In 1909, Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store, invented the phrase “the customer is always right”, which was immediately adopted by other businesses and used as a standard. The intentions were good, but things have changed a great deal during this past century – and particularly in the past nine months…
I THINK IT IS time to reconsider the principle that the customer is always right. Things have changed so much, so fast, that it is worth looking at why this century-old guideline might have become obsolete or, even worse, harmful.
 Employees can become unhappy. When company owners say “the client is always right”, they seem to favour the clients, and disregard the opinions and expertise of their employees, meaning the latter can feel betrayed and unsupported. Just because clients are buying your service, it doesn’t mean you should let them abuse your employees.
 It can result in worse customer service. Employees are just doing their best, enforcing rules and observing the guidelines you have set for them. Yet, when (a few) unreasonable clients ask more and more from them, and you seem to yield to their demands, employees feel undermined, betrayed and frustrated.
 Bad customers often receive an unfair advantage. Whenever a client feels cheated, unsatisfied or simply angry, he or she resorts to the ultimate phrase: “I demand to speak to the manager”, hoping the manager will bend over backwards to make him or her happy, sometimes even disregarding what the employee has explained and stretching the rules only to make that person happy. The ugly truth is some customers will never be satisfied, no matter how far you bend. So cut your losses, respect your employees and your other clients, and let these people go.
 Some customers are bad for business. They make outrageous demands, frustrate your employees and create a terrible environment for other clients. They shout, blog and tweet when they feel disregarded; criticise incessantly; and relentlessly abuse employees verbally and online.
 Some clients are just plain wrong. The client is not the expert, despite Dr Google – you and your employees are. When customers are unhappy because you don’t do precisely what they thought you would, or have not complied with your treatment recommendations, it’s difficult and energy-sapping to help them see what the real problem is and that their demands are unreasonable. Don’t be afraid to refer clients somewhere else.
All this can result in a culture of overly defensive medicine or failure to offer full-compliance veterinary services to clients, and fulfilling the clients’ and patients’ needs. These activities have serious financial, clinical, and customer service implications on the practice and the other staff.
What we have learned through the pandemic is that clients’ behaviour is far more compliant and malleable than we ever thought: they will stay in the car park, they will let you take their pets, they will pay immediately after (or even before) treatment, they will book appointments online – and some clients actually welcome these changes.
The other significant change is the current over-supply of clients, and under-supply of vets to serve them due to practice closures and overwhelm. This presents a huge opportunity for some practices to become far more selective in the clients they choose to serve.
The ‘right’ client?
Just to be clear, this is about clients’ pet-owning attitude – not their level of wealth or what they can afford. That attitude is demonstrated in their behaviour. Do they attend? Do they comply? Do they pay? Do they recommend? Do they just make life in practice easier and more enjoyable? Obviously, the practice and the team need to deliver their side of the value equation of care or you will have unhappy clients regardless.
So, instead of recruiting as many clients as possible and hoping that some turn out “right”, maybe we can focus on systems and processes that select for, and encourage, the right clients for your practice.
Recent research informs us about two strategies that filter for client quality and the right client behaviours, while positively impacting pet health and welfare – preventive health care (PHC) plans and pet health insurance (PHI).
A well-structured PHC plan takes advantage of all the opportunities available for base-line preventive health care that the practice has to offer, including a regular comprehensive physical examination, routine vaccinations, nutritional advice, parasite control, dental check-ups, regular weighing, neutering, consultations and diagnostic tests as required.
PHC plans have three distinct benefits for the practice:
- To improve the basic health of pets under its care, leading to a better quality of life and greater longevity of the pet.
- To provide a quality client experience through better pet health care.
- To enhance client bonding – repeat visits, and taking up more products and services.
From a client compliance point of view, as a member he or she has contracted to full compliance with your preventive health care recommendations.
From a financial and client behaviour perspective, the uplift from a PHC plan non-member to member shows:
- The number of consults per patient per year increases by 127 per cent.
- A 72 per cent increase in total revenue per patient per year.
- The average increased PHC spend per pet is £58 per annum.
- A 30 per cent increased client retention year on year.
- A 115 per cent increase in number of transactions per patient per year.
- An average 1.6 times increase in visits to surgery per annum (1).
In these times of over-demand and over-work, why wouldn’t you insist that every client takes up your preventive health care provision as a condition of being a client of yours? If any clients cannot afford, or refuse, to take care of their pet’s basic and necessary health care needs, what hope is there of them being able to take care of the rest?
Around 25 per cent of all insurance consumers have pet insurance, while almost half of consumers own a pet, resulting in slightly less than half of pet owners (46 per cent) owning pet insurance. Insurance take-up is significantly higher if the consumer owns a dog or a pedigree cat, because pedigree breeds traditionally have more health problems compared with their mixed breed counterparts. Owners with mixed-breed dogs also show a high level of insurance ownership because dogs, in general, are the most likely pets to have accidents or get injured in fights (2). This sounds like high-quality veterinary work with little financial restraint…
Recent collaborative research between Vet Dynamics and Petplan insurance has revealed the additional hidden value in clients with pets insured with Petplan (3).
- Insured clients have a higher average patient spend after taking out insurance compared to non-insured clients.
- Insured clients visit practices more regularly after taking out insurance compared to non-insured clients.
- Insured clients have a higher average visit value after taking out insurance compared to non-insured clients.
- Insured clients spend at least 50 per cent more in practice compared to non-insured clients.
- Insured clients are 40 per cent more likely to be retained than their non-insured peers over the three-year period this research was conducted in.
- A 70 per cent proportion of patients who register with a veterinary practice purchase insurance within the same year.
- Insured puppies have a higher average spend in practice when compared to non-insured puppies, and this continues over the lifetime of the pet.
- Insured clients spend considerably more in practice in their second year of being insured compared to how much non-insured clients spend in practice in the same year.
Remember that it’s not just about the number of clients – “more is better” does not apply anymore – it’s also about their quality. Do you have enough of the right clients for your practice? One unsuitable client can hurt your business and prejudice hundreds of other clients; therefore, instead of undermining good clients or losing good employees, “filter” clients from the start.
Obviously, clients exist who behave well with or without PHC plans or PHI, but by actively promoting – or even insisting – these are necessary conditions for you to do your best work, and provide the very best in veterinary health care and client experience, you will be able to serve your selected clients better, improve team welfare and motivation, remain financially viable in uncertain times and deliver the very best of clinical care to your patients. What’s not to like?
- Vet Index, Vet Dynamics data on file.
- Pet insurance in the United Kingdom Statista Research Department, 20 February 2020.
- Petplan Vet Dynamics Value of Insured Clients/Patients Analysis January 2020.
By Alan Robinson
Special thanks to VBJ – pages 10-11 in their December 2020 edition.