Client feedback can be a boon instead of a bane—yes, even complaints

Practices have many ways to learn what clients want and then apply lessons learned

Veterinary practices should not fear client feedback and actually should solicit it regularly.

That’s advice from Debbie Boone, owner of 2 Manage Vets Consulting and 2022 president of VetPartners, an association of practice consultants. She said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Unless you ask.

Illustration: Marketing team monitor and analyze stars rating to increase satisfaction

Boone recommends making surveys short and sweet while relying on a variety of tools and approaches to invite and handle feedback from clients, whether in person or via social media. Even complaints can be taken as constructive criticism.

Rosemary Radich, principal data scientist in the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division, said a loyal client base is key for a thriving practice, and practices can use client feedback to increase loyalty. She said, “Happy clients can be your greatest market asset, referring friends and family to your practice.”

If nothing else, a lack of client feedback leaves a lot of black holes, said Sam Millet, a practice manager at Bluegrass Animal Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Open lines of communication

Millet, a participant in the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association’s Emerging Leaders Program, has been working at Bluegrass Animal Hospital since 2011 and has been the practice manager since 2017. The practice wasn’t doing much with client feedback before she began managing the practice.

Tiffany Peck, Sam Millet, and hospital bird, Bubbles
At Bluegrass Animal Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee, Tiffany Peck, lead customer service representative, and Sam Millet, practice manager, pose for a photo with the hospital bird, Bubbles, while getting ready to trim his nails. (Courtesy of Millet)

She made it a goal to respond to all the reviews on Facebook, Google, and Yelp. Millet said, “If you don’t have a conversation with a client, that goes nowhere.” Plus, younger generations like to read reviews before they go places, she said.

When clients write positive reviews, Millet will thank them for their business or for appreciating members of the staff. With negative reviews, she likes to call clients and have a conversation.

“We always have to listen to what the client has to say,” Millet said. “Whether you agree with that or not, it’s always very important for the client to express what they may be upset about, what’s negative, what issues they have, because if they don’t feel like they are being heard, then there is no coming back from that.”

She gives the clients time to provide whatever feedback they want to share, takes notes, and tries to address what went wrong.

For about a year, Bluegrass Animal Hospital has been using the PetDesk client communication platform to ask clients to rate each appointment from one to five stars. Millet receives an email message when the rating is under three stars, and then she can contact the client. Clients also can post the rating on Google, and about half will do that.

When possible, Millet prefers to address problems face-to-face with clients because that way she can see their facial expressions and form a relationship. Overall, her main priorities for client feedback are to maintain open lines of communication and to build relationships.

Millet added that Bluegrass Animal Hospital partnered recently with United Veterinary Care, which has a client service team to help with questions or issues. The company offers monthly training on client relations.

Feedback is a positive thing

Boone of 2 Manage Vets Consulting was a practice manager for 23 years and has been a practice consultant since 2008. She suggests staff members should make appointments with their own pets at their animal hospital to go through the process like clients.

Two staff members help a client at Bartow Animal Hospital
Debbie Boone of 2 Manage Vets Consulting, a practice manager for 23 years and a consultant since 2008, takes photos at the practices where she has consulted over the years. Here, two staff members help a client at Bartow Animal Hospital in Cartersville, Georgia. (Courtesy of Boone)

There are a variety of technical tools for collecting feedback, such as apps or portals that reach out to clients after appointments. Boone cautioned that clients lose interest if a survey is too long or complicated.

For client complaints, Boone acknowledges that clinics may be getting a lot more of them because people are stressed out.

“People are a little twitchy in practice and (on the) client side, too, because of the pandemic,” she said, adding that there is usually at least a kernel of truth in every piece of feedback.

She continued: “That’s something that we should take to heart and act on that feedback rather than just saying, ‘Oh, it’s just them.’ The client is not our enemy; the client is our source of income. And we need to look at them as somebody that we need to not only just satisfy but actually delight when they come into our hospital. And until we ask start asking questions about what they really want, our offerings are all assumptions that we’re doing what they’re asking.”

Boone advised never getting into a fight online. What people are looking for when writing a negative review is that the practice is responsive. The response can be, “We’re sorry you had this problem,” and to please call the practice manager.

While practices can’t make everyone happy, they should look for common threads or themes that tell them they have gaps they need to fix, Boone said. For instance, if they are consistently running late, they need to determine whether they are overbooking themselves.

Practices that are considering implementing a change in protocols or offering a new service can call in some regular clients for a focus group to see what they think.

“People that we value, people that come to us a lot, people that know us well are always great to ask, ‘How are we doing?’” Boone said. “Just every now and then, look at a client and say: ‘We really appreciate you coming to us. Tell us, is there is anything that we can do to make your experience better?’

“And that is kind of hard to do because we’re afraid that we might get some negative feedback, and we really don’t want to hear it. But the clients, the ones who love us, want to help us. And getting that information back from them could be very enlightening and very helpful.”

As an example of responding to client feedback, Boone described the approach of a veterinarian friend whose clients were really upset that they couldn’t come into the building during the pandemic. The veterinarian decided to buy two inexpensive tablets. She would set up a Zoom call, take one tablet to the client’s car, and do the entire veterinary visit over Zoom.

“It behooves you to take really good care of clients who want what you are offering,” Boone said. “You’re not going to be everything to everybody, and you don’t need to be.”

Crafting strategies

Radich of the AVMA said loyal clients who consistently come in for wellness visits and routine care provide a consistent revenue stream for practices, allow practices to build relationships with clients and patients, and result in happier and healthier patients.

Practices that want to use client feedback to increase loyalty can first determine where they stand by surveying clients and analyzing client data. Questions that can be useful to consider include the following:

  • How many of your clients are highly likely to recommend you to a friend or family member?
  • How long have they been clients? How often do they bring in their pets? Are they thinking of switching practices?
  • How satisfied are they with the service they receive? Are they consistently happy? What are they most satisfied with, and does this align with their needs?

Next, practices can identify strengths and opportunities.

  • Do your strengths align with your goals and market? Are you competitive on price, customer service, or certain types of services?
  • What areas are you weak in? Take in negative feedback and identify opportunities that are critical for success.
  • Do you have a clear value proposition?

Finally, practices can craft strategies on the basis of client feedback that leverage their existing strengths and take advantage of new opportunities.

Radich also emphasized the importance of capitalizing on positive feedback.

“Encouraging loyal clients to provide reviews on social media is a great way to promote your business while leveraging current resources,” Radich said. “This could be done at the point of soliciting feedback at the end of an appointment. If you have a client who is thanking you for a particular service, that is a great opportunity to thank them for their business and ask them to post a review for your business online. Their feedback is critical to helping your practice succeed.”

A version of this article appears in the July 2022 print issue of JAVMA.