Veterinarians have long been a dog pro’s most coveted referral source. In the early days, bringing by a basket of cookies from time to time and asking to keep some cards or brochures on the counter could assure a steady stream of new client calls. But those days are long gone.
Today’s dog training business requires a much more substantial and creative marketing plan. For one thing, as our industry has grown, dog owners have been flooded with doggie brochures, fliers, and ads. As a result, it’s become hard to get attention with such traditional means.
Vets’ responsiveness has changed, too. Many are more discerning than they used to be, wanting to know about the skills, education, and professionalism of the dog pros they refer to. Others are unwilling to play favorites, allowing anyone to leave materials in an increasing mountain of business cards and competing messages. And some just don’t want to be bothered by yet another dog pro bearing business cards and asking to take up their counter space.
There’s another challenge, too—Most of the dog pros we know would rather walk through a patch of stinging nettles than walk into a vet clinic to sing their own praises and ask for a favor. We don’t blame you; the sting of a nettle seems softer than the sting of rejection.
How, then, do you create lasting, effective referral relationships with veterinary clinics? (And how do you even get your foot in the door?)
The thought of asking a stranger to promote you can deter all but the most gregarious, and granted, that’s an awkward starting point. The trick is the turn the equation on its head: Instead of asking for help, give it. For example, a professional newsletter full of training tips (if you’re a trainer) and dog-related articles will be welcomed into most clinic waiting rooms. It’s a rich resource and reading material for clients asked to wait. No doubt the vet and office manager will be much happier with this than yet another brochure.
Trainers, you can also offer a behavioral wellness folder (these can be used at shelters and other places of adoption as well). This is a branded folder full of useful information for getting off on the right paw with a new puppy or dog. There might be advice for successfully surviving the first couple of weeks and setting routines for the future, some simple training tips, and of course information about your services. (Don’t forget house training and socialization tips for puppies!) Providing a sharp-looking folder with real information to local vet offices gives them a value-added product to offer each new client, as well as existing clients struggling with training or behavior issues.
Both of these marketing projects have a powerful edge over the old standbys. Because the newsletter changes seasonally, owners have a reason to pick it up each time they visit the office. It’s not just the same old brochure they’ve already read. And the folders are a serious endorsement—not just a card on the counter, these have been handed to the owner as part of their starter package, or in response to a behavior complaint. And because both the newsletter and folder have so much good information, neither are likely to be tossed out or misplaced, as happens with most cards and brochures. When a frustrated dog guardian decides six months down the road that she needs assistance, she’ll go to go looking for that packet or newsletter, not online or anywhere else.
The rich content and aesthetic delivery of these projects showcase your expertise and professionalism to veterinarians. The more they trust and respect you, the more often you will be actively referred to. No business card can convey such insight. In other words, offering such rich materials shows veterinarians who you are and what you’re made of so you don’t have to sing your own praises.
Once you’ve gotten a toe in the door, don’t let the vets and their staff forget about you. Stop by on a regular basis to drop off additional newsletters and/or folders, or whatever other creative ideas you’ve pursued. Try to time your visits with the least busy time of day for each office, to increase the chance of saying hello.
Trainers, you can build on your budding relationship by offering to give short training presentations during staff meetings on topics of interest and usefulness to vet techs and office personnel, like reading canine body language or understanding aggression. This allows everyone to become more closely acquainted with you and to experience your expertise in action. Building this personal connection and experience makes staff more likely to remember to hand out your folders and actively refer people your way.
As mom always said, be sure to say ‘thank you.’ Skinner taught us that the more you thank people, the more there will be to be thankful for. And from Pavlov we know that the more we give, the happier people will be to see us.
But how to thank effectively? The oldest trick in the book is to bring along some goodies when you stop in to refresh your materials. This may be an old trick, but classical conditioning never goes out of style. As staff come to realize you always have goodies on hand, their conditioned emotional response to you will grow. IE, they’ll always be super glad to see you—which makes this marketing task easier and easier.
In our digital age, a hand-written thank you goes a long way. In the beginning, send cards thanking the office for each referral. Keep branded, stamped postcards on hand so you can practice good timing. As the referrals grow in number, send a monthly card to say how much you appreciate their ongoing support. Occasionally (2-4 times per year) spice things up by sending a food basket or pizza luncheon or something fun and dog-related. Another idea is small denomination gift cards to a café within walking distance of the clinic—one for each staff member. Changing what you send from time to time will keep the gesture from seeming routine or insincere.
