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Online directory earns mixed reviews from veterinarians

VINners air grievances about LocalVets.com, now known as YextVets


September 16, 2009
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service


An online outfit promising to revolutionize Internet advertising for veterinarians is amassing a growing list of practitioners who claim they've been overcharged, inconvenienced and, in general, aggravated by the company's business practices. 

Representatives of LocalVets.com, now rebranded as YextVets, counter that the New York-based online directory is doing everything it can to correct complaints and promises that customer service improvements are underway, like adding a call center with live operators.

Yet those changes, earmarked to unveil in the next 60 days, are unlikely to placate some who have aired grievances with the company in Veterinary Information Network (VIN) discussions. Since May, VIN members have complained that the Yext system regularly overcharges its veterinarian clients, who, in an effort to combat over billing, must crosscheck callers’ names with their current client lists and follow up to make sure clients who use the Yext directory keep their appointments.

Yext, which bills itself as “the next Yellow Pages,” is a pay-for-performance directory that represents 20,000 small businesses nationally across a dozen professions, including chiropractors, podiatrists and businesses in auto repair. The company launched its veterinary arm in February 2008, and since then, officials report that roughly 4,000 DVMs have signed on with the service, agreeing to pay a $10 monthly fee and $35 for every pet owner who uses a unique phone number in the Yext directory to contact their practices and makes an appointment.

One major attraction is that unlike traditional Yellow Pages listings that can cost hundreds of dollars in monthly advertising fees, users only pay for new clients that go through the directory and keep their appointments. Calls are recorded, and Yext weeds out existing clients by using a computer program that identifies key words and phrases that signify the pet owner by has visited the practice previously.

At least that’s how it works in theory. Some veterinarians report that up to two-thirds of the calls coming in via the online directory are from existing clients who aren’t filtered by Yext technology. That triggers overcharging and prompts practice owners to crosscheck calls and track appointments themselves — a job many don’t appreciate. And although refunds are based on the honor system, another sore spot is that Yext clients are granted account credits with the company, not reimbursements to the practice’s credit card or other payment method.   

That irks Dr. Mark Riehl, a Bristol, Tenn., practice owner who ended his service with YextVets after eight months and just a handful of new clients. His main objection: having to repeatedly apply for refunds. Out of frustration, he’s protested $70 in Yext charges with his Discover Card rather than deal with Yext account credits.

“I've got a thousand things going on, and keeping up with a credit from a month ago is not easily done,” he says. “I got one to two new clients a month; it was not a fountain of business. If we were getting 20 to 30 new clients, I would work with them.”

Others like Dr. Lisa Bennett object to the company’s growing presence on the Web, with YextVets prominently publicized on an increasing number of Internet search engines that solicit consumers to click on them to find veterinarians.

“And for the causal Web surfer, they don’t realize that it would cost us to use their service,” Bennett writes in a VIN discussion.

That kind of criticism makes little sense to Yext CEO Howard Lerman, who explains that only those who subscribe to the company’s services are featured on the site and charged for it. He contends that Yext works hard to “level the playing field against the Yellow Pages” by streamlining a veterinarian’s ability to advertise within a fragmented network of online search engines that can make local advertising challenging.

Insisting that customer service is key to Yext’s success, Lerman says he is “very sorry that there have been a few people who’ve had bad experiences.”

“It’s my goal to make every customer satisfied, even if I know that it’s simply impossible to do that,” says Lerman, a graduate of Duke University who co-founded Yext, his fourth Internet startup, in 2006. It’s a stance bolstered by the company’s no-questions-asked account credits and A- rating with the New York City region’s Better Business Bureau.

“We kind of think of ourselves as Robin Hood for the local business owner,” Lerman says of the company’s efforts to make local advertising more affordable and usable. “It’s not possible that we can be perfect, but we’re going to continue to try to get there.”
 
For that, YextVets earns glowing reviews from some in the veterinary profession.

In May, Dr. Randy Wiltshire reported in a VIN discussion that he’d used YextVets for six months, and during that time, was directed 67 new clients from the site, for which he paid Yext a total $2,345 in advertising fees. Those clients, in turn, spent $9,100 in his practice.

“For me, it has been worth it as just another way to get new clients,” he says.

If a Yext-generated client fails to show for an appointment, Wiltshire requests that the company credits his account. And the recording feature allows better training of his receptionists, he says.

“All you have to do is submit a form from their Web site that takes one minute to fill out,” Wiltshire writes in the discussion. “Whether they make an appointment or not, the call is recorded and accessible to you. I have used this feature for receptionist training multiple times. When they hear themselves on the phone, it really helps to understand what they are doing right or wrong.”

Dr. Bill Folger adds, “I'm going to get about 20-30K in business from them this year, and it will cost me 500 bucks.”

What’s more, the recorded phone calls are like secret shopping your practice, says Dr. Rick Beldegreen, a VIN member who, in previous years, has spent up to $30,000 annually to list his Charlotte, N.C. practice in the Yellow Pages.

“I find that quite valuable,” he writes in the VIN discussion of the Yext recordings. “Most owners would be quite shocked at what some of their front office staff are telling clients. I know I was and I thought my receptionists were well trained. Now I can listen and discuss ways to improve what we tell clients, and I have the proof of what was said in hand.”

For Riehl, that's not enough to warrant the hassle.

"If you catch a mistake, like billing me for another clinic's call, they will tell you they will credit the account, but what they mean to say is they will take if off your next bill," he writes in his VIN post. "But you better monitor that next bill because they may 'forget' to apply the vapor credit. They will not credit your credit card, so it is up to you to keep track of their mistake — a little tough love thing."



VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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