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The errand: How to make sure your veterinary practice doesn't get crowded out of clients' busy lives


There aren't a lot of second chances in veterinary medicine.

10 a.m., Tuesday

Whitely residence

Ginger Whitely looked at her white couch. In the corner was an expanding area of moisture. The edges were the color of diluted tomato juice. She couldn't find her cat anywhere. After searching, Ginger finally located her cat Veronica crouching over the litter box, frozen in place for what seemed like an eternity.

"Ronnie, you've been a bad girl. I'm going to have to take you to the vet today."

Ginger paused and then continued as if her cat understood every word.

"I have all these other errands to run today, and I'm going to have to add you to the list. Poor girl—you've never done anything like this before."

10:15 a.m.

Thomason Animal Hospital

"Of course, Mrs. Whitely," Sarah said. "We can get you in at 3 p.m. Will that work?"

Sarah listened quietly on the phone then continued: "I understand completely, but I really don't know the answers to those questions. You will need to see the doctor. He should be able to address all of your concerns."

Sarah listened again.

"Yes, 3 p.m. See you then."

"My goodness," Sarah muttered to herself as she gently hung up that phone. "That client seemed really stressed."

12:45 p.m.

Thomason Animal Hospital

Dr. Bill Thomason sat at his desk with his head pointed at his knees. He drew a deep sigh and reflected on the small dog lying lifeless on the exam table in the treatment room. The Jack Russell Terrier was Jimmy, a little ball of energy that had ran across the street after a squirrel and was fatally injured by the front right wheel of a speeding SUV. Jimmy died after a 20-minute battle for his life.

Bill needed some time off. His last associate had long since quit, and he was again a solo practitioner. He raised his head and pushed the intercom button to the front desk.

"Sarah, can you just mark off the rest of the day for me?" he said tiredly.

"Certainly, Dr. Thomason, but Ginger Whitely is scheduled to come in at 3 p.m. She really wants to talk to you about her cat's urination problems."

"Reschedule her, please. I just need to go home."

"Yes, doctor."

Sarah paused a moment and looked up Mrs. Whitely's home number. She dialed but no one answered. Next she tried an old cell phone number written on the upper edge. She got lucky.

"Mrs. Whitely, this is Sarah from the vet's office."

Sarah listened.

"Yes, I apologize. We have a situation here and Dr. Thomason won't be able to see you this afternoon. Can I please reschedule your appointment?"

Sarah listened and her eyebrows knitted as she tried to understand what the client was saying.

"OK. You'll call back later, is that right?"

Meanwhile, inside the Whitely car, things weren't going so well. During the phone call with Sarah, Veronica had escaped the makeshift cardboard crate box that Ginger had hurriedly put together. Now the cat was urinating on the carpeting in front of the backseat adjacent to a beautifully wrapped birthday gift for one of Ginger's best friends.

Ginger stood on the brake and pulled over. She opened her cell phone and searched for nearby veterinary hospitals. To her surprise, a veterinary clinic she never knew existed was nearby—even closer than Thomason Animal Clinic. Her cell phone's GPS got her right into the parking lot. Ginger spent the next hour as a work-in but she went home happy. Later that evening, she made up her mind to switch veterinarians.

Wednesday morning

Thomason Animal Clinic

Dr. Bill Thomason hung his coat in his office and walked to the front desk. He looked over the schedule for the day.

"Sarah, things look a little sparse today," he said. "That seems to have become a pattern."

"Yes, doctor," Sarah said. "You know you were at a meeting two weeks ago, and your wife wanted you to attend a function at the Chamber of Commerce last week. And of course yesterday it was Jimmy's unexpected death."

"Yes, but have you been able to reschedule all those appointments?"

"Well, yes and no," said Sarah. "A lot of them say they'll call back—some have but a lot haven't. I really didn't keep track."

Bill pursed his lips and started a small frown. "You know people just aren't loyal anymore," he said. "They want you to take all the time off you want—just don't do it when their pet is sick."

