What is the best way to conduct "secret shopper" visits or phone calls to our hospital or other veterinary hospitals?

While you are busy carrying out your duties as doctor or manager, it is natural to want to know how well your team is communicating with clients, as well as how you stack up against the competition. Before you launch any sort of "intelligence gathering" campaign, however, create a list of exactly what you want to learn from the exercise. This will guide you in creating the questions to ask at each clinic, if you will be evaluating more than one, for a proper comparison.

Keep in mind that your approach may need to vary, depending on what you are researching. If you want to compare basic wellness services, such as dentals, spay or neuter, office visit or examination, multiple-pet discounts, and parasite control recommendations, you may find it adequate to communicate by telephone, where you will likely speak with the front-office staff. If you are looking to gather information on more technical treatments, such as advanced diagnostics, outpatient ultrasound, and specialized surgery or procedures, you may find a visit, where you will probably have more contact with the medical team, more appropriate.

To have a secret shopper visit your clinic, ask someone you trust to call and schedule an appointment, posing as a new client looking for a veterinarian. Have the shopper go through the entire process of calling to find out about the practice and scheduling the appointment, listening carefully for the information provided to prepare for his or her pet's first visit. Have the shopper see one of your associate veterinarians and, of course, provide the money to pay for the visit. You want him or her to follow the exact protocol any other new client would. After the visit, give the shopper a form to fill out ranking all areas of service, from ease of scheduling to directions provided, whether a website address was offered to provide more information about the practice before the visit or for downloading and completing forms in advance, friendliness and helpfulness of staff, clinic cleanliness, wait times, whether recommendations were explained clearly, and so on.

This tactic is highly recommended, as nothing beats getting it directly from the horse's mouth!

How important is it to track client referrals and reward clients for referrals?

Tracking the source of all new business is critical. If you don't know where new clients are coming from, you have no idea which business development tactics are working. Because most small businesses have small marketing budgets, word-of-mouth referrals are the most cost-effective way to grow the business. But it is essential that you record the source of every new client so that you can use the data to help you determine proper allocation of your marketing dollars. See Question 12 for more on training receptionists to enter referral sources.

Get in the habit of running a new client source report from your practice management software once a month. Reports can usually be run for any source field (e.g., referrals) or for multiple fields. As an easy reminder, do this at the same time you process and send out your reminder cards. Many of our marketing efforts are not directly measurable, but if you have entered accurate information on new clients into your database, you have an excellent starting place to analyze the effectiveness of your programs.

It's important to reward clients for referring new business, if you want them to keep doing so. Not that people make referrals only when there is something in it for them, but you do catch more flies with honey. And it is always good to acknowledge a referral because it means someone has made the effort to vouch for you, which is a great launching pad to establishing a relationship with a new client that has a lifetime of value.

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