Can You Hear Me Now?

Leveraging your staff can generate positive “buzz” for your practice.
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Word-of-mouth marketing was less complicated in the good old days. You provided quality veterinary care to your patients and, in return, your clients recommended you to others. It was fairly linear and slow, but a tried-and-true way to build your practice.

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Today, online venues like Facebook and Twitter are changing the scope of word-of-mouth marketing, adding immediacy and exponential reach to every online conversation. That’s why now, more than ever, you need to have an internal relationship marketing program in place with your staff to help manage word-on-the-street communications. Think of it as marketing from the inside out. Word-of-mouth is a powerful and persuasive business tactic for reinforcing your practice’s image and increasing referrals. Best of all, it’s free.

Internal relationship marketing links human resources to marketing performance. It embraces the theory that employees are also internal customers. When they’re “fans” of their jobs plus your products and services, their actions and conversations can build customer loyalty, recruit other quality staff members and support your brand promise. An internal relationship marketing plan works in tandem with an external marketing program to improve your practice’s overall business performance.

Which of These Scenarios is More Convincing?

A. You send an email announcement to clients and potential clients promoting your practice’s foaling services and capabilities. The message includes an action step to encourage prenatal examinations. You send a similar email a month later about foal wellness, again encouraging the client or prospect to schedule an appointment.

B. One of your veterinary technicians is at a horse show and overhears a breeder talking about her farm’s broodmares and impending deliveries. Your tech says, “I don’t mean to eavesdrop, but the practice I work for has great foaling services. Dr. E. Z. Birth specializes in prenatal care. Can I give you our business card? In fact, why don’t you schedule a visit to our practice? We’re very proud of our facility.”

This is a trick question, as both A and B are valid marketing tactics. Nonetheless, recent research shows that personal recommendations—from friends, family and even from strangers—are now the primary driver for making most purchasing decisions.

Word-of-mouth marketing is, in fact, much more influential than paid advertising or publicity. It’s simply human nature; we are more inclined to believe word-of-mouth marketing than we are to believe other forms of promotion because most of the time we believe the communicator is speaking honestly and without an ulterior motive. One study in the United Kingdom suggests a word-of-mouth dialogue is one thousand times more powerful than a standard advertising impression. Knowing this, it makes sense to have an internal marketing plan in place to guide employee word-of-mouth communications.

Any Size Practice, Every Interaction

Everyone at your practice—from the person answering the phone to the most senior veterinary practitioner—has a direct effect on your brand. Research shows that 70 percent of a customer’s brand perception is determined by their interactions with an organization’s employees. And it begins with the very first employee/client interaction, often a phone call to schedule routine inoculations or a by-chance meeting in a social setting. What’s more, your practice’s image is reinforced with repeated contact, which is why it’s important to manage word-of-mouth communications for consistency. Consider the possibilities: Your newest part-time hire could have more customer contact through scheduling phone calls than your longest-tenured veterinarian.

Sometimes it just takes a short conversation to change how a person feels about a product forever; and not just one person, mind you, but countless others. Case in point: Let’s say one of your employees attends a party and during a get-to-know-you conversation is asked, “So, what do you do and whom do you work for?” She answers, “I’m a vet tech at ABC Vet Practice. It’s a dream job, I tell you. We have state-of-the-art diagnostic tools and the most incredible staff.” This person is generating a positive vibe about your practice with the person who asked the question, with anyone else who overhears the answer, and with an untold number of others who, post-party, hear about this through trickle-down conversations.

Relationship Marketing Elements

So how do you go about building an internal marketing plan to manage employee word-of-mouth transactions and bolster your image in the community? There are a few basics every practice can implement:

1. Strive for happy employees.

If your people like working with and for you, they will gladly become word-of-mouth ambassadors for your practice. So make your employees feel special and appreciated, and they’ll transfer positive feelings to your clients. Encourage and empower employees to share their good workplace experiences with their personal network. If you reward your staff’s performance with occasional movie tickets, gift certificates, pizza or other perks for a job well done, they’ll share their “world’s best boss” stories with everyone they know. Make sure your actions are sincere; the basic premise of word-of-mouth relies on honest and open feelings, not on manipulation.