Sarah gave a sheepish smile. She had heard him say the same thing before. The practice had been slow for a while now.

There was a long period of silence.

"Maybe the phone will ring!" they both exclaimed at the same time.

Just then the phone rang, and Sarah raced to pick it up.

"Hello, Thomason Animal Clinic," Sarah replied. "Well, hello, Mrs. Whitely," Sarah said brightly. She listened.

Sarah covered the mouthpiece and whispered to Dr. Thomason: "She wants her records."

End of story.

Piercing the grand illusion

There aren't a lot of second chances in veterinary medicine. For most clients, taking their pet to the veterinarian is an errand. Certainly, many clients think of their pets as children, but a trip to the veterinary clinic is often sandwiched between trips to the grocery store and the soccer field. If pet drama is involved, it quickly evolves into the category of a chore or even a nightmare for some people.

Here's what clients expect: They can get whatever the pet needs in a short time at the veterinary clinic and move on to the next errand. Human nature being what it is, clients' frustration erupts if they encounter delays. Or if the veterinarian uncovers big health issues, but the client needs to drop off little Billy at the soccer field because it's the next errand in the rotation. At this point, your client is frustrated and not likely to hear and retain all your wonderfully crafted explanations of the pet's problems. Mix a frustrated client with an overworked solo practitioner, and the result is fewer veterinary visits.

Keep in mind, there is 50 percent less time for clients to see the veterinarian than there was 40 years ago. This is because most households have two working spouses (or a single head of the household working 100 percent of the time), and it usually falls to the woman in the house to run household errands.

If that woman is employed, 15 minutes is all she may have to give the veterinarian. And, let's be realistic, veterinary appointments are never 15 minutes. This is the grand illusion from both the doctor's side and the client's side.

What we really have are three to four appointments constantly overlapping each other to create the false impression for everyone that 15-minute appointments really work. Nothing works when you're truly busy. If you have this problem all day long, you need to be happy you have clients that want to see you every 15 minutes. Most don't.

Living the solo life

The average practice has 1.7 doctors. Of course, statistically, this is nonsense. If there are 20-person practices in Los Angeles, there have to be a gazillion solo practices out there too. Solo practice is still the rule, not the exception.

There are distinct advantages to running a solo veterinary practice. You create your own culture. You don't need to share profits and resources with colleagues. You're the ruler of your own domain. It's where most veterinarians want to be, right?

Most veterinarians start out as associates, yes, but those with the entrepreneurial spirit eventually start their own solo hospitals.

The main goals for many of these new startups, however, is to take on associates or partners and grow the practice to the point that "veterinarian number one" gets to relax a bit. Some veterinarians envision an ever-expanding horizon with higher and higher standards of practice. Most never make it. Why do some practice owners succeed in growing the practice to include long-time associates while others struggle? The successful practice owners:

> Allow associates to develop their own style within a flexible culture.

> Dedicate themselves to management and planning.

> Assume a role as leader and mentor.

> Share clientele, procedures and ultimately income with their associates. A teaching mentality prevails.

But what does all of this have to do with a client's errands? Clients want someone available during convenient hours. This is their expectation. This means if you're not available early morning, late afternoon, on Saturdays and even during the lunch hour, they may look elsewhere. This is a problem for the solo practitioner who wants a a personal life.

Do new client demands for more convenient appointment times mean there should be less solo veterinarians out there? Maybe. What it does mean is that the needs of our clients have moved beyond the traditional family-run veterinary clinic. It also means that solo doctors need to reach out to former competitors and seek ways to cooperate to move to the next level. It's up to you—the ball is in your court. You can't sit around and hope clients will fit their busy lives into your cramped working hours anymore.

Dr. Lane is a graduate of the University of Illinois. He owns and manages two practices in southern Illinois. Dr. Lane completed a master's degree in agricultural economics in 1996. He is a speaker and author of numerous practice-management articles. He also offers a broad range of consulting services. Dr. Lane can be reached at david.lane@mchsi.com.

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