What is the best way to encourage word-of-mouth advertising? And how should you reward those who refer new clients?

The best way to encourage word-of-mouth advertising is to deliver outstanding service on a consistent basis and create a memorable experience for clients and their pets.

It's also a great idea to develop a referral program to let your clients know you are accepting new patients and appreciate referrals. Most important, don't keep this program a secret. At the bottom of each invoice, you might include a sentence such as "Thank you for trusting us with your pet's health. If you know someone who would appreciate the same quality care and service, we are always grateful for referrals." Just like your logo, your referral program should be visible in many locations. For instance, add it to the bottom of your reminder cards, include a message on all invoices, establish a location on your website to thank individuals for referring new clients, mention the referral program in your newsletter, and above all, properly thank those who do refer clients.

As for thanking those who make referrals, you may want to try a few different rewards to see what your clients value most. Don't be afraid to ask them as well. Some clients may like a discount on their next service, and others may prefer an additional service, such as a nail trim, the next time they bring in their pet for an examination. Allowing them to choose between two options is another way to make them feel empowered and valued.

Be sure you roll out the welcome mat in grand style for new clients. If they become fans, you'll keep the new-client pipeline primed.

What are some marketing ideas to attract new clients to an established practice in a community where the recession is driving down client numbers and average transaction charge?

As mentioned elsewhere, word-of-mouth referrals are always the preferred way to grow your client base. These individuals arrive at the practice based on the trust of a friend or family member and are expecting to have a positive experience.

Beyond current client referrals, targeting your marketing to specific audiences can work well too. Consider a senior citizen special offering every person 65 or older something free with a visit on Tuesdays (or whatever is your slow day). Then check whether you can advertise this special in a local senior community newsletter.

If it is possible for you to deliver veterinary services to a particular community, you may do even better. There is a large market for mobile services, and if you can reach those who might not be able to get out to obtain care for their pets on a regular basis, you may grow the business without necessarily having to persuade people to choose you over their current provider.

For those who understand that quality health care is important to their pet, but who may not know about you, try aligning with a large company and becoming part of its employee benefit program. For example, some corporations include a pet clinic as a preferred provider, and every employee receives some sort of discount or bonus for choosing that provider.

The same can be done if you happen to be in a location where there is a distinctive population, such as the military. Offer to care for this community with something special and the goodwill will go a long way.

What is the best way to get local mailing lists to reach new clients?

You can buy mailing lists from list brokers, but they can be costly. You might try instead to obtain a list from the local humane society in exchange for a donation. Or better yet, make it a goal to participate in a few community events this year, where you can gather names and addresses in exchange for a valued gift such as a raffle prize. This type of participation gives you an opportunity to interact with potential new clients, see familiar faces and patients you already care for, and introduce your practice to a wider audience. To be effective, your list must be targeted, as general direct-mail programs are considered successful with a 2 percent return rate. Veterinary practices do not have the capital to create programs for which a 2 percent return is considered respectable; therefore, other avenues to reach prospective clients are preferred.

You might also want to consider partnering with related businesses. For instance, if there is a doggy day care or animal boarding facility in your area, introduce yourself to the owner of the establishment and determine whether that business might be willing to partner on some outreach efforts. Their clients are clearly willing to spend money on ancillary services for their pets, so they could be a good target audience.

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