Strengthening Client Bonds Through Technology

A conversation with Stacee Santi, DVM, founder and CEO of Vet2Pet

By Katie Berlin

A Conversation with Stacee Santi, DVM

For most of us in primary care practice, preventive care is our bread and butter. We know spending face time with clients to build trust will often pay off in better compliance, healthier pets, and a more successful business. But… schedules are also packed, we are working short-staffed, and sometimes the last thing we feel like we have time to do is spend an extra 10 minutes trying to impress the importance of heartworm prevention on our 18th client of the day.

Could technology strengthen the connection between your clients and your practice? Stacee Santi, DVM, founder and CEO of Vet2Pet, says it might actually be the key to keeping your ideal clients happy and coming back again and again. Read on to find out what the data says about how bonded our clients actually are to our practices, and why a schedule full of “first dates” might be a big reason we’re burned out.

Stacee Santi: I’m a stickler for an excellent client experience. I find the dynamics of having a great relationship with your client extremely rewarding, and…[around 2010] I ended up being very frustrated with what I would consider the very lame tools that veterinarians had to communicate with their clients in practice.

I was really striving to help people give their monthly heartworm prevention, and all I had were these stickers in a box to give to people to put on their calendar. And I really wanted to be able to send a push notification to people on their phone, because I noticed that when my phone would be sitting there, I would suddenly be craving a double pepperoni pizza from Domino’s because I got a push notification. And I thought, “I want to be able to do that for my clients with their heartworm medicine. How cool would that be?”

Technician getting history from client

“The first thing that we have been blinded by as a profession is the actual bonding rate that we have with our clients.”

—Stacee Santi, DVM

 

That isn’t even a huge dream, but at that moment it was impossible for veterinarians to send a message every month to their clients reminding them to give their medicine to their pet. I figured somebody was building apps for vets, but turns out there wasn’t anybody, so I ended up finding an engineer in California and built this really basic little app for my practice in Colorado.

And my clients could only do a couple of things—they could request an appointment, they could request a refill, and I could send them a push notification every month. But it just gave me a place to do these sorts of things…Pet food recalls, anything I would want to tell my mom about her pet, I could tell all of my clients by having my own little communication platform. I just started adding things to it, and I have a lot of friends in vet med, and they’d say, “Can you build that for me?” and I’d be like, “I guess so.” So on nights and weekends, I’d build about one app a month for a friend, and that turned into two a month, and then five a month, and then I ended up quitting my job in 2016 and officially going all in with my little idea, Vet2Pet.

Katie Berlin: The subject of today’s conversation [on technology] is actually your idea. You said, “Why don’t we talk about our bond with our clients?” and I thought that was really interesting, because I think a lot of people—at least I know I have thought this way in the past—kind of feel like technology sometimes means having less direct contact with the client. Do you think that the rise of technology means less connection?

SS: Actually, I think it’s the opposite. Well, it’s a little bit of a classic “it depends.” The first thing that we have been blinded by as a profession is the actual bonding rate that we have with our clients. We’re operating really off a gut feeling in this department where we think we know which clients are the best ones, and we think we know who would never leave us and who’s loyal, and who the top 20% is, and chances are you have a pretty good pulse on who it is, but what we haven’t been able to really home in on until recently is actually looking at the data to see how bonded our clients are.

And would it surprise you if I told you that about 37% of clients that you see today will not come back and see you and spend even $1 at your practice in the next two years?

KB: Wow, that seems like a lot. That is surprising.

Waiting room with clients and their pets

“Would it surprise you if I told you that about 37% of clients that you see today will not come back and see you and spend even $1 at your practice in the next two years?”

—Stacee Santi, DVM

 

SS: Yeah, a lot. I nearly died when I saw this metric because…We were actually evaluating how the bonding was going in our loyalty program, and we said, “Well, we need to know how the bonding is before we start a loyalty program,” and it turns out it’s quite terrible. I think we just don’t have a good grasp on how bonded or unbonded our clients are. We’re very busy, but part of the problem of being exhausted is having to go on a bunch of first dates all the time.

KB: Yeah, that’s true. I think about being in the exam room and seeing, say, 12 clients, and now knowing that over a third of them are not going to come back, you think of all the energy you pour into those appointments and you’re like, “Wait, where are they going? What did I do?”

