Stay dry in the financial storm


Feeling pelted by the recession? From your fellow owners, associates, and practice managers, here are 17 ideas for making the best of the downturn.

During one gloomy November day in the Detroit suburbs last year, every single pet owner who came to see Dr. Andrew Rollo at Madison Veterinary Hospital had a story to tell about losing a job or almost losing a job. "And these were the people who were coming in," says Dr. Rollo, an associate veterinarian and Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member. "Think about all those pet owners who weren't. It gets you down."

Dr. Rollo, with his auto-industry-dependent clientele, may be seeing the worst of the worst in this recession. But veterinarians across the country are also struggling, with fewer new clients coming in the door, fewer regular clients making appointments, and fewer clients in the exam room opting for recommended care. You may be having conversations that amount to "Pin the procedure on the pet" as you try to match what people can afford to what will keep their pets reasonably healthy—not to mention what will keep your practice's doors open and your team members drawing paychecks.

But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. We talked to veterinarians and practice managers across the country who are turning to imaginative solutions, refining their business practices, and honing their client communication skills as they look for ways to survive and even thrive. Here we offer you some of their strategies, which you can use in your own practice—even as the economic fallout continues to rain down.


The worst thing you can do, says Dr. Marty Becker, author, Good Morning America correspondent, and associate at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho, is to present a pet's treatment, wellness, or diagnostic plan expecting the client to say no. A defeatist attitude will be evident in your body language and tone of voice, and then—guess what?—the client will say no. Instead, your whole demeanor needs to communicate authority and confidence. "When I'm talking to a client, I raise my head, drop my shoulders, make eye contact, and build rapport with the pet," says Dr. Becker, a member of Veterinary Economics' Editorial Advisory Board. "Then with my whole body facing the client, I defend my Plan A. And you know what? I've been in the clinic all day today, and not one client turned down my recommendations."


A positive experience doesn't end with attitude—it extends to value. And right now, clients are seeking value more than ever. "People want the most for their dollar," says Dr. Ernie Ward, owner of Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C., and a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member. "It doesn't mean they won't spend the dollar." When a client questions whether his pet really needs that blood test, be ready to explain why it does. For example, explain that if you use diagnostics now to rule out the reasons for vomiting in a dog, you may be keeping the client from coming back once, twice, maybe three times searching for answers.


Now is the time to eliminate phrases like "You may want to think about ... " and "We could try ..." and replace them with "Your pet needs ..." and "This is what I'd do for my own pet." When Dr. Barbara Darnell, co-owner of Shelter Island Veterinary Hospital in San Diego, realized that her clients weren't opting for fecal exams for their pets, she got rid of the "maybes" and "mights" and started talking about the "needs." "We're not making the decision for clients, but we now make our recommendations confidently," she says.


A good word from satisfied clients is every practice's best advertisement in good times or bad. And you can encourage your best clients to become your best referrers with a reward system. Dr. Darnell offers clients of Shelter Island Veterinary Hospital Starbucks gift certificates, movie tickets, and—eventually—a solid $20 in veterinary services per referral. "We don't do any new marketing; we've reached our max in the budget," Dr. Darnell says. "So we're rewarding clients who do our marketing for us."


How many times has an agitated pet owner arrived in your exam room nervous about her pet—but the problem turned out to be minimal? Rather than blowing off these clients' concerns, validate their decision to come in. "Don't tell them it's nothing," Dr. Becker says. Instead, talk about the time a patient came to you with similar signs and ended up needing immediate medical care. "Say, 'Boy, we got lucky here,' and affirm the client's proactive decision," Dr. Becker says.


Dr. Melody Heath is an associate at Viewmont Animal Hospital in Hickory, N.C. She's noticed that when money is tight, clients become a little lax on health maintenance products. So during appointments Dr. Heath asks whether clients need refills on heartworm prevention, flea and tick control, joint supplements, diets, ear cleaners, or other items. Every time.


There's a bit of theater in every client service experience, and every team member is part of the performance. Recently Dr. Becker and a technician were administering an intranasal vaccine to a squirming beagle. Suddenly another dog yelped plaintively in the background. The beagle's owner looked alarmed, but the technician calmly explained, "That's just a dog waking up from anesthesia; often we have to comfort them." Moments later the distant dog stopped whimpering, and the client went positively giddy. "That was unbelievable," she told Dr. Becker. "I've heard that sound before in clinics and worried about it, but nobody ever told me what it was. Now I feel so much better." Doctors and team members alike can tune out the strange sights, smells, and sounds of the hospital, forgetting that these same experiences are sometimes alarming to clients. Put yourself in their place, and your bond will become stronger.


In tough times, clients get pickier about where they take their pets. They shop around more than usual, and when they do, their first stop is usually the Internet. Your job is to make sure that when they land on a site with reviews, your practice shines bright. Enter the name of your hospital on major search engines such as Yahoo and Google. If you find a poor review, take action. You can't always get rid of the review, but you can present a more balanced picture. When Dr. Darnell recently spotted an anonymous negative review of her hospital online, she asked her next 20 clients to post positive feedback on the same site. You can't please everybody, but you can at least show the world that you please many.


