The Seven Deadly Sins of Selling

Like it or not, veterinarians are in the business of selling. Avoid these pitfalls to ensure happy clients and a successful practice.
Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified
Published: February 20, 2018
Selling is a dirty word in veterinary medicine. I am not talking about selling leashes or squeaky toys or dewormers. I am talking about selling ourselves and our practices and our services. The fact is, selling is an art as much as a science. Although there are countless situations in which clients can — and will — find something to complain about, famed lawyer and sports agent Mark McCormack described seven common selling snafus to avoid.1

Sin #1: Overpromising and Underdelivering on Service
If you don’t deliver excellent service, customers will have reasons to be unhappy. I once had a client whose dog was referred to me for a partial maxillectomy because of an acanthomatous epulis. My physical exam also revealed a large lipoma on the dorsum. All of a sudden, it didn’t matter to this client that her dog had cancer or that her veterinarian had been skilled enough to notice the very caudal maxillary epulis. All that mattered was that her veterinarian had missed the lipoma.

The service we provide should meet the client’s criteria for excellence. There is no easy way to tell if you’ve succeeded, but you’ll certainly know when you haven’t.

Sin #2: Overpromising and Underdelivering on Price
If we tell a client that repairing a fracture will cost $1,500 but present a bill for $2,000, even a logical explanation may lead to client dissatisfaction. After all, few clients enjoy paying more than what was agreed. There are exceptions, of course. If a patient that was hit by a car was diagnosed initially with a fracture, but a diaphragmatic hernia is found on preoperative thoracic radiographs, the final bill will clearly be higher than expected.

As long as the possibility of unforeseen charges is communicated during the initial consultation, and as long as the reason for additional treatment (and its cost) is clearly explained, most clients will understand the higher price tag.

Sin #3: Overpromising and Underdelivering on Time
Some clients don’t care that you have five surgeries, 16 consultations and 27 voicemails waiting for you. All they know is that Kiki was supposed to have surgery at 9 a.m. and that you said you would call with an update at 10 a.m.

Forget that promise, and some clients will never forgive you.

One solution to this dilemma may be to have a technician or a receptionist make the call for you. “Dr. Smith wanted me to call to reassure you that Kiki’s surgery went fine. He is with other patients right now but will call you later, as promised.” You then need to keep that second promise.

Sin #4: Believing Two Out of Three Is OK
Thinking that delivering two out of three in terms of service, price and time is good enough is McCormack’s fourth deadly sin. In a service industry like veterinary medicine, we need to deliver on all three, every time. We need to provide the right product or service at the right price and at the right time.

Sin #5: Selling and Walking
Have you ever been sold a product by a skilled salesperson who never returned your calls when you needed help or had questions? You probably have noticed that some sales reps never return calls because “they had a crazy day,” while others excel in responding to customers.

Clients don’t like to be ignored either. Whether they forgot every word you said to them, found 10 tablets when the label on the pill vial said there should be 14 or forgot when the next bandage change should be, clients will call you and will want answers … now.

When clients pay for a product or service, they also buy into a relationship with you and your clinic. “They want you to stick around and hold their hand,” McCormack said. This concept is extremely important after a pet has undergone surgery. Most clients love callbacks. They need to know that you care about Fluffy and whether she is comfortable after her lump removal.

Sin #6: Ignoring the Details
You might think you’re doing the best job in the world, but that may not be enough if you skimp on the details. And, unfortunately, you may have no idea what details the client considers important. “What’s minor to you may be major to the customer,” McCormack said.

For example, consider Cujo’s recent splenectomy. The recep-tionists were great on admission and discharge; the doctor was reassuring and skilled, both in the operating room and when Cujo’s heart rhythm went wonky the day after surgery. The nurses were helpful and accommodating during daily visits. Everybody did a great job, yet Mrs. Jones is livid because “somebody” forgot to trim Cujo’s nails, which can be done only under heavy sedation or anesthesia.

The problem may not be your fault. If you ordered a medication or a bag of prescription pet food that is not delivered on time, some clients will not understand that the delivery schedule isn’t under your control. “Customers with short memories are customers with short fuses,” McCormack said.

Sin #7: Not Understanding Why a Client Is Angry
It is important to know when and why a client is angry. That means being sufficiently close to the client to realize there is a problem. “You can be doing the best job in the world, but if there is something missing, or if the client is unhappy, then your opinion about your performance is worthless,” McCormack said. Sadly, the only way you may find out about their unhappiness is through a nasty online review.


Dr. Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. You can visit his website at and follow him at

  1. McCormack M. “On Selling.” Garden City, MI: Dove Books; 1996.

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