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Clean up with 12 monthly resolutions for your best year yet! Plus! Three more must-do's from the experts!

JANUARY IS MY FAVORITE TIME OF YEAR. IT'S NOT because I love cold weather (I don't), or because I enjoy the fact that the holidays are over (no way), or even that I won't need to buy anyone presents for a while (OK, maybe). I love January because my calendar's blank. I have a clean slate. A tabula rasa. An opportunity to start anew and make things better.

That's right. I can make new resolutions for the New Year.

According to the Wall Street Journal and other media agencies, an estimated 88 percent of Americans made New Year's resolutions in 2006. Top choices included "lose weight," "exercise more," "manage finances better," "be better organized," and "advance my career." Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, less than 20 percent stuck with their resolutions for the entire year. Why the lack of success? Over a third claimed they "lost motivation," while about one in five reported they "didn't have enough time to devote to it." About 15 percent experienced "too much temptation."

How do the successful 20 percent do it? By forging realistic goals and making them a priority in their lives. (Need some help with that? See "Get S.M.A.R.T." for advice on how to set realistic goals.)

Realistic goals: Get S.M.A.R.T.

It's easy to lose motivation and make excuses, so I'm offering you a different approach. Let's tackle one manageable but important topic or task each month. When you take a bite-sized approach to an enormous undertaking, you're less likely to choke on the big pieces—and far more likely to actually get through the list.

It's important to note that many of the monthly resolutions I'm proposing aren't limited to a month's duration. In fact, I'm hoping many of these goals will become habits that will make you more successful and happier for life.

Now roll up your sleeves, sharpen your pencils, and get out the calendar. It's time to plan your best year yet!

No. 1 resolution Invest time in planning. Manage the practice - don't let it manage you. - Dr. Karen Felsted, CPA, MS CVPM, with Gatto McFerson in Santa Monica, Calif.

Dr. Karen Felsted, CPA, MS, CVPM, with Gatto McFerson in Santa Monica, Calif.

JANUARY: Run the numbers

It's time to review those year-end financial reports you've been neglecting. Where did you make money? Where did you spend it? Target your large percentage areas and look for ways to improve them. This is no different than interpreting patients' blood and urine tests or their radiographs. Without studying these basic criteria, it's impossible to make judgments about a pet's health. The same goes for your business.

"That's not my job," you say? If you own the practice, you owe it to your staff to make it your job. Too many owners fail to really succeed because they let someone else run the business.

Looking at your numbers doesn't require an inordinate amount of time or expertise. It requires commitment and attention to the details of how you and your staff make a living and provide the best standard of care for your patients.

Set income and expense goals and create a budget based on last year's reports and your 2007 projections. An excellent resource for goal-setting is Benchmarks 2006: A Study of Well-Managed Practices, conducted by Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates and Veterinary Economics.

Without a financial road map it's unlikely that you'll meet your economic potential. So set aside a morning or afternoon and focus on where you want to be financially this time next year. (See "10 Tips to Boost Profitability" for more.)

FEBRUARY: Reward and reconnect with clients

Those cold (and sometimes slower) February days are an excellent time to focus on clients. Now's the time to implement a system to identify clients who are helping your practice to grow. Develop a reward system that thanks every client for referring new clients.

Send simple and inexpensive gifts, such as pet-themed picture frames, books, or treats. It's the thought that counts. For power referrers, consider sending gift certificates for dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Look closely at the number of new clients per month you averaged last year and record where they're coming from by ZIP code or neighborhood and by referral source. This tells you what advertising or community outreach is working and whether you have any gaps in marketing to specific areas.

Finally, look at your client attrition rate. Each month contact clients who failed to visit you within the past year. Find out why they left and develop a strategy to combat this loss. I've seen far too many clinics with high new client numbers silently sabotaged because the team simply failed to observe an even higher rate of client attrition.

MARCH: Clean out the cobwebs

With spring around the corner, it's time to make sure our hospitals reflect our standards of care. Perform a complete walk-through, and inspect every nook and cranny from ceiling to baseboard. Make time to paint, replace worn welcome mats, and deep-clean leftover cold-weather crud.

