Q. I've owned a small animal practice in a suburb for nearly a year, and business is fair. There's one big problem, though: No one can find my practice. It's not on a main thoroughfare or a corner lot, so we don't attract many new clients--if any--from drive-by traffic. Even my established clients complain the hospital's too far off the beaten path. Are we sunk in this location? Is there anything we can do to try and make it work?
By Sarah A. Moser, Associate Editor
I've owned a small animal practice in a suburb for nearly a year, and business is fair. There's one big problem, though: No one can find my practice. It's not on a main thoroughfare or a corner lot, so we don't attract many new clients--if any--from drive-by traffic. Even my established clients complain the hospital's too far off the beaten path. Are we sunk in this location? Is there anything we can do to try and make it work?"
Most likely, says Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member John Knapp, AIA, of Knapp Schmidt Architects in St. Paul, Minn. "There's really only one solution," he says. "If you want your business to survive, you must sell the building, find a better location, and build again. Gas stations and fast-food chains prosper because they're located on the best land. Follow suit."
Knapp says that if you buy economical land, you'll end up with a cheap practice. "You get what you pay for," he says. "Sure, it costs a lot to move again, but if you buy a worthwhile site, you'll more than recoup the costs within two years."
In 1995, Knapp conducted a study that asked why people visit a practice; about 60 percent of the respondents said location and the practice sign lured them in, and that yellow pages ads drew in only 12 percent. "And the best location is 'franchise row,' where all the big stores and fast-food chains sit," he says. "You need to be near the stores that lure clients. Whether you like it or not, veterinary practice is a retail business, and you rely on clients."
Dan Chapel, AIA, of Chapel Architects in Little Rock, Ark., and an Editorial Advisory Board member, agrees that you should consider a more high-profile location soon. But what should you do in the meantime? "Do anything you can to create awareness of your practice," he says. "Sponsor a scout troop or use your parking lot for dog washes and humane society events. People will seek you out if you offer events that they want to attend. And once people find you the first time, they'll be more apt to visit your practice for veterinary services."
Chapel also suggests that you include a simple map with directions to your practice in your yellow pages ad, hospital brochures, and fliers. "You also need to speak at civic clubs and, if possible, on local access television to keep yourself in front of your community," he says. "And wherever possible, send a press release to your local newspaper. For example, you could let the community know when you start carrying a new medication, obtain a new piece of equipment, begin offer more services, or hire an additional team member. Essentially, look for any excuse to get your practice name in the newspaper."
But don't let these efforts keep you from searching for a better piece of land. "You don't have to make the decision today, but start thinking about moving and work on marketing your practice at the same time," says Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Karen E. Felsted, CVPM, CPA, MA, a consultant with Brakke Consulting in Dallas. "If you're stuck in a leasehold for three more years, that's plenty of time to actively market your practice while looking for a new, and better location."
One way to market your practice is to offer a service other practices in your area don't, Dr. Felsted says. "The more unique your practice is and the more you offer something valuable that others don't offer, the more you can get away with a hard-to-find practice," she says. "You'll have to work harder to differentiate yourself. You might offer some diagnostic or modality treatment that's not common in your area, or start a high-class boarding service to draw people to your location." Even offering around-the-clock care or extended hours will lure clients to your practice for a specific reason--and, with any luck, keep them there.
Dr. Felsted also suggests:
Posting a large sign at the corner of a nearby intersection pointing clients toward your practice.
Putting up a sign that sticks up or out from your practice for more visibility and attention.
Forming a partnership with another veterinarian and starting a wellness clinic in a more visible part of town, then send clients to your current location for diagnostics and more intensive treatment. "Of course, that's an ambitious solution, but if you're determined to make your current location work, a second clinic may be just the ticket to your practice success," Dr. Felsted says.
"And while you're organizing these marketing efforts, you should be looking for a better lot," says Chapel. "Your architect can design the greatest hospital in the world, but if no one sees it, it won't help your business."