The Hard Sell

Eight tips for improving your selling technique
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If you think performing laser surgery, diagnosing hind-limb lameness and extracting wolf teeth are a walk in the park but discussing client sales techniques makes you sweat, you’re not alone. Veterinarians are trained to be doctors, not salesmen. You’ll probably be happy to know that improving your sales technique—and profits—doesn’t require a major shift in business practice. It just requires some knowledge about your clients, confidence in your work and help from your staff.

Credit: Photos.com You’ll probably be happy to know that improving your sales technique—and profits—doesn’t require a major shift in business practice.

Credit: Photos.com You’ll probably be happy to know that improving your sales technique—and profits—doesn’t require a major shift in business practice.

“Medical care plan ‘sales’ is not something that’s really scary once you know how to do it,” says Joel Parker, DVM, president and cofounder of Veterinary Practice Solutions in Vancouver, Canada. As he explains, “Most people are woefully undertrained, so most people kind of wing it.”

Your clients don’t want to hear a smarmy sales pitch, and you are the last person from which they would expect to hear one. Here are nine no-pressure tactics to boost the value of client transactions in your practice:

1. Know Your Clients

If you’re on the road, you spend your day rushing from farm to farm. If you’re in the clinic, you’re getting pulled this way and that by clients and staff.

So STOP. Greet your clients and get to know them and their horses. It’s going to take five extra minutes per visit, but it’s worth it.

Horse history is an obvious line of horse-owner questioning that you already cover. Also ask about your clients’ horse experience, uses and goals for their horses, and favored sources of horse-care information. “These details give you the information you need to deliver a message that is meaningful, personal and on the client’s level,” says Susan Warren, an animal-health consultant with Brakke Consulting in Lenexa, Kansas.

Once you have this information, use it. “Most of us don’t open our computers every time we see a patient,” admits Dan Keenan, DVM, co-owner of Keenan McAlister Equine in Crosswicks, New Jersey. “Unless it has to do with an ongoing problem, a lot of times, we look at the horse without reviewing the history,” he explains, relying instead on the information that the office staff collects when the appointment is scheduled. If you’d read the horse’s treatment history, you’d have known it was overdue for a dental exam and could take care of that while you’re on for this call. That’s a few dollars you would have left on the table.

2. Prepare Clients

You can’t discuss every emergency and ailment that might arise while a horse is under your care, but you can have an annual conversation with clients so they know what you can and cannot do for them, what it might cost, and how much time it could take. Post on your website or provide clients with a list of basic charges. “The owner is much more willing to accept the recommendations of the veterinarian when they’ve been prepared ahead of time for the options,” says Warren.

3. Become the Expert

When you’re having computer trouble, you don’t immediately call a technician; you first search online and talk to friends. Your clients do the same with their horse-health questions. Work with their quest for knowledge by directing them to the right sources, Warren says.

After you find out where clients look for advice (see tip No. 1), “acknowledge that there’s a lot of information out there but that there isn’t a way to guarantee who is providing the information,” says Warren. Set up your website to link to reputable information sources that are beneficial to clients and consistent with your philosophy. Consider providing an online form for clients to post horse-care questions and answer a new one each week or each month.

The Keenan McAlister Equine website, www.keenanmcalister.com, is designed to be a client-education resource. Practice co-owner Ron McAlister, DVM, built the website with articles that were once published in the practice’s print newsletter as well as purchased articles. It contains the information they want to share with their clients and costs a heck of a lot less than the $16,000 per year they were spending on printing and mailing their quarterly newsletter.

“The website is one of the things we’ve been trying to get everybody to push,” says Keenan. Now when a client calls, the office staff and veterinarians respond: “I’ll be glad to answer that for you, but you can also find all of that on the website.”

4. Be Part of Your Community

“Even in this day and age of technology, the most important things for veterinarians to improve sales are still word of mouth and personal interaction,” says Mitchell Rode, DVM, owner of Clark Equine–Wellness and Performance.

Over 30 years, Rode has built a practice base of pleasure-horse preventive care and maintenance by getting to know people, building relationships, giving talks for 4-H groups and acting as on-call veterinarian for the county fair. Today, two associates do the same thing in the eventing community around their Berryville, Virginia, clinic.
Keenan agrees with this “self-perpetuating” method of client building—for example, “Being in a barn and doing dentistry is the No. 1 way for people to find out we do dentistry.”

5. Value Your Work

It’s rare for veterinary clients to receive unnecessary charges—rather, “The more common ethical problem is [veterinarians] give work away for free,” says Parker. Too often, veterinarians “feel like there’s a conflict of interest between money and their work.” By not charging enough or not suggesting all of the products and services that could benefit your clients and their horses, you’re not helping your clients or your business. Realize the difference between offering a product or service that has the potential to benefit the horse and putting something on the table just to make a sale.

Don’t go into an appointment with the belief that a client isn’t going to go for a product or service because of its cost. “You can’t predict what people are going to spend money on,” says Parker, who believes this issue is veterinarians’ biggest barrier to better sales.

Keenan leaves much of the sales portion of booking an appointment to his office staff. His practice started a wellness program about five years ago, which includes annual care—physical exam, dental exam, fecal exam and vaccinations—for a package price of five percent off the total service. “When we first started it, I was actually impressed with how many people took us up on it,” says Keenan. When clients call, if appropriate, the person helping the client mentions the Wellness Program.

6. Make Sales Convenient

Competing with online sources of horse-health products on price alone is virtually impossible. But, Warren asks, “Can you make it as convenient as possible for [your clients]?”

Train your front-desk staff to ask clients about product and supplement needs at the time the appointment is made, so your tech can stock it in the truck that morning and deliver it during your visit. Warren says clients are generally willing to pay a little more for the convenience.

As an alternative approach, consider undercutting online product and supplement prices and making up for the lower profit by tacking on a few dollars to a related procedure on the back end. Parker points out that by losing a few dollars on a supplement sale, you might keep a client coming back who will spend thousands of dollars with you over the course of your relationship.

Knowing that some clients will go online for these purchases anyway, Parker suggests setting up an affiliate program with an online retailer. Direct your clients to use the link on your website, and you receive a percent of those sales. There’s no inventory for you to stock or staff for you to train.

Similarly, Rode set up an online pharmacy on his website through Webster VetSource, so clients can order online and have the items shipped to them. He doesn’t have to stock a large inventory, and clients can still have their needs met by his clinic.

7. Hire the Right Staff

Parker suggests hiring positive, enthusiastic staff from within your client base and finding one who spends a lot of money with your clinic: “They’ll look at a $2,000 bill and say, ‘Oh, that’s not very much. My bill last year was $3,000.’” This positive outlook will leave a better impression with your clients than a front-desk employee who commiserates over the high cost of horse ownership.

Likewise, Rode says, “I have tried to hire people who naturally engage the clients. You can always train for skills, but you hire for personality.”

8. Improve Salesmanship

Warren emphasizes the importance of getting all staff members on board with your message and providing coaching for how to follow through with it. (Both Warren and Parker offer sales-training programs.) Too often, a client will ask for an item from a front-desk staff member and have someone say he found it online for less, which is clearly counterproductive for product sales.

The concept is simple: Do what is best for your clients and their horses, and they’ll trust the recommendations you make as to their horses’ care, from routine health checkups to performance-maintenance supplements to more complex procedures.