When Tyson, a 14-week-old pit bull puppy, was playing with another dog, he fell off the couch and fractured his leg. The pet owner had funds available on his MasterCard for the $1,000 surgery but didn’t want to max out his card. Maureen Lovett, front desk supervisor at Rutland Veterinary Clinic & Surgical Center in Rutland, Vt., explained financing through CareCredit. The client put $500 on his MasterCard and financed the balance.
"About 25 percent of our clients need a little extra help beyond their credit cards,” Lovett says.
Having access to financing was a win-win outcome for the client and clinic. In 2012, Rutland Veterinary Clinic’s clients financed $208,550 through CareCredit. The AAHA-accredited general practice with four veterinarians also offers emergency care and orthopedic surgery.
When you communicate with confidence about finances, more clients will accept the level of care that their pets need. Here are the tips I offer when I coach teams on communicating about finances.
Choose the right words. Say "treatment plan” instead of "estimate.”
"Treatment plan” emphasizes needed medical care, while "estimate” is simply about money. Also update forms in your practice-management software so they echo the term "treatment plan.” If "estimate” appears on paperwork, you may slip back into old phrases.
Pick the right location to discuss finances. During an on-site consult, I observed a veterinarian diagnose Grade 3 dental disease in a cat and tell the client a receptionist would give her an estimate at the front desk.
The receptionist collected payment for today’s services and then handed the client an estimate without explanation. The client didn’t schedule her cat’s procedure. The hospital’s poor dental compliance rate of 15 percent could be a result of where its financial conversations were being held.
Always present treatment plans in the privacy of exam rooms where clients can ask questions and apply for financing if needed.
At Animal Hospital Specialty Center in Highlands Ranch, Colo., two private checkout desks are next to the lobby where each exam hallway begins. Each checkout desk has a computer with Internet access and phone, in case clients need to apply for financing.
"Keep the conversation positive and private,” advises Jill Edwards, client services and marketing manager at the 10-doctor AAHA-accredited referral practice offering surgery, internal medicine, oncology, specialty dentistry, emergency and critical care. "I let clients know that we do financing all of the time.”
Delegate financial conversations to staff. Veterinarians make medical recommendations based on patients’ needs—not cost.
It’s best to have employees present treatment plans to clients, removing doctors from money conversations. Doctors and technicians may need to collaborate on creating the treatment plan, but team members deliver financial details to clients. Present the treatment plan as "This is what your pet needs,” instead of "Which services do you want?”
Use positive body language. Body language accounts for 55 percent of face-to-face communciation.1 Don’t stand behind the exam table and talk across it. Clients might perceive this face-to-face posture as confrontational.
Instead, stand at the end of the exam table, forming an L-shape between you and the client. Even better: Stand on the same side of the exam table, shoulder-to-shoulder with the client. This body language is collaborative rather than confrontational.
The technician would then say, "Let me explain the treatment plan that your pet needs.”
Cover the price with your thumb or an educational brochure. The client needs to understand services before seeing the price. Explain each item, pointing to the left column that lists medical services.
Lastly, slide away the brochure or lift your thumb to reveal the price. Present service first, price last.
"When explaining financing, I smile, maintain good eye contact, lean forward, and communicate my compassion by touching the client’s arm or hand,” Edwards says.
Teach with visual aids. At Animal Hospital Specialty Center, staff point to digital photo frames as they explain procedures. If you have computers in exam rooms, create slideshows or PowerPoint presentations. When computers hibernate, a slideshow can promote services.
Technology = Advantage
Another option is to create photo books using websites such as www.costco.com, www.shutterfly.com and www.apple.com.
Match the order of photos to your treatment plan so you can advance pictures or pages as you describe each service. For example, show a photo of a technician running in-house blood work while explaining pre-anesthetic testing. Share pictures of a pulse oximeter and EKG when describing monitoring. Images help clients better understand procedures, and educated clients are more likely to accept doctors’ recommendations.
Provide treatment plans for surgery, dentistry and hospitalized cases. A treatment plan accomplishes three goals: It explains needed medical care, estimates the cost of care, and gives you permission to treat.
Always get signatures—even from favorite clients. Say, "To get your permission to admit your pet to the hospital, I need your signature on the treatment plan. We will keep a copy in your pet’s medical record, and I’ll also give you a copy to take home so you have information on the services and fees we discussed today.”