2. Develop talking points.

If you give people good things to say, it’s a lot easier for them to say them. Craft statements about your practice’s philosophy, your mission statement, your client and patient goals and so forth, and share these with your staff. They’ll be happy to use your word choice in conversations with clients and potential clients instead of having to guess what to say on the fly. For example, if a client asks whether you have good customer service, everyone on your staff should be prepared to say something along the lines of, “ABC Clinic thinks client service is every bit as important as our veterinary expertise,” and not, “We’d rather hang out with our patients than their owners.”

3. Create your “Unique Selling Proposition” (USP).

Use your USP to differentiate yourself from other practices. Perhaps you have the largest 24/7 staff or the newest digital imaging equipment. Share this with your staff and don’t assume they automatically know your USP or that they’ll pick it up through osmosis. Reinforce it in staff meetings and at other events like brown-bag lunches and service anniversaries. By the same token, never inflate or misrepresent your products or services. Fooling people into doing business with you is not only dishonest, it damages your practice’s image and will create a negative backlash.

4. Cross-educate your entire staff.

Does everyone in your practice know about your full range of services? Are they aware of at least a few success stories? Educate your staff about your practice’s capabilities and expertise to enable them to promote those to clients and potential clients. This makes it easier for everyone to “talk it up” when the opportunity arises. For example, one day a client says to an x-ray technician, “I wonder if acupuncture would benefit my horse.” With cross-education, the technician’s response could be, “Doctor Needlepoint would be happy to speak with you about this. Did you know that our practice provides acupuncture treatment for the famous racehorse stable Wins A Lot?”

5. Craft an internal word-of-mouth and social media policy.

If you’re going to encourage your staff to engage in conversations about your practice, you should also present them with guidelines for what is permissible when your practice’s name is mentioned. The same policy should be enforced when the topic is current or former staff members. Coach your people about being professional and stress that negative communications or foul language simply won’t be tolerated; nor is it professional to discuss specific cases. Your staff can certainly use generic language in giving examples of successful cases, but should not mention names. If you feel uncomfortable or unprepared to manage this, engage a professional service to help create and implement your policy. The famous adage, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” is even more important in this day and age of heard-on-the-street and seen-online.

6. Take the high road.

You can expect your “stars” to say good things about your practice, but what can you do about the naysayers who can’t wait to gossip or spread bad news? Underperformers or those who are fired are the most likely to generate negative word-of-mouth buzz. Although you may be tempted, never reprimand these people in front of others. It’s unethical, embarrassing and bound to create “world’s-worst-practice” dialogue within and outside of work. Try to handle the situation in a private conversation or setting; a genuine show of concern goes a long way towards re-earning someone’s goodwill. Sometimes the high road is the best path: Just ignore negative talk, especially if it’s untrue. And, like the Boy Scout motto says, be prepared by coaching your staff about what they should say to others if you have to let someone go or if you’ve had an unfortunate incident at your practice.

7. Measure progress and results.

Your image can change for the better, or for the worse. Never be complacent with your practice’s brand. Benchmark your image every now and then by surveying employees from time to time to find out if they’re satisfied with their jobs and the workplace. Would they encourage others to work there? You can also survey clients to find out what they think about your practice’s service and reputation. By all means, if you think you’ll get more honest input in a “blind” survey, then do so. Be prepared to consider all input and take corrective action if necessary.

People Will Talk

How many times have you said to yourself, “If only horses could talk,” when diagnosing an equine illness or injury? Well, unless Mr. Ed is a patient at your practice, you’ll probably never hear a word uttered from a horse’s lips. But, lucky for you, your staff is human and you may, in fact, have quite a few chatterboxes in your employee base. Use this to your advantage. Make sure your people understand the influence they have on your image. Let them know that every time they interact with a client or prospect, they are making or breaking your practice’s brand. When you empower your employees to go the extra mile by actively engaging in word-of-mouth marketing, there are literally no limits as to how far-reaching the benefits can be.

Quotes From The Field

“Make your employees feel special and appreciated. They’ll transfer positive feelings to your clients”–William Lowell.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”–Warren Buffet