Improving the cat owner experience
Owners increasingly regard their pet as a family member and expect the best quality of care when they choose a veterinary clinic. Alison Lambert reviews the potential for improving the customer experience for both cats and their carers.
Practices need to make accessing veterinary care easy for cat owners before they visit, with cat-specific advice given via websites, social media and phone calls.
Make the reception area less stressful by offering separate spaces for cats and dogs, quiet environments and elevated shelving for cat carriers.
Nutritional advice should be a standard feature in every consultation with cats, yet this is currently offered in less than half the practices surveyed.
Cats need to be handled respectfully in every clinic visit, an essential feature of a positive customer experience.
It is proven that many cat owners find coming to a veterinary practice stressful, and that visits are often postponed until deemed essential due to the problems associated with transporting cats and encountering non-feline-friendly processes and procedures once at the clinic. For example:
- A UK-based veterinary usage study undertaken in 2011 found 58% of cat owners agreed that their cat “hates visiting the veterinary clinic”, with 37% saying that even the thought of having to go to the veterinarian's caused stress for them 1.
- A study of 2,785 cat owners found that 27% of owners said stress to the cat during a visit to the veterinarian was a very important factor when deciding whether or not to vaccinate 2.
This article presents the outcome of two recent research programs commissioned by Royal Canin in the USA and the Netherlands, which revealed that whilst many elements of a positive customer journey are in place, there is much more to be done by practices if they wish to be seen as truly cat-friendly.
Understanding the customer journey
The concept of the “customer journey” as applied to veterinary practice is not new; the term describes the many “touch points” experienced between a client and a practice (Figure 1). Importantly, this journey begins long before the cat owner has set foot inside the clinic, with searches carried out online for reviews and information, recommendations sought from friends, family and cat care professionals (groomers, catteries, pet shops etc.) and impressions formed through local advertising and open days, not to mention clinic branding and appearance. Through this initial stage of intelligence gathering, known to marketers as the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT), cat owners will form an impression of the practice and the likely levels of care it will provide for them and their pets. Based on these impressions they will make a conscious choice to contact one or more practices (usually by phone in the first instance), and at this stage they will confirm or challenge their existing perceptions based on the conversation that takes place.
Potential clients are looking for genuine interest and care to be shown towards their beloved cat, and for a rapport to develop when both owner and practice staff share the same values and aspirations as to what great customer care feels like. It should be noted that clinical competence is taken for granted by the cat owner – they do not care how many letters are after the clinician’s name, or what equipment the clinic has, they are simply looking for their family member to be treated with respect by every member of the practice team.
Only when contact has proved positive will the owner make the decision to bring his or her cat in, and once they are face-to-face with the reception team, veterinarians and nurses they will once more assess the levels of customer care afforded to both their cat and themselves. Disappointing customer service at any stage of the customer journey will result in the cat owner choosing not to visit again, and in the worst cases telling friends and family not to do so either.
The global Cat Friendly Clinic program1 was established by the International Society for Feline Medicine to address the stresses and practical issues faced by many cat carers when taking their pets to see a veterinarian. Whilst well supported, the program has a number of limitations – it accredits practices on basic, non-objective criteria, it is founded on self-declaration, and it is associated with support from commercial companies.
Against this background, Royal Canin wishes to strengthen its partnership with practices around the world through the development of cat-friendly clinics as measured according to standard customer-centered metrics. Through this program the brand aspires to become the primary choice of practices looking to improve the customer journey for cats and their carers.
A pilot study comprising 32 mystery shopping visits was undertaken in January 2018 by CSS Research within 20 clinics in Atlanta, Georgia, using the basic premise that cat owners are best placed to evaluate the cat friendliness of practices, not the practices themselves. Participating cat owners were trained in mystery shopping techniques and on how to rate a clinic using the objective evaluation criteria created by Royal Canin and the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Fifteen Cat Owner Positive Experience (COPE) criteria were developed, covering each stage of the customer journey from pre-visit to arrival, waiting and consultation (Figure 2).
(Zero moment of truth)
|There are at least the same number of cat photos vs. dog photos appearing on the practice website or Facebook page (check the last 20 posts)
|You received good tips about how to take your cat to the practice (how to get him/her in the carrier, how to install the carrier in the car, using calming spray…)
No annoying or bad smells in the clinic
You are moved directly to the consultation room (no time in the reception area)
A separate space for cats is available in the reception area
There is no noise in the reception area (e.g., phone ringer is very low, no loud TV, etc.)
