Let's face it; things are just not the same anymore. The recession of 2007 until now has changed the way we earn, spend, and think about money. Many of our clients have lost or changed jobs during this period.
Let's face it; things are just not the same anymore. The recession of 2007 until now has changed the way we earn, spend, and think about money. Many of our clients have lost or changed jobs during this period. Further, financial pressures have affected the way people care not only for themselves and their families, but also for their pet loved ones. Regardless of whether you believe the recession is over, nearly over or never happened is beside the point. Today's pet owners view veterinary and pet expenditures differently than they did three to five years ago. So what do we do? While I don't pretend to have all the answers, I will share some of the key affected practice areas and what you can do to bolster your practice revenue. ;
Annual Examination and Vaccines?
There was a time, not long ago, when our clients automatically responded to a postcard reminder to schedule their pet's annual examination and vaccinations. Today, that scene is still repeated but with different results. Due to the economic downturn more and more clients are questioning the necessity of annual wellness examinations. "Fluffy's fine; we need to save the money for more important things." Can you blame a cash-strapped client?
While I don't blame their skepticism, I take it as a challenge to redefine the "annual exam." For the past decade we've followed a three-year vaccine protocol. I've had a good bit of experience with encouraging clients to bring their pets in even when they don't "need any vaccines." Interestingly, I think this long-term approach has actually benefited us during the recession. Our clients didn't view us as using vaccines as a lure to charge for exams. Instead, they viewed our firm stance on vaccinating their pet based on their lifestyle and risk as a way of saving them money. We also positioned the annual exam as a way to get advice on how to maintain health and prevent disease, ultimately prolonging their pet loved ones' quality of life while saving them money.
My advice is simple: vaccinate only when necessary and justified and perform a thorough, meaningful and clearly understood physical examination. Offer tips on home care and preventive measures that help our patients as opposed to offering only skepticism and downplaying "home remedies" (unless, of course, they're really silly or potentially dangerous). As science is teaching us, there's often real value in those "old wives' tales." Evaluate your clinic language and insert "preventive" instead of "annual;" consider using "wellness," "health," "natural," and "non-prescription" whenever possible. The real lure for an annual examination should be on your abilities to avoid illness. If you can convince a client there's value in that 30-minute exam visit, they'll be back for more (and more likely to listen to your recommendations). Brush up on your communication skills, videotape yourself performing a physical exam and write our a flow chart for how you'd like to conduct the exam. Who knows, you just may become a better doctor in the process of improving your examination skills.
What do the Internet, Mass Retailers and the Hardware Store have in Common? Our Stuff
There was once a time when a pet owner could only buy their pet's heartworm, flea preventatives or medications at a veterinary clinic. While today this seems like the stuff of legends, it happened. I was there. Nowadays you can find anything your pet needs online and increasingly on the shelves of Costco, Wal-Mart and your local pet supply or hardware store. What can a small clinic do? Throw in the towel?
Not just yet. There are several things you can do today to combat the loss of product sales to these alternative markets.
1. Create an online store. Duh. If it's convenience you want, give it to 'em. Even if you only sell the top 20% of your inventory items, you'll win more than you lose. Start by focusing on the big three: heartworm preventives, flea products and NSAIDs.
2. Be competitive on price. If you sell an item for $5 more than PetMedsExpress, you'll lose the sale. Your clients love you, just not $5 worth. Every 2 to 4 weeks check the major online retailers and make sure your prices are compatible.
3. Use sales incentives. Ask your pharmaceutical reps to give you free goods that you can incentivize sales with. For example, if you but 6 Revolution from us, you'll receive a seventh FREE! Rebate checks are also good.
4. Use veterinary-exclusive or prescription products whenever possible. Reward products that protect our tiny market. If a product is available at Costco, maybe it's time to find a better product (chances are you'll find one). Veterinarians need to support products that honor our relationship and protect our businesses.
5. Price-match. Whenever possible, match a price if a client can prove to you it's true. As far back as 1999 I've advocated working with clients whenever possible. There are times when we simply can't match a price; don't worry about it. For others, it's simply capitalism at work (and I'm a capitalist). In many cases, we thank the client for bringing this to our attention and may respond by lowering our price on the product.
6. Provide specific brand recommendations. If you simply say, "Fido needs a fish oil supplement." chances are, you're not going to sell them anything. Instead, the client will most likely go to Wal-Mart and purchase a lousy cheap supplement that won't do anything other than take their money. Do everyone (and your clients) a favor: find brands you know and trust and recommend them. When you say, "If you're going to give Fido an omega-3 supplement, the nest one is ..." that's what most clients will want to use.
I'm not a Food Salesman!
We're doctors of veterinary medicine, not food salesman. I get it. And I agree with you. However, I also believe we have a moral and ethical obligation to educate our clients about how to best care for their pets. With this in mind, I am a strong advocate for giving specific advice on nutrition. In 2009, pet food sales rose over 4.8% from 2008. Most of these gains were seen in the ultra-premium brands. The problem with pet foods is that for every one exceptional diet, there are at least five or six really lousy ones. I'm not referring to brand names but rather formulations. There are many companies that confound me by producing some of the best pet food on the planet while simultaneously making some of the worst. There are some foods that have incredible quality control wheel others wait until a problem occurs to do anything.
