Adapting non-veterinary learning for the veterinary marketplace - Veterinary Practice
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Adapting non-veterinary learning for the veterinary marketplace

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

THERE is a strong correlation between brand building and the levels of customer care that companies find acceptable or affordable. In the main, most companies regard some investment as being necessary – up to a point – but this frequently manifests as a lipservice commitment by which the management can justify their recognition of the concept without its impinging on generating income.

It is important to see the two ends of this particular stick – brand building and customer-facing behaviour as being both separate and entwined. In an enlightened company – e.g. Innocent, John Lewis, Lexus, etc. – the sales floor performance determines the brand values rather than the other way round.

So it will be necessary for a company to be highly conscious of its brand values down to the level of every individual employee as well as having a strategic plan in place to utilise these brand values to determine and qualify each individual’s behaviour.

Renown for consistent excellence in customer service is rare; indeed it’s so rare that few of us can think of more than three or four examples of such excellence. Nevertheless, it is the single most potent factor in persuading consumers to come back for more.

For some time now, audiences have heard that the consumer wants to feel good about the experience, to feel that he or she has made a good choice, the right choice, and feels comfortable with his or her own decision to go to a particular shop or other establishment.

If consumers go away with a mental checklist of how expectation hasn’t been met, not only will they feel bad about the experience and wish not to repeat the exercise, the same consumers will have undergone a subconscious review of their own decision-making process and will feel uncomfortable with that process.

Experience tarnished

Subconsciously, the blame will need to be shifted onto the source of discontent and, whether or not 80% of the people did an outstanding job, the remaining 20% will tarnish the experience, leaving the balance of people categorised as poor/disappointing/ inadequately trained, etc., all lumped in together with the errant few.

The psychology of customer satisfaction is really straightforward but what undermines it most frequently is the concept that the person or company providing the service is an equal partner and should be so considered as part of the mix of any client interaction.

Intriguingly, consumers wish to be seen as equals and for their views to be considered in producing recommendations to move forward. This is accentuated when the transaction takes place in a market situation where the educational disparity in understanding affords the vendor an advantage.

In these situations, not only does the consumer feel disadvantaged and want, even more than usual, to be seen as an equal and capable of involvement in the decision process, but the vendor very often wants to demonstrate his or her depth of knowledge, understanding of the issues and terminology, etc., or, frankly, to demonstrate some superiority.

The end result may have come about unconsciously in both parties but still remains damaging none the less. The first hurdle in adopting a nonvet model for use with vets is the obvious one of assumed superiority in that vets do not usually assume that they have a retail rôle or even that this is a reasonable expectation for someone with their training and educational background.

The second will be that, with vets, there’s an in-built resistance to speaking with consumers about anything nonmedical. Yet, to build a relationship with someone, we all have to talk about other stuff and to find common ground before we can feel that we share some common base.

Purses threatened

Thirdly, the practices which have seen a recent drop-off in footfall are, generally, those which have been most proactive in selling preventive, and therefore elective, treatments and products.

The current economic climate threatens families’ purses and the elective element will be the first to be cut back as a result.

Where vets have worked to build this market sector, there is a new tendency to conclude that the result has not been worth the effort and some vets have already started to concentrate on “core” activities instead.

Enjoying clinical work

This idea of what vets believe to be “core” activities is interesting. Modern training of veterinary undergraduates stresses the preventive side heavily but actually most vets enjoy the hands-on clinical work more, hence the tendency to surf down the list of necessary tasks to find those which best suit the individual concerned.

In other market sectors, it is a given that every company will need to relaunch itself in some form or other, either in its client-facing persona or through the products it sells. In the food sector, there are clear delineations between essentials, value items, budget items, luxury items, healthy sector, organic and indulgence products.

They are geared up for considered purchases as well as for impulse purchasing and lay out their wares in a thought-through fashion.

The concept of niche products is well understood and consumer awareness is encouraged at all levels because the same consumer may easily buy some items from a budget range, together with some higher quality or more expensive items plus some impulse indulgence purchases.

Why, then, do we assume that all those who step over the veterinary practice threshold are to be compartmentalised into an identifiable example of a limited range of pet owners? Why do we not train our staff to recognise that people are multi-factorial and complex and that they have entered the premises fully expecting to buy something?

In a practice context, we worry about selling-up but none of us is concerned when, in the pub, we are offered a double measure or a special promotion, nor when, in a supermarket, we buy promotions that leave us with enough toilet rolls to last a month. Is this because we sometimes confuse “price” with “value”?

All of us are price conscious – especially at the present time – but we still have our own sense of what constitutes good value and that, very often, will involve us in quite willingly spending more money.

Fraught with difficulty

The whole issue of CRM – customer relationship management – is fraught with difficulty as we all recognise that it needs to be done yet so few people have found a way to carry it out in a reliable, reproducible fashion.

One of the gurus of CRM is an American named Frederick Reichheld whose mantra is quite simple: ask the question, “Would you recommend this business to a friend?” The answer, if honestly given, should be the baseline for all customer-facing training within the business.

If we record the answers on a 1-10 scale, we’ll end up with Reichheld’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) which can then be used to monitor the efficacy of training. That’s where the fun starts!

As in all organisations, the ethos emanates from the top. If the most senior manager behaves considerately, is something of a patrician and sets a leading example, behaviour in more junior staff usually follows suit. If the person at the top is prone to act like an animal, others usually follow the lead and are inconsiderate and noncaring.

For non-caring, read unengaged with the business relationship with clients and more concerned with the micro-climate within the business and their own, personal status and obligations or route to success/easier life than they are with the ethos of their employer.

Damaging motivation

Intriguingly, there is evidence that this type of corporate behaviour actually acts as a corrosive and damages the motivation of other employees. Fundamentally, we are all consumers at heart, even within our own workplace and, for most of us, there is a deeplyheld need to feel good about our choice of workplace.

Without doubt, if we wish to change the ethos of our company, it will be essential for every employee, from top to bottom, to understand and practise the ethos at all times – no exceptions permitted, ever.

This is a massive undertaking because we cannot, as employers, change people’s fundamental personalities – just their behaviour – and, to make this work, every employee needs to want to adopt a certain behaviour before the training can begin.

I owe Reichheld an apology for grossly oversimplifying his life’s work but, in essence, the most important question must be, “Would you recommend this business to a friend?”

Once we begin to ask that question of all our consumers and, more importantly, to anticipate the need to ask the question before we undertake an action or open our mouths, then we can make a start down the long road towards reproducible client satisfaction.

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