If you've resisted third-party payment plans in the past, you may want to rethink your hesitation. Many practices are finding that these companies give clients an option that lets them accept recommended pet care. Even though you pay the company a fee for every transaction, if it makes the difference between a yes and a no from a client, you may find the fee is worth it. Also, pet insurance is making sense to more and more clients even as their personal spending budgets shrink. After all, don't you breathe a sigh of relief when you recommend a $5,000 procedure and find out the client is covered by pet insurance? If you encourage more of your clientele to sign up, everyone might breathe easier.


Even when clients are up-front about their lack of money during a visit, Dr. Laura McLain, an associate at Central Valley Veterinary Hospital in Salt Lake City, presents them with her best medical plan. But she also works within a client's budget if asked. Maybe a dachshund with a skin problem gets a cytologic exam and antibiotics and comes back later for a blood test. Or a pit bull puppy with presumed parvovirus enteritis receives intravenous fluids and antibiotics but no definitive parvo test. "It's not about discounting services but finding out how we can help the pet within the client's means," Dr. Mclain says.

Dr. Ward agrees. Not long ago, a good client brought a sick dog in to Seaside Animal Care. Dr. Ward presented his best medical plan, which included thorough diagnostics, but the client said she had just $70 to work with. So they talked about what they could do for $70. "The client felt empowered because she was involved in the decision," Dr. Ward says. "I wasn't judgmental about what she could afford. I displayed sympathy. It wasn't the best standard of care, but it was a reasonable standard of care." When the appointment was over, Dr. Ward gathered his team for a quick training session: Be sympathetic to clients' troubles and work with them to provide good healthcare they can afford.


A few months ago, the management team at Dr. McLain's practice laid off team members. A month ago, they did it again. The first round of job cuts saw the least-motivated team members leave. This latest round hurt the team more personally, but it was still done fairly, Dr. McLain says. "It was based partly on the shifts people could work," she says. "But mainly it came down to attitude." The remaining employees are those who work best with the rest of the team, care for patients as if they were their own cats and dogs, and are dependable and motivated. Everyone has pulled together, and the team and the clinic are better off for it.


In a recession, when people are emotionally and financially hurting, people appreciate the time you take to listen. If you're having a slow day—or even if you're not—spend a few extra minutes listening to a client's funny story and bonding with the patient. Listen to stories of economic trouble. When you're sincerely empathetic, clients notice.


The team at Madison Veterinary Hospital in Madison Heights, Mich., has recently launched an inexpensive campaign to improve client service. The practice owner had doctors and team members start calling every client a day or two after a visit to inquire about the patient and find out about any additional concerns. Everyone makes these calls—from the practice owner down to the kennel manager. And clients appreciate the extra touch. When business picks up, the team is confident the extra time they put into things like this will pay off.


Sending reminders is one of the best—and cheapest—ways to improve client compliance and patient health. Dr. McLain says her team is calling every client to follow up on services recommended during an appointment or to schedule a visit that fits into a pet's healthcare protocol. If you've got an afternoon with just a handful of appointments, take a look at your reminder program. Don't yet send e-mail reminders? Start. Not sure how to use your software's reminder capabilities? Investigate. And when you do reach a client, don't be discouraged by a "no." Someone who can't afford a vital procedure now may be able to in six months, so jot a note to call again at that point.


Until you ask, you'll never know whether clients have stopped going to any veterinarian—or just stopped coming to you. Consider this research from John Volk, senior consultant for Brakke Consulting: A survey in November 2008 found that fewer pet owners planned to cut back on pet spending in 2009 than they did in 2008. Your clients who are holding off on procedures until they have the funds may still come back to you—or they may not. Now's the time to ask clients how you can serve them better and find out what opportunities you may have missed in the past.


One of the most significant things you can do to hold the line on expenses is to pare down your inventory. Every dollar counts in a downturn, and if a lot of dollars are tied up in unused drugs and supplies in your pharmacy, you'll feel the pain. To initiate an inventory overhaul, see "Inventory intervention" in the related links. In this article, Veterinary Economics Hospital Management Editor Mark Opperman, CVPM, explains how to get closer to that elusive nick-of-time inventory that maximizes the money in your bank account.


You know all those great projects you never get to check off your list because things are so busy? Do them now. When things slowed down at Dr. Claude Curry's four practices in the hard-hit Detroit area, he turned to business books for inspiration. He and his hospital teams developed a mission statement that has helped boost morale. At all major team meetings, they read the mission statement beforehand.

Practice manager Nicole Jones says down time at Bluegrass Animal Hospital in Knoxville, Tenn., has meant more time for cleaning the practice and extra bonding time with clients during visits. It's even led to some artistic creativity. When the clinic cat broke Jones' ancient black-and-white printer, she bought a color one. Now team members take colorful shots of boarded dogs and cats and deliver them to clients when they pick up their pets.

If this recession has you feeling soggy, hopefully you've found a tip or two in here that's helpful—and has you feeling optimistic. Weathering the slings and arrows of this downturn has not been easy, but you can take the opportunity to put excellent business practices in place and find creative ways to serve your clients. If you do, you'll no doubt be peeking up at clear skies in no time.

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