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Dealing with a recession (Sponsored by Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health)
In these challenging economic times, it is important that equine veterinariansÂ be creative-not complacent-with respect to boosting their bottom lines. Just as a proactive, multimodal approach is often needed to treat certainÂ diseases, the following is a nine-step treatment plan for what might be ailing your practiceÂ.
R-E-C-E-S-S-I-O-N—it's a dirty, nine-letter word that strikes fear in equine practitioners' hearts. Sure, we have all been affected by the current economic downturn, but that doesn't mean we have to sit frozen like deer in the headlights until the economy rights itself. In these challenging economic times, it is important that equine veterinarians be creative—not complacent—with respect to boosting their bottom lines. Just as a proactive, multimodal approach is often needed to treat certain diseases, the following is a nine-step treatment plan for what might be ailing your practice.
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Reassess your fee schedule
Do you reevaluate your fees more than once a year? Even if you do, how do you know you're setting them appropriately? Do your fees meet consumer need and compete with other area practices?
To evaluate your fees at the beginning of each quarter, determine which services earn the most profit and which seem to be least profitable, then compare your fees with the local competition. The National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (www.NCVEI.org) is a great resource to compare your fees for standard services with national, regional, and local averages. Second, don't forget to charge appropriately for your intangible skills. Some equine vets are limited in the number of appointments they can schedule in a day. But equine practitioners across the board should charge for the analytical skills we provide, not just hands-on physical exams or diagnostics. The ability to apply our knowledge and solve problems is really what our clients should be paying for.
Educate your clients
How many times have you been asked, "So how long was vet school, two years?" Many clients just don't understand the rigors of your training. And, if they do, they may not fully understand exactly why you are making certain medical recommendations. You want to spend time addressing your clients' questions and concerns, but there are more efficient ways of accomplishing this goal without taking too much time out of your day. Create a client brochure of FAQs or informative handouts explaining common equine diseases. You can also offer monthly client educational events, and if you don't already have a website for your practice, create one. A well-designed, professional looking website can serve as an invaluable educational resource for clients. After all, they're probably already searching the web for information, which too often is inaccurate or just plain wrong.
Nurture the vet-client bond
Effective communication with your clients is crucial to good patient care and essential for compliance—which affects your bottom line. When owners understand why you make certain recommendations and how those recommendations will directly benefit their horse, they will be much more compliant. If the owner is not present at the time of your visit, follow up with him or her by the end of the day. Make time to communicate with them by phone or via e-mail—whichever form of communication works best for them. Develop communication protocols for your practice and be sure to include:
- Ways to promote client understanding of and compliance with your medical recommendations and after-care regimen. Show your team how to do a communications check-up with clients to ensure they understand what you are trying to convey.
- Supplement oral communications with visual aids and written instructions.
- Reduce misunderstandings with consent forms, accurate fee estimates, and medical handouts.
- Document oral and written communication in patient records.
- Encourage medical questions and respond in plain English.
- Ask clients to fill out customer satisfaction surveys. The best way to know whether or not your clients are satisfied is to ask them. A satisfied client creates more business by recommending your services to others.
Enlist the help of professionals
It may seem counterintuitive to spend more money during a recession, but if you spend it on qualified professionals you could see a major return on your investment. Many equine veterinarians have found that hiring a certified veterinary technician to assist with farm calls allows for more appointments to be scheduled in a day. Technicians can free up a substantial amount of time for you to focus on medically relevant pursuits vs. mundane activities like restocking the truck or entering customer charges into the computer.
What about having to manage the daily operations of your business? Are payroll taxes or fears about tax liabilities consuming too much of your time and mental energy? If business is not your strong suit, perhaps it is time to hire an accountant or an office manager. Make sure that whoever you hire is experienced with the intricacies of the veterinary profession and that they complement your weaknesses.
Given the price of gas and the value of your time, it makes sense to group daily appointments in the same geographic area. This also means picking up the phone and proactively scheduling routine wellness, vaccination, or follow-up appointments. Clients are often too busy to remember when routine vaccines or physical exams are due, especially those with multiple animals or busy schedules. A good computer software program can be invaluable in this regard.
Now is not the time to invest in a new gadget that you don't necessarily need. It is, however, the perfect time to take a hard look at your practice and analyze where efficiency can be improved. Perhaps it's time to invest in a GPS device to help you get to your appointments faster. Or it could be an ideal time to invest in a computer software program or practical piece of equipment that better fits the needs of your practice. Perhaps you are spending too much on inventory that you are not using regularly. The bottom line is to spend money only after you have done a thorough cost-benefit analysis.
Invest in your team
Don't panic and freeze staff salaries, eliminate bonuses or lay off good employees. Continue to invest in your practice's human resources, even if it means having to cut back somewhere else. Office staff typically helps us leverage our time and they are usually the ones who have the power to leave a lasting impression on our clients. To help them help you, invest in continuing education opportunities for them, hold regular staff meetings, and take the time to properly train new and existing employees. Create expectations, provide the proper tools so that your expectations can be met, and offer incentives to keep up the good work. A practice that values its team is more highly valued by clients.
Own your brand
If you don't already have a logo, create one and never pass up an opportunity to flaunt it. People are loyal to brands they've had consistently good experiences with. Make sure your logo is on business vehicles, invoices, staff uniforms, practice stationery, client reminders, newsletters, client education materials, printed advertisements, and of course, your website. Get active in your local community and network, contribute to a few high profile charitable events each year, or participate in mentorship programs with local schools. A little goodwill (and strategic marketing) can go a long way.
Nurture the vet-client bond
There are several important things that you can do to establish and maintain a good rapport with your clients. First, offer them a complete array of treatment options without making assumptions about their ability or willingness to pay. Second, always discuss treatment costs up front and in a compassionate manner. No matter how much we all hate to talk about money, you can't afford not to. Providing your clients with the pertinent medical and financial facts up front enables them to make more educated decisions. Lastly, always offer alternatives. This means letting clients know that you will not judge them and show them you are aware of their financial concerns.
While you can't offer your services for free, you can provide clients with information on third party payment plans and pet insurance options. If your clients truly feel that you take their concerns into account they will most likely reward you with their loyal patronage for years to come—even during difficult economic times.
Lara de Courtivron is a 2009 VMD candidate and an extern at Veterinary Business Advisors, Inc., which provides business and legal advice to veterinarians nationwide. Dr. Charlottle Lacroix is the founder of VBA.