Most veterinarians assume that if a client brought her pet in for a wellness exam today, she will naturally return in 12 months' time.

Making this assumption can be a costly mistake. A calendar year could just as easily be a lifetime, and a lot of water can pass under the bridge during those 12 months.

You might think that your clients are thinking about your practice between annual visits and are out there telling all of their friends how great you are. The reality is a little different.

People have a lot on their minds and a lot going on in their lives. In most cases, they are not thinking of your practice when they're not there, and you're not in a pet owner's mind until the pet needs to see you, which for many will be just once a year. While this is not necessarily a reason for clients to leave your practice, it's not a reason to stay either.

You need to take your practice from an out-of-sight/out-of-mind relationship with your clients to an ever-present, top-of-consciousness position. I'll show you exactly how you can do this, just as soon as we look at some of the reasons clients leave your practice.

Over the past few years, visits to veterinary practices have declined. The economy is partly to blame, but other reasons also explain why pet owners leave veterinary practices. The good news is that there are ways to address all of these reasons, including the economic ones.

Sure, some pet owners have stopped visiting veterinary practices. However, others have just left yours. They have chosen to move to another veterinary practice. The most successful veterinary practices are actually gaining clients, and you can too.

Starting with the obvious, here are four reasons why clients could be leaving your practice.

1. Economic challenges

It's a sad fact of life that people are facing economic challenges, and your clients who have seen a drop in their disposable income may have stopped coming in simply because their finances dictate that they can't.

A common reaction to this is to think about reducing your fees, but this is a huge mistake — it's a war you can't win. A better solution is to target more affluent clients. Pet owners with larger disposable incomes are still spending money on their pets and not just on essentials such as health.

I recently paid a visit to a local designer pet store selling such items as Halloween costumes and designer clothing for dogs, as well as all other manner of pet-related gifts and accessories. Not only was the shop busy, but pet owners were also quite happily paying $40 and up for designer dog bowls.

There are shops like this all over the country, not to mention the online stores. The pet owners buying from these shops are taking their pets to someone for their healthcare needs. Why shouldn't it be to you?

2. Relocation

When clients leave the area, taking their pets with them, there's not much you can do about it. Or is there?

I know a veterinary practice in Orlando, Florida, with a client who drives all the way from Kentucky for his dog's annual checkup!

While that's an extreme example, there are many other clients still in this practice who have moved shorter distances but to locations that would still be considered outside of their catchment area. These clients could choose to visit any of several other veterinary clinics closer to home, but they don't.

If you are different and give your clients an experience and level of patient care they can't get somewhere else, they will travel from pretty much anywhere to get it if they can afford it. On the other hand, if you provide ordinary service and the same experience as every other veterinary practice, then your clients won't have any trouble finding the same thing in their new locations.

3. Dissatisfaction

Let's get one thing straight, if all you are doing is satisfying your clients then there is a good chance that they will be tempted to go elsewhere.

Your veterinary business is not just about treating pets but about your relationship with your clients. If you take them for granted, just seek to satisfy their expectations — or worse, leave them feeling unsatisfied with your service — then they are vulnerable to seduction by a competitor practice waving some shiny new object (e.g. a new service, new piece of equipment or new experience) in front of them.

4. A better offer

Another thing happening during those 12 long months is that your competitors are actively targeting your clients. Remember, a veterinarian who is better at marketing will have more success than one who is more clinically skilled.

Being a great veterinarian does not automatically mean you will attract and keep more clients than less talented veterinarians. Your clients and prospects can only judge by what they are told and what they experience for themselves. Clients can have short memories, and if your competitors are constantly telling them that there is more to offer at another practice, then eventually that message will get through.

New practices with newer facilities that open near your clients — perhaps even closer to their homes than your practice is — are certainly a threat, especially if they offer incentives to try something new.

But even established practices, if they're on their game, will use any excuse to reach out to your clients. They will be only too pleased to brag about their new equipment, their newly-refurbished facilities or their new veterinarian's reputation.

In my next article, I will address how to keep your clients engaged so they are not tempted elsewhere.