Making your practice more feline centric
Natalie Marks has recently been involved with a project designed to help practices become more friendly for cats and their owners; here she describes how she sets out to enthuse and inspire the veterinary team.
There is a great deal of misinformation within veterinary practices regarding feline matters, including behavior, medicine, handling and even nutrition.
It is essential to ensure that the clinic’s support team feels empowered; this can be helped by appointing a cat “champion” for the practice.
Honest self-assessment of the different touchpoints for the cat-owning client is time well spent, as it forces us to turn a critical eye onto all aspects of the hospital and its policies.
A “feline focus committee” within the practice can implement action items in a practical manner and ensure that the initiative remains at the heart of the hospital’s functioning.
IntroductionThere are almost 80 million cats in the United States today, yet more than half of these cats have not seen a veterinarian in the last year for physical exams and routine testing, according to the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study 1 and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) 2. This is a disturbing statistic to many veterinarians and industry professionals, and this disconnect in care is rooted in many different perceptions and misconceptions of the cat owner. For example, some figures from the above-cited study 1 revealed that;
- 63% of cats in cat-only households live exclusively indoors, and unfortunately many of these owners assumed that indoor cats are not exposed or vulnerable to disease.
- 58% of owners reported that their cats “hated going to the veterinary clinic” because of the perceived idea that cats are fearful of being placed in a cat carrier and transported in a car (Figure 1).
- 81% of cat owners believed their cat was in excellent health; this seems to stem from the misconception that a cat’s independent nature equals wellness, without the knowledge that cats are excellent at hiding disease.
- Almost 70% of client-owned cats were acquired at no cost, and these owners received little to no instruction on proper veterinary care for their pet.
This survey was undoubtedly disheartening for anyone associated with veterinary cat care, but at the same time it was also quite eye opening to the tremendous areas of opportunity that lie ahead for the veterinary profession to collectively improve feline care around the globe.
Secret shopper program
As part of a global feline initiative to help change these statistics, Royal Canin, in partnership with CSS1, recently developed a “secret shopper” program to gain more insight and detail into the feline “client and patient journey” in veterinary hospitals. The three objectives of the survey were as shown in Box 1. Fifteen parameters (collectively known as COPE, the Cat Owner Positive Experience criteria) were identified for the “secret shopper” clients to assess (Figure 2). The criteria were designed to cover each stage of the customer journey, from pre-visit to arrival, waiting and consultation, and some of the key findings are shown in Box 2.
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…)
1 Brian S. Zaff, Chief Research Officer, CSS ([email protected])
It should perhaps be emphasized that the customer journey for a cat owner begins long before they first enter the veterinary clinic. It will actually commence when an owner looks for information about the practice, and may include internet searches, recommendations from friends, family and others (e.g., pet stores and groomers) and impressions formed from aspects such as the clinic’s outward appearance and its involvement in the local community. This initial stage of intelligence gathering is referred to as the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT) and it encapsulates how cat owners will form an impression of the practice and the likely levels of care it will provide for them and their pets.
The survey was first used in selected veterinary hospitals in the Atlanta area of the USA 3. In partnership with Royal Canin, and using the results from the survey, the author then worked with six of the participating clinics with the aim of designing a consulting program that would enable each veterinary hospital to develop an action plan which would improve the feline experience within the practice. The final program was as follows;
- A pre-visit questionnaire – based on the criteria used in the secret shopper study – was initially sent to the management of the hospital to be completed as a self-assessment exercise.
- A visit was then scheduled for the entire practice to attend.
- The first hour of the visit involved observation of the practice workflow, obtaining information from team members and assessing the various “feline aspects” of the practice.
- The second hour was an all-practice meeting (Figure 3); this was a delivered PowerPoint presentation that discussed the COPE project and offered ten tips to improve the feline focus of the practice, and other helpful guidance surrounding the feline patient and client care.
- The final hour was spent as a break-out session (Figure 4), with personnel split into practice teams; each team member was required to think of one action item that would improve the feline quality of their practice and be accountable for its implementation.
