At veterinary practices all across America, perhaps no other task turns more palms sweaty and causes more throats to seize up than telling a client how much a procedure costs.
“Most employees I know would prefer to do almost anything than to present an estimate,” says Shawn McVey, MA, MSW, a veterinary management consultant and lecturer. “For veterinarians, there’s almost a shame or embarrassment in talking about fees.”
That shame is symptomatic of a bigger problem in veterinary medicine, adds McVey, chief executive officer of Innovative Management Solutions and co-owner of the continuing-education conference Veterinary Specialists in Private Practice.
“We’ve done an abysmal job of talking to clients about the value of veterinary care.”
McVey’s is among the loudest voices calling for a sea change in the way veterinary practices communicate with clients about the cost of care. He offers tips on overcoming money-related obstacles and advocates scripting responses to acclimate staff.
But first, all those at the practice have to undergo “a complete shift in mindset,” he says.
“For too long, we’ve been internally focused, comparing ourselves to others rather than to what our clients say they want and find value in,” McVey says. “By doing so, the goal of most veterinary practices becomes to not be the most expensive in town. And everyone ends up charging about the same thing.”
Veterinarians need to educate themselves–and then their staff–on the true costs of high-quality care, McVey says. In some cases, doctors have been reluctant to open their books to employees because they’ve been ashamed about how much they make relative to staff salaries.
“If that’s the case, you may want to share the wealth a little bit,” McVey says. “It costs more to run through employees than it does to pay good employees.”
Plus, employees become more invested in the hospital’s success when you pay higher wages, McVey adds. They’re more willing to overcome obstacles such as trepidation in the face of client sticker shock.
So don’t be afraid to determine and then share what it really costs to do what you do, McVey says. Then add 15 percent for return on investment, “which is fair.”
In addition, every six months, adjust fees according to the consumer price index and the rate of inflation.
“When you go through this exercise, you can feel good about setting fees with honesty and integrity,” McVey says. “Then you can begin the conversation.”
The knowledge also can give you the confidence to look outward and develop “client-centric pricing.”
“Value creation is getting into the heads of clients and finding out what they value,” McVey says. “Extraction is the actual payment for services that leaves them satisfied.”
McVey says it’s often good to have staff deal with clients on money matters so veterinarians are free to focus on care issues. But this is a good approach only if staff members are well educated and well trained.
“You have to make it clear,” he says, ‘To work on this team, you have to be well versed in talking about the elephant in the living room, and that is that good medicine costs money.’”
When clients comment on price, it’s not necessarily a complaint but a first question on the subject of value. Welcome the chance to explain, and be emphatic.
Allow the client time to get over the sticker shock. Ask, “Is there something specific on the treatment plan you don’t understand or are particularly concerned about?” Provide a contact name and number so clients can ask questions after they leave.
It can help to involve staff in scripting answers to some of the toughest questions clients might ask. So if staff members hear, “Why does this cost so much?” they might say, “I know this is a lot of money, but your pet is very sick. We want to find out what’s wrong and give her the best treatment. These tests are necessary to discover the problem.”
He advises that staff should also prepare a response to, “I just can’t afford this. Is there anything you can do?”
Here, it’s important to assess the client’s intentions, McVey says. Is the price a financial problem or an inconvenience, or is the client really just asking for more information?
Payment alternatives can be a valuable resource for clients, McVey says. Financing, such as with a CareCredit card, “is one more tool that allows you to make quality care available.”
Research shows that the availability of alternative payment has a direct impact on a pet’s health care, McVey notes. Clients are more likely to follow a veterinarian’s recommendations if they have access to this service.
The more the tools and the better the training, the easier it is for everyone to perceive the care plan as a value proposition.
“Value is the perception that we got more than we paid for,” McVey says.
That’s a goal clients and practitioners can share.
If you are interested in a C.D. of Shawn McVey “Money and Medicine: Finding a Balance in the Veterinary Practice," call (800) 300-3046, ext. 4519. CareCredit providers may call (800) 859-9975.