Deepen the Relationship
As you receive more referrals from a particular office and the respect and trust grows, expand your relationship. One simple way to do this is to offer an additional marketing project. If you began with folders, add a newsletter. If you started with a newsletter, what other complimentary project might you pursue? With each product you put yourself in front of potential clients more frequently and give them additional opportunities to see how your services might benefit them. (And any new marketing project can be used in other venues, too.)
If you are ready to move to a new level, you might suggest a joint project. For example, if they have the space perhaps a vet’s office would be open to hosting a talk or even a series of community lectures. You gain additional marketing exposure and they get new potential clients coming in to their space. This is a great project for trainers, but other dog pros with speaking skills can take advantage, too. Dog walkers or daycare operators might offer a clever multi-media presentation on what they’ve learned hanging out with dogs all day, for example.
Trainers, if you want to go bigger, we’ve helped a number of dogbiz clients build in-office consultation services with local vet practices, where the trainer or behaviorist holds specific office hours in the clinic. This allows vets to go a step beyond referrals by actually scheduling an appointment with the trainer to take place right in their office. An owner might come in complaining about some disturbing growling, for example. After ruling out medical causes, the vet can recommend training, suggesting the owner make an appointment on the way out to see the resident trainer. You can’t get a better endorsement than that and, of course, the client is more likely to make the appointment in that moment than if they leave the office with a brochure or business card to think it over.
The question I am most often asked in regard to setting up referral relationships with vets is “How do I get started, who do I talk to?” First, choose and produce your marketing literature so you have something in hand. Go the extra mile to make sure everything is polished and professional. Hire a designer and writer. These costs will pay off.
Next, find out who in the office to talk to. Though it may be the veterinarian him or herself, or a lead vet tech, in most cases, it’s the office (or sometimes practice) manager who makes decisions about what to display in the waiting room and who gets to talk to the doctor. Call or email the office to set up an appointment with the office manager so you know you’ll be talking to him or her when they have time to focus. You might grease the wheels by sending samples of your material ahead of your meeting. Remember—you aren’t asking for anything; you have something of value to offer. You needn’t even use the word “referral”—those will come naturally from whatever literature you leave behind.
Sometimes you can go right to the vet. For example, if you have reason to take one of your animals in, bring samples of your materials along. Offer to leave them for her and ask to set up an appointment to talk about them. Or just make (and pay) for a clinic appointment, explaining when the vet comes in that you wanted a few moments to introduce yourself and chat with her, without eating into her valuable time.
Isn’t There Something Easier I Could Do?
If even these softer approaches make you nervous, here are a few more ideas for getting a foot in the door:
Take the idea of being useful to a new level with your print newsletter. Bring a copy of your newsletter into the clinic. Tell the vet or manager that you produce a free educational newsletter for dog lovers and you’d like to feature the clinic in your next edition. Do they have 10 minutes for a quick interview, or would they like to set up a better time? The likelihood that you’re turned down on this is extremely low!
Put your piece about the clinic on the front page of your next edition, and bring copies in a nice stand, along with some edible goodies. “Hello! Good to see you again! I’ve featured you right on the front page when you get a moment to look. How about here—is this a good spot to set these so everyone sees them?” (Or you can also offer multiple stands, one for each waiting room, if they prefer.) When you come in next quarter with your new edition, bring goodies again. “Just swapping in the new edition for you all, and thought I’d bring along an afternoon power snack!” The point here is to stop asking for favors and permission. You’re doing something for them, so take on that mindset and just cheerfully assume they’ll now be displaying your newsletter.
Here’s another idea for dog trainers: Share your behavior reports with vets. Ask your clients’ permission first, then send a copy of your assessment and recommendations to each client’s veterinarian as a professional courtesy. If they are already referring to you, they have all the more reason to continue. If you don’t yet have a relationship with the vet in question, he or she will gain familiarity with your expertise and professionalism through these reports, making it easier for you to bring your marketing materials in to the office. Many of our dogbiz clients have gotten referrals from doing this before they even took that next step, and some have had clinics contact them for referral materials as a result, too.
One last idea for all dog pros: You probably have loyal clients willing to help. If you have a client who raves about you to friends and family, or frequently tells you how awesome you are, they would probably be delighted to tell their vet about you and take a copy of your materials along on their next appointment. Next time they make you blush, just ask.
Strong veterinary referral relationships are a key ingredient to a successful dog service business, so it follows that building them takes—and is worth—a bit of work. If you’re serious about growing your dog business, make a commitment to start working on your vet referral relationships today.