Ideally, this program could and should be conducted with every willing veterinary practice. Realistically, however, it is hoped that this pilot study can guide other practices by sharing the lessons learned, identifying the keys to success, and offering resources to help them achieve similar milestones which will elevate the feline patient and client journey within the hospital. A few pointers to help successful implementation of the program may be useful.
Gather your team and understand the “why”The most important part of the change to a more feline-centered practice is to get the entire team onboard and ensure that they have an authentic understanding of the importance of being feline-focused; this will enable them to present a unified message to clients. There is unfortunately still a great deal of misinformation in the veterinary field regarding feline behavior, feline medicine, low stress handling and even feline nutrition. The delivered presentation to the teams addressed many of these misconceptions, from both the industry perspective and the clients, and how we need to acknowledge these and shift our mindset.
Study the feline journey – patient and client
Although only a few veterinary practices were able to participate in the initial secret shopper study which aimed to obtain the most objective analysis of the feline client journey in the hospital, this is something that every practice can attempt on a smaller scale internally. The clinic management team can also take the key objectives of the secret shopper study and do an honest self-assessment of the different client touchpoints, from the initial phone call to check in and the waiting room (Figure 5), the consult itself (Figure 6) and finally to the checkout and departure (Figure 7). Although this may take some time, it can be invaluable; because we are frequently our own harshest critics, an internal appraisal forces us to turn a critical eye onto all aspects of the hospital, and especially parts that management may not be directly involved with on a daily basis. For example, are you sending out surveys after every appointment for the client to have an opportunity for real-time feedback? If not, this is a very helpful part of successful business practice, and its adoption is to be encouraged.
Appoint an “advocat” or cat championIf there was one unexpected outcome from the clinic visits, it was the empowerment of the support teams and the emergence of a cat “champion” for the practice. Too often in veterinary hospitals only a few voices are to be heard, and these are usually those of the owner/medical director, lead doctors, practice manager and supervisors. However, it became apparent that this was not the case when talking about focusing on the cat with all aspects of the client journey. Just like our feline-owning clients, many team members will feel overlooked, unimportant and not on an equal level of respect. This exercise is therefore a tremendous opportunity to not only elevate the feline focus within practice but to elevate both the work culture and status of specific team members. Create the position of cat “champion” and give that team member the freedom and authority to create a cat-focused committee, to explore the feline journey through the practice, to obtain resources and training materials on handling, pheromones, cat carrier training and other necessities, and to delegate appropriate responsibility for designing and uploading social media and digital posts.
Too often at veterinary practice meetings there are only a few voices heard – usually those in positions of seniority; however, empowering the support teams can be a real game-changer when it comes to making a practice more cat-friendly.
Plan training sessions
Finally, it is nearly impossible to create and maintain a new, consistent habit without follow through, reinforcement, accountability and repetition. Once each team member has their action item, an action plan must be created, and the following points must be addressed;
- What is needed to implement these ideas?
- What teams need to be coordinated?
- What funding is necessary and how much time is required to implement?
- What is the deadline to introduce the plan?
It is important to stress that it may not be possible for every team member to achieve some of the action points individually, and it may also require management input or the feline champion at the practice to become involved.
Once all the plans have been created, they should be submitted to supervisors and management, and a feline focus committee should be formed; this should include the cat champion and any other key team members and leaders within the practice. This committee serves three purposes: it will create timelines to implement action items in a practical manner, it allows all teams to have a voice when looking at how a new process or protocol will impact the hospital for best workflow, and it is a second set of eyes to hold the responsible team members accountable.
As the focus turns more and more towards the cat, it is to be hoped that these programs become more commonplace, widely accepted and considered to be an essential training component for veterinary teams. The profession should be willing to embrace forward-thinking projects such as this, with the aim of changing the viewpoint of both feline patients and clients around the world for the better.
- 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.
- https://catvets.com/education/solutions-increase-cat-visits Accessed 21st March 2020
- Lambert A. Improving the cat owner experience. Vet Focus 2020;30.2;20-24.