Don’t Forget Finances
Treatment plans should state financial policies, such as "Payment is due when services are provided. Deposits may be required for emergencies, infectious disease cases and new clients. For your convenience, we accept cash, checks and major credit cards. We offer CareCredit, a payment plan for qualifying clients.”
Accept all forms of payment. The more choices, the more likely you’ll get paid right now. A client may pay a portion in cash and split the balance between Visa and American Express. Another pet owner may choose financing through CareCredit. While American Express, Discover and third-party financing companies may charge slightly higher merchant rates, would you rather have 95 percent of the income or zero dollars?
To limit risks when accepting checks, use a check authorization and guarantee service such as Certegy Check Services (www.askcertegy.com).
Present financing. When Lucie, a 6-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, had a life-threatening bloat at 3 a.m., the pet owner brought her to Animal Hospital Specialty Center. Dr. Rob Vonau, a board-certified surgeon, performed emergency surgery.
"Clients are thrilled when they learn we offer access to financing,” Edwards says. Besides helping Lucie’s family get life-saving surgery, third-party financing also enhances the fiscal health of practices. Clients at Animal Hospital Specialty Center financed $477,544 through CareCredit last year.
Payment Options are Key
Don’t reserve financing for options significantly improved pet owners’ ability and willingness to pay for veterinary services, according to a CareCredit study.2 Clients who used CareCredit spent 93 percent more per year and 47 percent more per pet at their veterinary practices than clients without CareCredit.2
Multi-pet families may need to finance preventive care. A dog owner spends $248 per year on routine veterinary care, while a cat owner spends $219.3 In a family with two dogs and two cats, annual veterinary spending would average $934.
Let’s say both cats also need dental cleanings. According to the AAHA Veterinary Fee Reference, 7th edition, the average dental case is $427. Now spending for preventive care and dentistry totals $1,788. The family could choose six-month, no-interest CareCredit payments of $298 each, or opt for extended payments with interest.
Remember, the first "No” is not the final "No.” If a client can’t afford care, present financing as well as the option of co-applicants. Say, "I understand you’re concerned about the cost of Sophie’s dental procedure, which is $600. We offer CareCredit, a payment plan for qualifying clients, which has six months of deferred interest. Would $100 per month better fit your family’s budget?”
When Lovett’s 10-year-old German shepherd was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy and cancer, she was able to afford specialty care thanks to financing. "Raina got a lot of supportive care, thanks to CareCredit, and it also helped keep my bills under control,” she says. Now Lovett shares her personal experience when clients face financial decisions.
When bills reach $500, check out in exam rooms. Imagine a client checking out at the front desk with a $1,500 orthopedic surgery bill and a new client waiting in the lobby overhears the conversation. The newcomer might assume you’re expensive and decide not to return for future care.
Another client’s credit card gets declined at the front desk and people waiting in the lobby eavesdrop.
The embarrassed client could fall victim to neighborhood gossip.
Just as you check out clients in exam rooms for euthanasia, do the same when a bill is $500 or greater. Explain services first and price last. Conclude with, "For your convenience, we’ll take care of payment in the exam room today. We accept cash, checks, major credit cards and CareCredit. Which payment method will you use today?”
When the client hands you his credit card, walk to the front desk to swipe the card and return with the receipt to be signed. You also could use computers in exam rooms with card swipes or mobile devices such as Square Up (www.squareup.com).
Train your team to have confident financial conversations. Wendy Pringle, practice manager at Rutland Veterinary Clinic & Surgical Center, enrolled employees in my Phone Skills Coach (www.csvets.com/training.htm) and a webinar on "Explaining Finances with Confidence” (www.csvets.com/webinars.htm).
"We train for communication skills during staff meetings,” says Pringle. "We have clear guidelines for employees on our financial policies so clients get the same answers no matter who they talk with.” Role-playing and scripts build skills.
"Lead by example,” advises Lovett. "Employees feel more confident when they see another employee do it professionally and successfully.”
Wendy S. Myers owns Communication Solutions for Veterinarians and is a partner in Animal Hospital Specialty Center, in Highlands Ranch, Colo. She helps teams improve compliance and client service through consulting, seminars, and webinars. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.csvets.com.