It is a scene that’s all too familiar. We know what needs to be done for a pet’s health, but the client cannot afford the care. They come to us for help, but we are stopped short by the tough choices they have regarding how much they can afford.
Some people go much further than we’d imagine, even spending kids’ college funds and mortgaging the house to save their pets from extreme illness or injury.
But we’ve also seen people who think the veterinary profession should provide care even when they can’t pay for it.
When we have to explain that the pet owner is responsible for funding the pet’s treatment, they often question our emotional attachment to animals in general, or accuse us of letting a pet die.
This is when veterinary medicine is the toughest, when we are made to feel responsible for their inability to pay.
What do we do when faced with this situation? Which of several options we use will depend on the situation and the client’s frame of mind.
The Humorous Approach
Sometimes, particularly with clients who comment on the price but don’t seem to be disappointed or angered by the total, it can be appropriate to handle their observations with humor.
When a good-natured client says, “Gosh, that’s expensive!” or “Wow, you are costing me a lot of money, Fluffy!” you may be able to make light of it and respond with something like, “Ah, it’s not so bad. At least you know that she’ll never ask you to pay for college!” or ask the pet directly, “So, when are you going to pick up that newspaper route to start paying your way?” says Jennifer Deeks, RVT, RLAT, a technician at Burgess Veterinary Emergency Clinic in Burlington, Ontario, and office manager of Animal Dental Care in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
You need to be sure you have a smiling client to begin with, or these comments could come back to haunt you. But in just the right situation, they are a good way to defuse the client’s surprise or sticker shock and give everyone a grin.
The Reasonable Approach
Veterinary medicine is not cheap, especially when you provide state-of-the-art equipment, 24-hour staff, emergency services around the clock, and veterinarians and/or technicians who have specialties.
Because most people deal with health insurance and rarely see the actual cost of their own medical services, our price tags can seem daunting. This can elicit various responses from clients, including disappointment, despair or anger. In light of this, you may choose to educate your clients so they have an understanding of the prices.
“I explain how everything has a price tag, such as the equipment, the overhead, the well-trained technicians, insurance, licenses and the costs of employing people who love and take such good care of pets,” explains Heidi Frisch, a veterinary assistant at VCA Specialty Group in San Diego.
“In our practice, we explain that the reason radiographs have that price is because the practice uses a digital radiograph machine so we don’t have to spend as much time holding the pet down to get a good radiograph and that the pictures are clearer and easier to edit,” says Rachael Brady, CVT, emergency and critical care technician at Aspen Meadow Veterinary Specialists in Longmont, Colo. “We will explain that the practice has inhouse blood machines so that results are available in 20 minutes instead of 24 hours or more. This helps the client understand the benefit of having these services.”
This approach works best when the client truly does not understand the scope of veterinary medicine, but it won’t always work. Sometimes clients will see your taking this stance as defensiveness and harden their stance in reaction. It could end up in a face-off.
The Empathic Approach
There are times when nothing you say as a veterinary professional will make the client feel better about the dollar sign at the bottom of the page.
If clients do not have the funds, they are forced to make very difficult decisions for the benefit of their entire family. We understand these decisions firsthand, because most of us have pets of our own. Even with an employee discount, we face financial limits as well.
So when a client is discouraged about the price of good veterinary care, it may time to simply say, “I understand, and I’m sorry Fluffy is so sick.”
This doesn’t judge their decision, but acknowledges the reality of their situation, the understanding that veterinary medicine comes at a cost.
Brady has had clients who have exhausted their financial options, and in that situation she may help them find a clinic that may be lower cost. If you’ve seen the movie “The Miracle on 34th Street,” you’ll remember that when Santa tells shoppers where to find the best deal, even when it’s not in that particular store, he actually creates customers who are even more loyal to the store where he is working.
We have been focusing on what to say when the estimate or invoice is presented to the client. There are ways to make this discussion less difficult and perhaps occur less often. It is essential that the team members stand behind and believe in the prices of their services.
They need to understand how fees are determined, and what goes into that calculation, such as ordering and holding costs of goods. Frisch notes that you have to truly believe in what you are saying; you have to really know where the money is going and what costs what.
Frisch has found that if there is just a tiny bit of doubt in a staffer’s head about what you’re saying, the client will quickly pick up on that. Then it’s difficult if not impossible to convince her of the worth of the services you’re offering.
Perception of Value
In the clients’ minds, quality of services is directly reflected in the prices.
“The way service is provided conveys why the hospital charges what it does and the value of that charge,” says Melissa Detrick, practice director of Honey Brook Animal Hospital in Honey Brook, Pa. “For instance, if a hospital has one of the highest spay prices in the area but sends the animal home smelly and dirty, does not thoroughly explain aftercare, medications and what to look for, if the reception staff was curt while receiving payment, if there is no one available after hours to speak with if there is a problem or question, then clients will question the high prices because there is no perception of value.”
Therefore, it’s also important for team members to spell out what clients get for that fee, in particular if they are comparing prices of multiple practices.
Sometimes it may be necessary to adjust the plan of action to account for the client’s financial limitations. Detrick adds that if a client says, “That’s expensive!” it may be time to reply, “We have an alternative that is less costly, as long as you realize the results may not be the same.”
Detrick admits that some professionals believe that if it can’t be done at the best level then there is no point in doing it at all. But that in itself creates another set of stresses, as not everyone who owns a pet can or will want care at that level. It’s easy to judge a client’s love by how much money he’s willing to spend, but a client who dearly treasures his furry friend may only be able to do so much.
We can support these pet owners by doing what we can, which can also involve options for financing their pets’ care.
We can offer our clientele options when it comes to funding pet care. Third-party financial institutions can take the burden off the client needing cash up front, and will allow her to finance a larger sum over time. This does depend on the client’s credit history, so this is not an option for everyone.
More options are coming to light, including payment plan management companies.
We all know that we “don’t offer” in-house payment plans, but we also know that we end up with at least a few, if not many, in-house payment plans being drafted so that we can help the longtime loyal client when needed.
Along with the credit risk, we have the additional hassle of managing those payment-due accounts. Now there are companies that help take that administrative burden off our team, while enabling the pet to be treated when needed.
It is imperative that we keep our clients aware of the costs as they add up. Initial estimates should lay out the first details, but should allow some range or padding for unexpected charges. If a pet needs additional care or diagnostics, those prices need to be presented and approved by the clients.
Every step of the way, the client must be provided the option to make decisions regarding money. At a time when they have no control over their pet’s diagnosis, prognosis, treatment and outcome, they only have control over how much money they can afford to spend on their pets. If we take this control away from them, they will be left without anything to hold onto.
The practice team should discuss and decide the message they want to send when difficult discussions regarding money come up. Know the options, and the practice’s stance, and we can help as many people’s pets as possible.