Part 1: We're in this recession together


A doctor explains the realities of surviving slow times to team members.

It's no fun explaining the realities of a downturn. But veterinarians and practice managers are taking a few minutes to write letters to help clients and team members understand the situation. Take a look at this letter for inspiration in reaching out to your own team members. Then click on Related Links below for a letter written by a practice manager to clients.

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Jeff Rothstein wrote a letter to employees at his nine Progressive Pet Animal Hospitals in Michigan. Here's that letter:

From a business standpoint, 2008 won't go down as one of our better years, but year-to-date we have held our own. A few hospitals have managed to grow a little and others are seeing only a moderate loss in revenue. Needless to say, this slow season will be a big challenge for us. The uncertainty with the fate of the automakers and the start of a new administration in Washington leaves those of us in Detroit stuck in the mud until we get more direction-which will hopefully come in the next several months.

Due to the economic uncertainty that surrounds us, I've asked your managers to halt pay increases during the remainder of the slow season (December to March). It's our hope and intention to follow our standard pay increase system eventually, but we need to see how we weather the slow season first. We are open to the idea of bonus programs as a way to help you earn some additional pay, so talk to your managers about implementing a bonus plan for each month.

Your managers may ask some of you to leave early on a slow day. While they don't enjoy doing this, please understand that it's a necessary evil. We're not alone in doing this. Many businesses, including doctors' offices, dental practices, restaurants, and retail businesses, take this same approach to control labor costs. The truth is that the veterinary business is a tough one. We've seen some local practices recently lay off staff and, yes, a few practices have closed permanently. I'm optimistic that we will continue to hold our own, but everyone's diligence and cooperation is needed and appreciated.

You each play a big role in our success and here's what you can do to help keep us successful: Stay focused on offering the best medicine and customer care. Don't dwell on our clients' economic condition. While times are tough, it's important that we don't assume the level of care that clients can afford. We need to offer what's best for the pet.

From a customer care standpoint, we have to be at the top of our game and provide great service. Our population is shrinking as families move away from Detroit to look for work elsewhere, so we have to work hard to keep the clients we have and attract new ones. Be sure to aggressively accommodate our clients' needs. That means we have to embrace a “come in now” attitude. Use your common sense in scheduling, but we can't afford to turn clients away and have them go elsewhere. You may have some very busy days, but this will of course balance out the slow ones. Busy days are a good thing.

New clients are more important than ever. Detroit's shrinking population isn't a good thing for the growth of our clinics. Each month we spend more than $5,000 on our phone book listings, so each call from a potential new client is very important to us. Some new clients are calling to book an appointment, but others are phone shoppers trying to learn about the clinic. I suggest we invite these undecided phone shoppers in for a free exam trial visit. “Come and meet our doctors and staff. We're sure you'll be impressed.” Once we get them in the door and wow them with our great service and doctors, I'm sure we'll keep them. Make this offer to phone shoppers calling about neuters and spays. Invite them in to meet the doctor and team and we will convert many of them into regular clients.

I'd like us to be more aggressive when phone shoppers call for an estimate on major surgeries. Take, for example, the client who called about a cystotomy. We told her we couldn't give her an estimate until the doctor saw her pet. In retrospect, I'd offer that client a complimentary exam. We have little to lose and a lot to gain: a new client and a $1,000 surgery. In addition, managers will have a little more authority to help clients budget for some procedures.

With all this said, at the end of the day our goal is to keep ourselves busy (get that extra appointment or two in the door each day) and grow our clinics. By staying upbeat, aggressively getting clients in the door, focusing on what's best for the pet, and providing memorable compassionate care, we will do it.

See Related Links below for a client letter from Cheryl Waterman, CVPM, hospital manager at the Cat Clinic of Johnson County in Lenexa, Kan.

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