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Make 'em stick
Use these 15 ideas to bond team members to your hospital-and keep your veterinary practice from peeling apart.
ONE OF THE THINGS I LOOK AT DURING AN ON-SITE consultation is clients' bonding rate. I want to know how likely they are to return to the practice after the first visit. Most practice owners can tell me how many new clients are coming in, which is important. But it's just as important—and maybe more important—to know how many of those clients stay. This shows your team's success rate.
Mark Opperman, CVPM
Better teams enjoy better success rates. And that relates to practice bonding, too. Do you keep good team members around? This is also a success factor for your practice.
Veterinary practices don't typically pay team members the highest salaries, which is unfortunate. But while money can affect employee retention, it's not the main reason people stay or leave. The main factor is job satisfaction.
Really, you're fortunate; the people who come to you want to work with animals and make a difference in their lives. And you should capitalize on that! After all, keeping those good team members around should improve patient care and client service—and minimize your headaches.
According to consulting firm Bliss & Associates, for every employee an organization loses, it spends up to 150 percent of his or her annual salary recruiting and training someone new. Clearly, it's imperative to keep turnover low. So check out these 15 proven strategies for enhancing employee retention. Incorporating them into your practice could be the first step toward greater success in every area of your hospital.
1. Ask team members for feedback
One of the easiest things you can do to increase retention is simply to ask your employees what's important to them. For example, at your next staff meeting, try giving each employee a list of job traits, and ask them to rank them in order of importance. Then try to enhance the work environment you offer.
Whats important to your team?
2. Quarter your compliments
Here's another simple but effective idea. Place four quarters in your left pocket every morning. Every time you offer a genuine compliment to a team member, move a quarter from your left pocket to your right. The goal is to have all four quarters in your right pocket every night when you go home. (No cheating by spending the quarters!) This simple strategy reminds you about the importance of positive reinforcement and helps you remember to use it.
3. Involve your team in decisions
Whenever you decide to incorporate a new service or change a policy, solicit the input of as many team members as possible. If appropriate, you might even form a committee to research your idea and report back. You'll see much greater acceptance and support for new services and policy changes if you involve your team in the decision-making process.
Did you have a highly successful dental month? Did you increase your number of new clients or average per-client transaction beyond expectations? Did a client send a note or gift or say something nice about an employee? Take this opportunity to celebrate. Order pizza for lunch, bring in a cake, or pass out gift certificates to a favorite restaurant. You can also celebrate team members' anniversaries and accomplishments such as graduations or engagements.
5. Set clear expectations
Satisfied team members know what's expected of them. And mind readers are few and far between. So you must tell members what you want if you expect results.
Make sure job descriptions are up to date, conduct routine performance reviews, and set specific goals. A simple but effective tool: Hold "daily rounds" every morning so the day's plan is clear and everyone knows what he or she needs to do.
6. Encourage feedback
Ask your team members for ideas and then talk about how those ideas could lead to better client service, enhance patient care, and benefit the team and practice overall. Show respect and appreciation for team members who take the time to share their thoughts. Encourage their contributions and reward them.
7. Tie wages to performance, not just longevity
Offering raises based only on longevity is one of the most demoralizing things an owner or manager can do. Higher-performing employees will resent the lack of recognition, and you show acceptance for marginal employees' inferior performance.
Instead, you need to base wage increases on performance and preestablished criteria. Employees should know ahead of time what's expected of them and how they'll be evaluated. Provide employees with their evaluation form at the beginning of the assessment period so they know exactly what criteria you'll look at when you determine raises.
8. Give out surprise incentives
One day I was taking a tour at a practice where I was consulting. During the tour, the practice manger spied an employee picking up some trash in the parking lot on her way into the hospital. The manager ran to her office, and when the employee entered the building the manager offered to exchange a $20 movie gift certificate for the trash. I was impressed and so was the employee.
Be on the lookout for ways to reward an employee who goes above and beyond normal expectations. Fill one of your desk drawers with movie tickets, ice cream shop gift certificates, candy, and other items your team will appreciate, and be prepared to pass them out when someone surprises you with great behavior.
