional] plan. It should include:
Details of the task itself (e.g. “Each appointment from the day before will receive a call to follow up; these calls will be logged in the chart.”)
Which role in the practice will take it on (e.g. “DVMs will call anyone with pending labs and LVTs will call everyone else.”) *Be sure to add this new tasks to the role’s official job description!
The trigger for the task to happen (e.g. The closing team member on the front desk will print out a call list for DVMs and a list for LVTs the next day, which will be referenced by the opening team the next morning.)
Allocated time for its completion (e.g. Blocking off one appointment slot in the morning from 10-10:30 am for follow up calls.)
Plan for monitoring that it is being completed appropriately (e.g. The closing front desk team member will check that each list is completed and bring any missed calls to the team’s attention. If calls are frequently missed, the manager will be alerted.)
Completed training, including assessing competency, before rolling out the change. It’s no good to declare a change and expect it to start the next day. There needs to be a realistic timeline and ample opportunity for everyone to get on the same page, or else it will be a rocky road.
By creating such a system for each new part of the client experience, you can ensure that you are (a) implementing realistic changes, and (b) ensuring staff can consistently deliver the same level of service over time. Without a system, it will be impossible to maintain the same standard as staff changes and day-to-day work loads fluctuate.
Just because you have gone through steps 1-4 doesn’t mean anything is written in stone for your practice. Don’t hesitate to take new approaches for a test run, then assess if your team and the clients actually like the change. This is a great use of staff meeting time – create a quick pros / cons list of something new you’ve been doing over the last month and see if it needs to be tweaked, or even scrapped completely. Alternatively, the big wins should be cemented as long term protocols.
You can’t provide consistent services without consistent training… and management. If you want to set your practice up to provide a high level of service—whatever that looks like in your hospital—you have to first provide a high level of training, and then maintain performance through consistent management.
This really boils down to having a clear vision and providing adequate support for your team. It’s no good training the staff you have now if you aren’t going to fully train new hires in 6 months, or if a manager’s (or owner’s) standards change day-to-day.
If you are ready to commit to a clear vision of what you practice will be, whom it will serve, and to providing consistent leadership and training support to your team, you are ready to start down this path. If you aren’t, that’s OK, too – do what you can for now, and focus on setting up those three components as a foundation for future development. That might mean hiring a new manager, setting aside time for yourself to reliably engage in staff development, or taking a few months to clarify your vision for the practice.
Ultimately, providing customer service experiences that exceed your clients’ expectations isn’t about price point or being “fancy”. It’s about understanding who you are and who your clients are, then committing to delivering what they need and want in a predictable, repeatable way. This opens the door for satisfied clients to become loyal clients, and ensures your practice will have their support through good times and bad.