While you're busy cleaning, conduct a complete hospital inventory. Count every pill, bottle, bag, and item you use or sell. Inventory management is an active and dynamic process. You should be counting your complete inventory at least quarterly and your top 20 percent of items monthly. This takes time and effort, but the potential payoff is big. Inventory expenses come in second only to staff wages in most clinics. If you trim your inventory expenses and increase inventory turnover rates, you'll have more money to invest in staff, benefits, or equipment.

No. 1 Resolution Show your appreciation to staff, compliment people on a job well done, and catch your employees doing things right - and thank them for their efforts. - Jim Remillard, MPA, CPC, CVPM, with Remillard Management Associates in Cool, Calif.

Jim Remillard, MPA, CPC, CVPM, with Remillard Management Associates in Cool, Calif.

APRIL: Spread the news

Have you heard the expression "You don't know what you don't know?" This adage applies to clients, too, and that's one of the main reasons I endorse newsletters. With warm weather approaching and clients refocusing on their pets, make sure they get the latest information about pet care.

Keep it simple. Don't spend your money on glossy paper and fancy layouts. Today's word processing programs let anyone quickly and easily produce professional-looking newsletters. Highlight a hospital service and a common disease in each issue. If we want to diagnose kidney disease in cats before they're skin and bones and hyperphosphatemic, we've got to alert clients to the early clinical signs and the importance of examinations and blood and urine tests.

MAY: Come one, come all!

I've been holding an annual open house at my hospital for 13 years, so you could say I'm a fan of the idea. I love veterinary medicine and my community, and this is a way to get involved with our neighbors and benefit the pets we love dearly.

My hospital combines a pet health fair with fun and games for two- and four-legged critters. Sure, it takes planning, preparation, and hard work, but the positive feedback more than makes up for our energy investment.

And don't be disappointed if you don't have a huge turnout for your first couple of events. It takes time to build a reputation. Stick with it, and before long you'll be the centerpiece of your community calendar. And keep in mind, inviting the public into your clinic for a behind-the-scenes look at the great care you provide may be the best advertising you do all year.

Of course, May might not be the best month for you to hold such an event. I host mine in November, after our hurricane season ends.

JUNE: Perfect your protocols

Things are getting busy now. When things get busy, things can get missed. So this is a great time to review your standards of care. Appraise your medical and surgical standards: How do you diagnose and treat pancreatitis, allergic dermatitis, or otitis externa? What are your anesthetic protocols? How do you explain the importance of dental care to your clients? Who does what, when, where, and why?

Take a step back and look at how your hospital operates. How does your team weigh pets, obtain lab samples, prepare for surgery, discharge pets, and collect payment? Write down any problems you see, and work with your team to streamline your efforts. When you study the big picture and make improvements, your team and patients both benefit.

JULY: Christmas in July

You're really cooking now, and workplace stress can escalate if you're not careful. You've got to nourish and reward the individuals in your clinic who help you fulfill your dreams.

Try taking a time-out, and surprise your staff with new shoes, a trip to a local spa, or a visit with an image consultant or personal trainer. Make the gifts a luxury and an experience your staff will cherish for months to come.

The investment you make now will pay dividends in the long haul. Appreciate. Reward. Repeat.

AUGUST: Get your bills out so you can get clients' money in

August finds you still extremely busy. This full-tilt tempo gives you a great opportunity to evaluate one of the most critical elements of running a successful business: billing and fee collection.

Pick one week and review every transaction. Compare each medical record with the corresponding invoice for that one-week period. If you identify gaps, work on ways to eliminate them. Revisit these areas next month—and the next—until you improve. Detailed spot checks are the only way I've improved billing accuracy. This is also a good time for the team to review medical and surgical client instructions, follow-up care, and the reminder system.

If you don't review this information, you'll never know whether you're making mistakes. And if you don't realize you're making mistakes, you won't get better. This year is about getting better.

SEPTEMBER: Make the month special for you

National Pet Dental Health Month. National Pet Wellness Month. We have "month of" overkill. I personally haven't celebrated any of these "months" for years, but I do focus on training my staff on a given common disease each month.

Make a schedule of common conditions and areas of interest for your practice. Designate a month to train your staff on the medical facts for each topic and on communicating the importance of these recommendations to clients.