9. Train for success
In most work situations, there's a direct cause-and-effect relationship between lack of training and high employee turnover. When you don't provide team members with proper training, you set them up for failure. In my opinion, the best way to train is to use a phased program. Slowly and methodically train each employee for all of his or her duties and responsibilities over a three- or four-week period. This time might be the best investment you make to enhance team member retention.
10. Remember that it's OK to have fun!
I was at a practice recently where things were getting tense. Suddenly the practice owner pulled out a water pistol and started shooting employees. They all ran to their hiding places, pulled out their own water pistols, and returned fire! Another practice gives employees a Nerf gun when they're hired and tells them that when they get mad at someone, they should "shoot" the person. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you have fun!
How about taking your team to a paintball park or bowling alley? Or hauling that decrepit, much-loathed computer outside and letting everyone bash it with a baseball bat? Create a smile board with funny pictures, silly stories, and happy faces and put it in the treatment area where the team can enjoy it. Have team members bring in their baby pictures and try to match the pictures to the employees. The ideas are endless. We spend far too much time at work not to have fun whenever possible.
11. Walk your talk
Employees want a boss they can respect. If you're the practice owner or manager, you set the standard. For example, if you come in late or miss staff meetings, you communicate to your team that punctuality isn't important to you. Likewise, leaving a room dirty or walking by a soiled cage and not cleaning it up also sends a dangerous message. If you want team members to be in uniform and have a professional attitude while at work, then you must, too. Set the standard and others will follow.
12. Affirm and appreciate
I know you have heard it before, but it's true. Positive reinforcement is the most powerful tool at your disposal for motivating and retaining team members. Let employees know when they've done a good job. And remember, the words "Thank you," "I appreciate that," and "You're doing a great job" go a long way. Unfortunately, one of the most common things I hear from team members is, "My employer is quick to criticize and slow to praise." Make a resolution to turn that around.
13. Enhance employee benefits
I really wish practices paid employees more. Hopefully, someday better pay will be the norm. Until then, competitive benefits can close the compensation gap a bit.
You can increase the number of paid personal or vacation days employees receive, pay a greater percentage of their personal health insurance, or offer free or discounted veterinary care for staff-owned pets.
Consider giving full-time employees their birthday off as a paid holiday. This change doesn't cost much, and it's greatly appreciated by team members. (For more on improving employee benefits, see "Sweeten the Deal" in the June 2006 Veterinary Economics.)
14. Know why team members leave
I'm a strong proponent of conducting an exit interview with every employee who leaves your practice—even if you think you know why the person is leaving. (See a sample exit interview form.) At what other time in his or her employment will a team member be as honest with you? At this point employees have nothing to lose and can tell you how they really feel about you and your practice. As frightening as that prospect may seem, don't pass up this opportunity. Remember, knowledge is power.
Employee exit survey
15. Look in the mirror first
I will never forget one veterinarian I consulted with. When he came to work, the first thing he did was look at his appointment schedule. He immediately became angry and asked his receptionist why she had booked so many appointments and surgeries that day. Then he complained all day long about the clients he had to see and the hours he worked.
Here's what was most intriguing: This doctor's biggest complaint was that his staff didn't care about clients and provided poor customer service! Isn't that interesting?
If you have high turnover, consider that you or your management team might be the problem. It all starts at the top, no matter who you are.
I hope some of these ideas pique your interest. Keep in mind that often it's the little things employees notice most.
Once I had an employee whose cat got caught in a car's fan belt and died. She came to work extremely upset, and when I learned what had happened, I called her into my office, expressed my sympathy, and gave her the rest of the day off. I paid her for that day and didn't give it a second thought.
At her exit interview eight years later, the employee cited that incident as one of the primary reasons she had stayed so long at our practice. The lesson here: If you show sincere care, concern, and compassion for your employees, they will respond in kind.
Veterinary Economics Hospital Management Editor Mark Opperman, CVPM, is owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.