No dog barking in the reception area or trying to reach your cat
There are shelves or support to elevate your cat carrier off the floor
Cat food is displayed
Cat food is easy to find (not mixed with dog food)
The price of the cat food is posted on the bags and shelves
The veterinarian handled the cat respectfully
There is a towel or mat on the examination room table to avoid contact with the cold table
The veterinarian asked about what your cat eats, how much, and their eating habits
The veterinarian or technician/nurse provided you with nutritional advice
Further to the American research, Onswitch was commissioned by Royal Canin to undertake a second wave of research, this time in Europe and using criteria slightly modified from the original COPE attributes. 48 mystery-shopping visits took place across the Netherlands in early 2019, within 16 clinics located across the country. The findings relating to the 15 COPE factors are best shown graphically (Figure 3) (Figure 4) (Figure 5) (Figure 6) (Figure 7).
At the early stages of the customer journey (Figure 3), performance was disappointing in both countries. For example, fewer than half of the Facebook pages of the practices surveyed featured at least the same number of images of cats as dogs.
In the Netherlands just 10% of visits began with the practice giving the caller advice about how to transport the cat with minimal stress; US clinics fared better, with 42% of initial calls giving the potential client such advice.
On arriving at the practice, in the vast majority of cases in both countries there were no unpleasant smells (85% in the Netherlands and 88% in the US). However, waiting time was noticeably longer in the Netherlands, with just 10% of cat owners being taken directly through the consult room, compared with 40% in the US sample.
Quantitative research undertaken in the Netherlands supports findings from recent US studies that the customer journey for cat owners is not yet optimal at the majority of veterinary practices.
The mystery shoppers measured a number of criteria relating to the waiting environment (Figure 4) (Figure 5), and whilst positive ratings were higher at this stage, there is still room for improvement in both countries. Just 31% of Dutch clinics offer a separate space for cats in the reception area, compared to 55% in the US. In both countries just under two thirds of practices provide shelving or raised tables for cat carriers to be placed up off the floor and away from dogs (61% in the Netherlands and 60% in the US). Noise levels were generally felt to be acceptable; 80% of Dutch respondents and 60% of Americans reported no noise in the reception area, with 63% and 88% respectively reporting an absence of stressful dog behaviors whilst waiting.
Cat diets featured prominently at the majority of practices visited, with 86% of Dutch and 74% of American clinics displaying such diets for sale. In the majority of cases the food was easy to find, with dedicated shelf space for cat diets at 69% of Dutch clinics and 76% of those in the American study. However, pricing was not universally clearly displayed, at just 34% in the Netherlands and 45% in the US.
In all cases veterinarians handled cats respectfully (Figure 6) – a very pleasing finding. The addition of small, but important, practical additional details helps to improve the consultation experience further, but the research shows that these are not always present: for example,
- Was a towel or mat present on the examination table? 42% said yes in the Netherlands, 79% in the US
- Did the veterinarian explore diet and eating habits? 59% said yes in the Netherlands, 80% in the US
- Did the veterinarian provide nutritional advice? 33% said yes in the Netherlands, 55% in the US
Assessment of the customer journey for cat owners in the US and the Netherlands shows that whilst some areas are done well (clinicians handling cats with respect, keeping smells (and to a lesser degree, noise) to a minimum in the reception area, and clearly displaying cat diets for sale), in many areas there is room for improvement. Nutritional advice was given to just 33% of cat owners in the Netherlands, rising to 55% in the US, and considering the impact diet has on a wide range of health and wellbeing issues, more practices need to work on embedding conversations about diet as standard in cat consultations.
Overall, US data was stronger in ten of the COPE categories, with the Netherlands performing better in three and both research sets performing equally in two (Figure 7).
Given that the findings of countless research projects worldwide consistently find that cat owners find visiting the veterinary clinic stressful, it is imperative that practices deliver an excellent experience for both patient and client at every stage of the customer journey. Helping cat owners visit the clinic more often benefits everybody – by ensuring the cat receives optimal care, by improving owner compliance with recommended treatment regimes, by positively impacting practice turnover through increased footfall, by raising Average Transaction Value, and by positive word of mouth from happy clients.
- Volk JO, Felsted, KE, Thomas JG, et al. Executive summary of the Bayer veterinary care usage study. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2011;238;1275-1282.
- Habacher G, Gruffydd-Jones T, Murray J. Use of a web-based questionnaire to explore cat owners' attitudes towards vaccination in cats. Vet Rec 2010;167(4):122-7. doi: 10.1136/vr.b4857.