Veterinary client satisfaction in Colorado: Relationships are more important than price

By Darren Osborne, MA

Relationships are more important than price. Back in 1995, AAHA conducted a survey that showed relationship issues were more important than price when pet owners were selecting a veterinarian. Later surveys showed, in order of priority, clients across the U.S. wanted a veterinarian that was interested in the wellbeing of the pet, had excellent medical knowledge, and explained things thoroughly. Everything else, including price, was less important. Almost 20 years later, in the shadow of the great recession, relationship issues are still more important than price for pet owners in Colorado.

When the results from the AAHA survey were released, there was a general feeling by many veterinarians that the results did not reflect the attitude of their clients. “My clients are different,” was the message researchers were told again and again by veterinarians. Veterinarians in private practice argued that they knew their clients better because they were on the front lines. They argued that their clients were more sensitive to the level of fees than those in the AAHA survey. They were wrong.

Fast forward 19 years. CVMA member hospitals were offered a chance to survey their own clients on their attitudes toward veterinary medicine. The survey, provided by OVMA, included a question similar to the 1995 AAHA survey to determine what factors were important to their clients when choosing a veterinarian or veterinary hospital. The survey was conducted online with hospitals choosing from two different distribution methods. They could either hand a random sample of clients a bookmark with an invitation to complete the survey online or hospitals could email an invitation to their clients with a link to the online survey. Participating hospitals were given a report that showed how their clients’ attitudes compared with the average in the state.

Preliminary results from the CVMA Client Satisfaction survey, representing 435 clients in 6 companion animal hospitals (generally accurate to 3.7%, 19 times out of 20) show conclusively that relationship issues are more important than price.

When clients in Colorado veterinary hospitals were asked to choose the three most important factors in selecting a veterinarian or veterinary hospital, they chose relationship issues first. The most important factor (with a score of 74%) was a veterinarian who was “interested in the wellbeing of their pet.” This was followed closely by a veterinarian with “excellent medical knowledge” (68%), and third on the list was a veterinarian that “explains things thoroughly” at 42%. 

Some veterinarians will argue that the second most important factor, “excellent medical knowledge,” is not a relationship issue. But unless the client is an animal health professional and knows everything about veterinary medicine, the client’s perception of how excellent a doctor’s medical knowledge is really is based on relationship issues. Factors like how they were greeted, whether the veterinarian listened attentively, and what staff was wearing are more important than how their veterinarian ranked in their graduation class.

In a distant fourth place with 29% of the vote was “services are reasonably priced.” “Price” was half as important as, “interested in pet’s wellbeing,” and barely one percent higher than “comforting to my pet.” Simply put, price is low on the list of priorities. This is good news considering many pet owners are still feeling the effects of the economic crisis five years ago. For many pet owners, housing prices are still depressed, the availability of credit is not like it used to be, and wages are fighting to keep up with inflation. In the face of all that, relationships are more important than price.

Rounding out the top ten factors were “location” and “friendly staff” tied for sixth place, “hours of operation” in eighth place, “exceptionally clean hospital” in ninth, and “prompt service” coming in last with only 6%. The bottom five factors are less important to clients but should not be discounted. The focus should be on what factors are most important.

Veterinarians who want to improve their standing with new and existing clients need to focus on showing clients they are interested in the wellbeing of their pet, working with staff to show they have excellent medical knowledge, and taking the time to explain things to clients. If these three factors are in shape, there is room to increase fees.

The last 20 years have seen a lot of changes in veterinary medicine and even more challenges to the economic prosperity of pet owners. Through all of this, pet owners’ relationship with their veterinarian continues to trump price.

CVMA has partnered with the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association—which has, for more than 20 years, undertaken cutting-edge management studies of veterinary practices in Canada—to provide CVMA Performance Analytics that are part of our economic and personal wellbeing initiative for Colorado veterinarians. Darren Osborne is the OVMA Director of Economic Research.

Reprinted with permission of the OVMA from CVMA VOICE 2014 #3.