Let’s talk dirty! - Veterinary Practice
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Let’s talk dirty!

CATHY GURNEY believes it’s vitally important for practices to make full use of their client base

MUCH has been written in the veterinary press recently about how to survive the credit squeeze and the downturn in the economy. “Analyse your business”; “Review your charges”; “ Improve your retail area”; “Market the practice”; and those dirty words … “Sell more!”

But mention the word “selling” to most vets, nurses or practice managers and it’s usually enough to send them running for the hills! The mere mention of the word to someone who is not a sales person immediately conjures up visions of the double-glazing salesman who won’t take “No” for an answer, or the girl who rings up just as you are sitting down for your evening meal to offer you the “deal you cannot afford to miss!”

To a good sales person though, this image is a complete anathema of what selling is all about. But what constitutes a good sales person and why is selling to our clients so important?

Making sales is fundamental to the success of any business, but very few veterinary practices make active selling a key part of their marketing strategy. When the going gets tough, as it surely will over the next year or so, and more and more clients think twice about having that vaccination done, or getting their pet neutered, it will become even more important to utilise your client base to the full.

It is also imperative in a difficult climate to differentiate your practice from others in the surrounding area. Clients have a lot of choice where to take their pets, so what’s special about your practice?

Marketing the practice is key, but in a survey of practices in one geographic area recently, 100% were sending out booster vaccination reminders or reminders of some kind; 91% had a website; 100% had waiting room displays and pet food racks; 86% sent out newsletters regularly; 79% held nurse clinics on a variety of topics and 100% used the marketing tools given to them by their main suppliers, so where’s the difference?

Also, what makes the difference from a client’s perspective? As most clients choose their veterinary practice based on the people they see in the practice rather than the facilities the practice offers, it’s the selling skills of the practice staff that can make a huge difference to practice revenues. But how many practice staff do you know who work in a vet practice because they want to be a sales person?

In fact, if “We sell a lot of products/services to our clients in this practice and selling these products and services will be a key part of your job function: how do you feel about that?” was a standard interview question for practices, how many people would feel comfortable about taking the job?

So what constitutes a good salesperson? A good sales person is someone who listens, who finds out what interests his or her client and then makes a clear recommendation about what should be done. However, 97% of practice staff view selling as “being pushy” or “not my job” or “clients don’t like it”. Of course clients won’t like it if you are “pushy” but this is not what proper selling is about.

Clear recommendations

Selling is about knowing what your client currently does for his or her pet and then making that clear recommendation about the other things which need to be done to ensure the best for that pet, and then following it through to get the sale.

“But we do sell things in our practice,” say some practice partners. But selling is not giving out a flea treatment to a client who comes in to ask for it. Selling is talking to the client about a flea treatment when he or she has come in to have the cat’s abscess lanced, and this is very different.

In setting a sales strategy for the practice, a plan needs to be put in place:

  • The partners in the practice need to formulate the plan in discussion with the whole practice team, who then need to be encouraged to take ownership of it. Having the team working towards a common goal is always the best approach, as everyone supports each other and those who are better at it can help others less comfortable.

However, getting buy-in from everyone is always the difficult bit as it means that a lot of the staff will probably feel very uncomfortable about being asked to start actively selling, but this can be overcome by support, training and lots of reassurances that they don’t need to become the sales person from hell!

  • Setting a team sales goal to work towards gives a focus on what needs to be achieved and the whole team should have input into what that goal should be.
  • Invariably you will find that some team members are keener than others, so part of the process is to train those people to become the sales advocates for the team, so they can drive things on a daily basis and help and support their colleagues.
  • Sales protocols can be set so everyone is in agreement as to how sales will be gained.
  • Decide as a practice team on something you want to promote and choose something you are already quite good at to give everyone confidence. If you are rubbish at selling pet food but not bad at selling micro-chipping, then start with that! Don’t give yourselves a big hill to climb: begin with something where you will see success early on.
  • Don’t be put off if a client says “No”. Even a good, experienced sales person will not get orders from everyone, so be realistic about what you can do. But for every person who says “No” there is another person waiting to say “Yes”, so maximise your potential by offering the opportunity to buy to everyone.
  • Selling means involving the clients in the process. You are already interested in them and their pets and they trust you, so don’t be afraid to ask questions to establish their requirements. Don’t just be a “product detailer” – a “This is what it is, this is what it does, how many do you want?” person. This is not what a sales professional would do.
  • Ask questions that involve the client. Don’t ask, “Are you OK for your wormers today?” Say, “I see from your notes that we need to get Bonzo up to date with his worming. Shall I give you enough for three months or six months?” Don’t ask questions that just elicit Yes or No answers from the client. Use involving questions which start with “How”, “Why”, “What”, “When”.
  • DON’T decide yourself what you think the client might want to do. Vets are unique in the professional world in their ability to xray their clients’ pockets and decide themselves what the clients might want to do and how much they can afford.

How many accountants do you think there are who do the books of a failing company and think, “Oh dear! They clearly can’t afford it, so I’ll only charge half my fee”? Or how many dentists offer NHS treatment now? And let’s not even go there on solicitors!

In summary, honing the practice’s selling skills will give you a very clear advantage over your neighbouring practices and will certainly increase revenue. It is also probably the hardest thing to take on as a practice team.

However, if after reading this, you are thinking, “You have to be kidding – I don’t think so!”, your competitor down the road might just be thinking “Hmmm. Now that could be very interesting!”

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