SS: Yeah, you keep working because you’re a machine, and they keep coming in and you keep trying to do your best and you’re always tired. I mean…part of being a happy, fulfilled, successful veterinarian is having a clientele that you’ve got trust with, and they know you, you know them, you’re on the same page. You’re a good match, like peas and carrots. They’re a delight to work with because they aren’t going to question you, they aren’t going to try to have you do weird things. It’s a magical place to be a veterinarian when that happens, but if you’re constantly just going on first dates, it’s really hard to get to that level. It’s more exhausting.

So how come that’s happened? I think a couple of reasons is we are heavily dependent on that once-a-year or twice-a-year visit being so powerful and so strong that it holds you over till the next time we see you, and you don’t stray away or go somewhere else—but where technology fills the gap is in the middle. I’m not suggesting that technology and bots should check you in at your wellness exam and give you your print-out, your rule outs…No, I think that’s the time to shine with your in-person relationship skills. It’s the in-between where you can still have a relationship with your client, a communication engagement strategy in technology that kind of tides you over until the next time they come in.

KB: Do you feel like vets and vet professionals in general seem to be a little bit resistant to the idea of introducing technology, or is that a thing of the past?

SS: Well, that has always bothered me, when I hear [people] say vets are resistant to technology. Let’s be honest, vets are resistant, like everyone else, to bad technology.

And the truth is we haven’t had great tools available to us. Even the practice management software scene is a nightmare. A lot of this stuff’s really old, a lot of stuff doesn’t talk to other stuff. It used to take acts of magical wonders to get your practice software to talk to your X-ray machine, to talk to your laboratory services—it’s just hard. So I think when we say vets are resistant to technology, it’s a cop-out for people building bad technology.

Because we aren’t resistant to change. I know as a veterinarian, my life changed every five minutes at the practice. I’d be doing a dog spay, and suddenly I’m repairing an artery. Or suddenly an emergency comes in, I have to think about something else…I’ve got to pivot constantly. I might be coming into the exam room to talk to you about your wellness exam on your golden retriever. And I’ve got the vaccines ready and the heartworm spiel loaded, and I realize you have an abdominal tumor, and I’ve got to have the talk of life with you now.

So yeah, we change. I always find that comment…I don’t know, it rubs me the wrong way. Because I think if veterinarians have tools that work for them, that aren’t dumb, of course we’re going to use them. If they solve problems, if they’re a pain killer to a pain we have, absolutely veterinarians will use them.

“We aren’t resistant to change. I know as a veterinarian, my life changed every five minutes at the practice.”

—Stacee Santi, DVM

 

KB: I like that a lot, because I don’t like being grouped into a whole generalization like that either. And I think change is hard for everybody. So if you feel like the activation energy to adopting something new is really high, and it’s going to be really hard to make that change, then of course it’s going to be hard for everyone, because vets and vet teams are really busy. But so many of these solutions can make that better and make life easier, right?

SS: Well, that’s part of the problem too, if you think about it…finding the time to get your head up above the forest so you can see if there are other choices for you out here…You’re so busy, you think to yourself, “I just have to see all these cases, I just have to keep doing what I do every single day,” instead of saying, “Well, I have to carve some space for myself so I can evaluate my operational systems, I can evaluate my processes, I can evaluate what technology I’m using and try to get better equipped for the next decade.” You’re going to have to stop at some point and take inventory and do a little work on the business instead of constantly being in the business.

KB: If you’re thinking about trying something new, it really helps, I think, to have the team involved in thinking of solutions and in adopting new things…It helps to feel like you have a personal investment in the change too.

SS: For sure…I think where leaders get mixed up is not having those conversations with their team and exploring why. Why do we want do this? It’s not, “Oh look, I bought you this new texting thing and now we’re going to start texting with clients.” And everyone’s like, “Oh my god, I can’t.” We need to not do it that way. We need to say, “Listen, I’ve done the math, and if we can cut down one-third of our phone calls and go over here and even have a remote employee help us, this is going to make our life better.” And I think if everyone can see the why, they’re more inclined to accept the change.

KB: Yeah, and in a way, having more ways for them to be in contact with you, like two-way texting, so they don’t have to sit on hold forever or leave a message, actually feels more personal, because it’s more like, “Oh I have a direct line to them.”

