7 ways that your colleagues stepped in a mess


Want to avoid regrets about management? Learn to avoid these common missteps, pulled from candid conversations with practitioners.

What's your biggest regret in managing your practice? I've asked countless practitioners that question as part of the research I do for the seminars I conduct. You may be surprised by some of their answers. You may identify with others. Regardless, you're certain to be enlightened by these veterinarians' candid responses and the lessons you can glean.

Misstep #1: "I didn't raise my fees soon enough."

Many veterinarians I talk with express this regret, and they all agree that they didn't get nearly as many complaints about higher fees as they feared. Most clients took reasonable, periodic fee increases in stride. Many didn't even notice. And even veterinarians who lost clients because of fee increases reported their overall profitability improved.

Letting go of regret

Action step: Before you delay an overdue fee increase, do the math. If, for example, you raise fees 10 percent, you can see 9.09 percent fewer clients and generate the same net profit. If you increase fees 20 percent, you can see 16.77 percent fewer clients without affecting profitability. And if overhead drops because you're seeing fewer clients, you can handle an even greater drop in volume before profitability suffers.

Do you believe 16.77 percent of your clients would leave your practice if you raised your fees 20 percent? If not, you'll be ahead of the game by instituting a fee increase-and you'll be way ahead if you don't experience a drop in client visits.

Misstep #2: "I should have redecorated or remodeled sooner."

"I never realized how bad the practice looked," one veterinarian confided, "until we redecorated and everyone told us how nice it was-and what a big improvement." The questions to ask yourself: What image does your hospital convey, and does it reflect the expertise and professionalism you offer? You don't have a choice about whether your hospital makes a statement. You do get to choose the kind of statement your hospital makes.

Quick Facts

Action step: Every seven years, you need to redecorate or move. You may not notice the sameness in your hospital's appearance, but your clients will. If you're a new owner, remember, the longer your facility says, "struggling veterinarian," the longer the struggle.

Misstep #3: "I didn't expand my facility or move as soon as I should have."

I've seen plenty of practice owners working in extremely cramped quarters and in locations that experienced a loss of industry or a declining economy, yet they hesitated to take action. The handwriting was plainly on the wall, but they chose to ignore it. Why? Inertia.

Yet when they made their moves, practitioners loved the new facilities and experienced less stress. The doctors, staff members, and clients felt absolutely euphoric about their new hospitals. And it took them less time to make the transition than they thought.

From the success files: After 24 years in a 2,400-square-foot facility that he and his associates had clearly outgrown, Dr. Robert Buzzetti built the 7,325 square-foot Imperial Point Animal Hospital in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., which not so incidentally won a merit award in the 2004 Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Competition. The project, which Dr. Buzzetti researched and planned for 12 years, was completed in 2001. He expected to have more space and a nicer facility. "What I didn't expect," he says, "was the immediate, dramatic increase in clients. We've doubled our business in the last three-and-a-half years."

Misstep #4: "I should have bought new, state-of-the-art equipment sooner."

Many practitioners postpone the purchase of new equipment on the premise that their older equipment is adequate and does the job-so they don't need to invest in anything new. This simply isn't true.

Hard-learned lesson: New equipment accelerates practice growth. "Whether we like it or not, patient surveys show that people tend to equate advanced technology with better care, perceiving that doctors and staff are more up-to-date and concerned with the patient's comfort and well-being," says Eugene Antenucci, a dentist in Huntington, N.Y.

Bob Levoy

Misstep #5: "I wish I'd dismissed demanding, difficult clients earlier."

As a speaker, I've asked countless audiences whether anyone has ever regretted dismissing demanding, unreasonable clients who always find something to gripe about and who are impossible to please.

The only regret I've ever heard is "I wish I'd done it



Some dismissed clients will realize they've been out of line, apologize for their behavior, and become model clients. Others will take the hint and leave. Still others will insist on saying their piece before walking out the door.

"Bad clients will never be satisfied in spite of all you do," says Dr. Lionel Garcia, MS, owner of Clear Lake Forest Animal Clinic in Seabrook, Texas. "Let them go on their way with the misery they carry. Life's too short to accommodate bad clients."

Reality check: Lawyers suggest checking with your malpractice and business liability insurers before you dismiss a client to make sure you couldn't be accused of abandoning a patient in need of treatment. A good guideline: Don't fire a client in the middle of treatment, says Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Karl Salzsieder, JD, an attorney in Kelso, Wash.

"Also, when you dismiss a client, follow up with a letter stating that the client will need to obtain future care at another veterinary facility and that you'll provide a copy of the patient's records upon request," says Dr. Salzsieder. "After that, you shouldn't have to provide further treatment unless the pet needs emergency care."

Misstep #6: "I didn't fire an unsatisfactory employee soon enough."

A surprising number of successful practice owners tolerate a single employee who's out of step with the rest of the practice team. For various reasons-a sense of obligation, kindness, or fear of firing someone-the staff member remains on the payroll, even though he or she pulls the whole team's performance down.

If you're facing such a dilemma, the question to consider is "What do you owe to whom?" What do you owe a long-term employee who has become, for example, difficult to work with and overbearing to clients and co-workers? What do you owe to your clients, associates, and other employees who have to contend with such behavior? And what do you owe yourself in this situation?

If you've conducted periodic performance reviews, given fair warnings, and documented such discussions, and you've still not seen improvement, then it's time to let them go. "Stop trying to fix people who don't fit in your practice," says consultant and Veterinary Economics Hospital Management Editor Mark Opperman, CVPM. "Trying to fix problem employees drags your entire practice down to the lowest common denominator." (See "Send Poor Performers Packing" in May 2004 for more.)

From the success files: Following a recent seminar, a veterinarian wrote to me, "When I returned to my practice, I fired my bookkeeper of 13 years. It was without doubt the hardest, most painful thing I've ever done. It was also the best thing I've done for my staff, my clients, and myself. It was hard to recognize the negative effect she had on the practice-until she left."

Misstep #7: "I didn't spend enough time with my family."

Many practitioners put off spending time with their families, borrowing against the future. Yet time slips by-and then it's gone. You probably know at least one parent who laments not spending enough time with his or her child before the child grew up and moved away. And you likely know more than one couple that didn't invest enough in each other and their relationship.

Another family regret is not setting aside time to have children. "We spent our early years in practice building a business instead of building a family," says Dr. Margaret Rucker, hospital director of Southwest Virginia Veterinary Services in Lebanon, Va., where her husband also practices. "Children weren't ever our first priority. Now, as I look back, I feel as though we may have missed out on something important in our lives."

Hard-learned lesson: Don't put off today what you think you can accomplish tomorrow. After all, tomorrow may never come.

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Bob Levoy is a seminar speaker based in Roslyn, N.Y., who focuses on profitability and practice growth, and the author of 101 Secrets of a High-Performance Veterinary Practice (Veterinary Medicine Publishing Group, 1996). Send questions to ve@advanstar.com

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