You can engage your staff members even more by having them bring in their pets for senior pet exams, nutritional counseling, dentistry, heartworm evaluation, and whatever other services you want to emphasize in your practice. Rather than preaching, practice. Nothing teaches like involvement. And firsthand experience of the benefits makes team members believe in, and advocate for, your recommendations and your practice. Don't wait for the calendar to tell you to emphasize what your clients need.

OCTOBER: Build a better you

Fall is here, and before long the busy holiday season arrives. Now's the time to reflect on what you can do to improve your personal well-being. Stress reduction, weight loss, more exercise, and healthier eating will let you live longer and be a better doctor. Take a look at your personal life. Are you spending enough high-quality time with loved ones, or are you too tired to act as a positive force in their lives?

Commit to making one thing better in your life. Replace those four cups of coffee or three sodas a day with water. Set aside an evening every week to sit down and have dinner with your family. Go to bed 30 minutes earlier. Walk briskly or jog 30 minutes, five days a week. Wear a pedometer to motivate yourself. Or better yet, buy one for each of your staff members. (I did.)

Whatever you decide is right for you, do it. Don't let less-important things clutter up your days. Your life and loves depend on it.

No. 1 Resolution Owners should vow to have a staff meeting every single week and invest 25 percent of the time available on medical training, 25 percent on client service, 25 percent on staff training, and 25 percent on financial results for the week and year to date. - Dr. Ross Clark, owner of Veterinary Management Concepts in Tulsa, Okla.

Dr. Ross Clark, owner of Veterinary Management Concepts in Tulsa, Okla.

NOVEMBER: Strengthen your staff

Things are beginning to quiet down as the days grow shorter. That means it's time to help your team get stronger.

Start by writing down staff members' current job descriptions and pay, along with their particular strengths and weaknesses. Then make a note about how long you see them staying in your practice or your perception of their level of commitment.

Without this sort of analysis, you can't give your team members the feedback they need to grow in their positions. And this thinking will help you see where you may need to hire in the future or ways to improve your systems and protocols to take advantage of your team members' unique abilities today.

If you aren't already providing regular staff training—start. As the job market tightens, our practices will be under increasing pressure to retain our team members and do better with less. Develop a phase training program for all new employees, and create a system to train existing staff members on the most common conditions you treat and procedures you perform.

If you don't now, you also need to start offering routine employee evaluations and commit to administering them in a timely fashion. One technique: Put these meetings on the clinic's appointment schedule. This way, every team member knows when Donna's evaluation is scheduled. You'd better do it on that date or face questions from your entire team. External accountability is one of the surest ways to meet any goal.

Staff development is a constant, challenging aspect of running a successful business. People require compassion and nourishment, recognition and responsibility, advancement and reward. You can be the best doctor in the world, but with a mediocre team, you're reduced to mediocrity. Put your money and energy into your team. Give to the people that give you the most, and reap the rewards year-round.

DECEMBER: Check your charges

As you wrap up one year and plan for the next, take time to review your hospital's fee structure. Make sure you've kept up with inflation by checking the Consumer Price Index (bls.gov/cpi); you don't want to be undercharging if you're offering exceptional care. After all, you can't provide the highest standards of care with the best staff possible if you can't pay competitive salaries and buy the equipment and supplies you need.

I don't believe in a cookie-cutter approach to veterinary medicine, and I certainly don't apply that method to my pricing strategy. Be smart, know your market and capitalize on what you do best.

The public understands that cost and quality go hand in hand. So, if you're the best, don't hesitate to charge for it.

I recommend evaluating your pricing structure at least quarterly. And if you start in December, you'll kick off the next year right.

While these resolutions won't solve every problem in practice, they will go a long way toward making your life—and your practice—better. Commit to what's important in your life both personally and professionally, and make these goals your top priority. Start each day by asking, "What will I do today to make me a better parent, spouse, son or daughter, friend, person, veterinarian, or boss?" If you can answer that and do it, you're 365 days away from a happier, healthier, and better you. Then we'll work on the next year, and the next, and the next ... .

Dr. Ernest E. Ward Jr., a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member, works hard at continuously improving his practice, Seaside Animal Clinic in Calabash, N.C. Send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com.

Dr. Ernest E. Ward Jr.

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