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SS: I think we need to train on some basic people skills, and that not doing these things means people will probably blame technology: “This place has changed, this place is not the way it used to be. You’re too big for your britches now. I’ve paid for the wing of this practice,” all of that. I’ve been there, because I grew my practice from small to big, but it’s all about getting the people on the front lines to do some of these relationship building things that make people feel good.

KB: Why do you think it is that we have trouble keeping clients bonded to us? Even if an appointment goes well, why do you think clients don’t come back?

SS: Well, I think if you look at what primarily drives loyalty from a pet owner to a veterinary practice, it’s going to be some basic things like location, we can’t really change that. Accessibility: “I can’t get in, I’ve been your client for 10 years and I can’t get in for three weeks,” that starts to affect the feeling. “I have a question, I want to talk to you in between the visits,” that’s another one. Personalized care, knowing that you matter, that’s another one. The way that the doctor talks to the client so that we’re not over-talking to them or under-talking to them, so making sure that what we’re saying is landing. That’s another one.

Recognizing when you’re not resonating with a client—it might be good to just own that. I remember one guy came into my exam room one time, and his dog had grade 22 dental disease. And he was there just for the rabies shot every three years, and I’m like, “Well, your dog needs a dental so bad. It’s so horrible.” And he’s like, “No, I only want the rabies shot.” And I just told him, “I’m not your girl. I respect your viewpoints, but we aren’t a match. I’ll give you the rabies shot, but let me give you some references to some other practices.” And that might sound like, “Oh, I can’t believe you did that.” But it’s only going to frustrate him if I keep recommending a dental every time and making him feel bad and he has zero intention of ever doing it.

And the opposite is true as well. I don’t know if you recall, but years ago, the Humane Society started offering spay/neuter and full-service dentals to the general public, and there was a huge panic that, “Oh my god, we’re going to lose all of our clients, they’re going to go over and get the [cheap] dog spay. And they’re not going to come to Riverview and get the [more expensive] dog spay.

Well, that actually didn’t happen, because the people that want the [more expensive] dog spay with all the bells and whistles aren’t comfortable getting the cheaper version. So if a client that wants that ends up at the shelter, they might also be a mismatch.

Think about when you travel, what kind of hotel you’re going to stay at—sometimes this one’s better, sometimes that one’s better. It’s a personal decision, and I think veterinarians have this mentality that you have to be everything to everybody all the time, and it’s exhausting, and it actually doesn’t even make sense when you say it out loud.

KB: That hotel analogy is really good—I can’t afford the Ritz Carlton, but I don’t expect the Red Roof Inn to be like that.

SS: I’m a fan of forward booking the top clients that I enjoy working with, because if you fast forward six months or a year and you come in to work and your day is stacked with your top clients, that’s a beautiful thing. So trying to stack your day in the future and build the experience you want, it may not happen today, but if you do the work today, it will happen tomorrow. What I consider the best time in my life in practice is working with those clients that are my people. And each person, each vet has their own definition of who they gel with. And so [it’s about] identifying who you like and taking really great care of them.

KB: I have a little framed picture above my desk that one of my favorite clients gave me, and it just reminds me of how good that felt when I knew they were on the schedule—and to have five or six of them in a row in one afternoon was just nirvana. So creating that for yourself and not just having it happen by accident? That’s really, really smart.

SS: And then you say something like, “Man, May 5th, 2023, is going to be amazing.”

Catch a new episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast every Tuesday on all major podcast platforms, YouTube, and aaha.org/podcast. Send us feedback or questions anytime at podcast@aaha.org.

Santi_Stacee_Bio.jpg
Stacee Santi, DVM, is a 1996 DVM graduate from Colorado State University and the founder of Vet2Pet, a technology client engagement platform for veterinary practices. With over 20 years of clinical experience in small animal and emergency practice, Stacee brings an “in the trenches” approach to innovation and solutions for veterinary teams. She has served on various industry advisory boards, served as past-president of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, and was recently voted 2021 Educator of the Year for Western Veterinary Conference.

Photo credits: AnnaStills/iStock via Getty Images Plus, AzmanL/E+ via Getty Images, Capuski/iStock via Getty Images Plus, simonkr/E+ via Getty Images

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