My advice to you in this post-2007 pet food recall world: learn about pet foods. Even if you choose not to sell foods, at least be able to tell your clients what they should feed their pets. Learn about home-prepared meals and be ready to offer your own special recipes and tips. Recommend real, fresh, whole foods whenever possible as alternatives to processed treats. We're slowly losing our credibility as the purveyors of pet nutritional advice to non-veterinarians. For many vets, this is fine; for others, myself included, I'm not ready to abandon this ship yet. I encourage you to join me on this journey to reclaim the veterinarian as the best source of nutritional advice for pets.
One part of the pet economy has experienced sustained growth despite economic up's and down's: nutritional supplements. Studies of the multi-billion dollar supplement industry show that well-educated, upper-income consumers are the primary drivers of this surge. If you believe in nutrition and supplementation, tell your clients. Offer specific brand recommendations and dosages. If not, that's okay, too. Just be aware that approximately one in three Americans is taking a daily nutritional supplement and probably close to that number give their pets a vitamin, too.
Today's pet owners are seeking non-invasive and non-traditional methods to treat illness. We really have only two choices in this area: embrace these modalities and own them or give them away to non-veterinarians. Currently we're caught in the middle and losing ground to the non-DVM crowd. Chiropractors are quickly making a move on our profession as well as acupuncturists, massage therapists and nutritionists. Many of these occupations are moving into the veterinary realm because of downturns in their human practices or increasing competition. My advice: embrace it. Develop staff doctors with interests in these areas and begin offering some form of alternative or complementary practice.
Treating a sick pet can be expensive. In today's tight economy, it is more important than ever to include the client in on the decision-making process. Each step be sure to explain the "why" of each diagnostic test. For example, if you want to run blood tests on a vomiting patient, explain that you're looking for clues into whether the vomiting is caused by a potentially serious condition such as pancreatitis, infection or disease such as liver or kidney disease. Tell the client that in addition to helping diagnose the pet, blood test swill also guide you to proper treatment. If the tests show the pet is dehydrated, you can administer fluids to help them feel better. If they prove adequate hydration, you may be able to forego the intravenous fluids, saving them money. Always answer "why," or "what's in it for them?" Take your time explaining expensive diagnostic workups and you'll be rewarded with higher compliance rates.
For the past 7 years, I've believed strongly in pet insurance. The recent recession has only strengthened my belief. I recommend to my clients an insurance policy that cover major medical expenses. Avoid the packages that include vaccines, dentistry, etc. What people want and need is coverage when their pet develops a serious illness or injury. I like programs with relatively high deductibles, few prior-existing or breed restrictions and reasonable annual rates. If a pet owner ever uses a policy once to cover a major medical issue, they'll continue to use it for all their pets.
I love CareCredit! This is our "payment plan" when confronted with a client who asks if we have one. In hard times, CareCredit can offer you a sensitive way to try and obtain payments for an otherwise high-risk client. As small businesses, we simply don't have the resources to act as a lending institution to needy clients, no matter how nice and sweet they may be. I'll hold a check for up to two weeks; beyond that, the client needs to use CareCredit. If that doesn't work out, they can either see another veterinarian or we can create a treatment plan they can afford. Easy to say; you bet. Hard to do? Sometimes. Will you be cursed, threatened and told how greedy, uncaring and hateful you are? Absolutely. No one ever said being in business or practicing veterinary medicine was easy. Think our human counterparts don't have to deal with this? Wrong again. In fact, I think some of my physician friends get it worse than we do.
I think one of the keys to success in the New Normal is community outreach and volunteerism. Our clients want to know that we do good in addition to doing well. Host Open House, Pet Health Fairs, visit schools, participate in Job Fairs, run a Spay Day clinic, aid in pet adoption drives, help needy children. Whatever your passion, get involved with your community. If you do it, brag about it! You're clients can't be proud of what they don't know about.
Perhaps nothing is more important in this post-recession time than using social media to promote you practice. Facebook is quickly becoming the most visited site – of all time. Twitter is connecting tens of millions of people 146 characters at a time. Ignore these outlets at your own peril. If you don't know or aren't interested, hire a sharp 15-year old to help. The great news is that most of these services are free and super-easy to learn and use.
(Re)Define your Mission
Why do you practice veterinary medicine? What excites you, lights your internal fires? Now is the time to discover or re-discover the reasons behind our actions. Millions of Americans have done just this and reclaimed a new life post-job loss. Chances are you haven't been forced to reflect on your innermost motivations but now may be the time. As we enter a new phase in history, ask yourself what difference are you making? What difference do you want to make? I feel excited at the prospect of new challenges and unchartered waters. No one knows how this all ends; it's up to each one of us to create our own beginnings. Take a morning or afternoon and give serious contemplation as to the "why's" in your life. You'll emerge refreshed, re-focused and re-energized.