Think small and win big for your veterinary practice
These business-building strategies will help you beat big-box retailers and modern mega-clinics with what you do best.
As a small-business owner or manager, it's easy to think you can't succeed against bigger competitors. You're inundated with television and print ads proclaiming cheaper, more convenient products and a better selection than you provide. You see mega-clinics offering services and hours you can't compete with. Before long you're feeling helpless and hopeless.
I'm here to tell you there is hope and much you can do to compete with, and even beat, bigger rivals. In fact, many large businesses and veterinary practices are desperately attempting to offer what you, a small clinic, are able to give your clients and patients—personalized service. It boils down to recognizing your strengths and leveraging your scale.
Economies of scale are well-understood: bigger factories produce more products more efficiently that can be sold more profitably. The same argument can be made for many service industries. Most veterinary practices aren't big businesses, yet too often we attempt to apply the principles of big business to our small clinics with frustrating results. The steps and strategies a typical veterinary practice must take to improve client service and patient care, profitability, and team spirit are different than their larger counterparts. The five main areas we need to focus on are: 1) individualized service, 2) flexibility, 3) specialization and niche offerings, 4) pricing differences and value opportunities, and 5) social media and community involvement.
When it comes to competing against large practices and retail stores, service is a smaller clinic's primary advantage. Small is the new large, according to Wal-Mart. This year they hope to open several "small format" stores, roughly one-tenth the size of a traditional Wal-Mart. The retail giant is making this move to combat sales losses and increasing pressure from competing small retailers who've figured out that exceptional service slays the giant. What Wal-Mart has learned—and you can too—is that size matters. People and employees feel less connected in a huge warehouse. The intimate setting of a smaller facility can be a strength, not a liability.
To beat a larger competitor, focus on every client, every visit. You're practically forced to. It's tough to escape clients and their pets in most small waiting areas. Make the most of that proximity and connect on a genuine level. Start a conversation. Introduce two clients to one another. Foster a sense of belonging and shared concern. Greet clients and patients by name. This approach makes me think of a small-town grocery store where everyone knows each other. Larger businesses can't do this simply because their volume is too great.
"Go where they're not" is a great way to begin competing with big-box retailers and modern-day mega-clinics. "Where they're not" is in the business of offering good, old-fashioned individualized care and service.
Being small means your business can be nimble and quick to respond to changes in the marketplace. This means you can offer the newest, latest, and greatest before your larger competitors. A small clinic can also capitalize on breaking news, outbreaks, political changes, and technology breakthroughs much faster than a maze of hierarchy within the bigger facilities.
Pay attention to the media, your community, and your industry. Whenever anything remotely "pet" makes its way into your local headlines, be prepared to respond. If a new product, drug, tool, or technique arrives, quickly evaluate it and determine whether you should incorporate it into your practice.
Nothing screams, "We're more awesome!" louder than when your closest mega-clinic adopts a technique or protocol you've been using for months. Likewise, if there's bad news afoot—food or product recalls, zoonotic disease outbreaks, breed-specific bans—be sure to get into the story as early as possible.
Stay attuned to pet food recalls and connect with your clients through electronic media to notify them as soon as possible. If you're selling a drug or product that isn't moving after six months, dump it. Change brands, vendors, or distributors to get what's hot. This doesn't mean you should be reckless. It means you must stay current and act as quickly as possible when new products and services arrive.
SPECIALIZATION AND NICHES
Large retailers often struggle to sell higher-end products and services. Wal-Mart and PetSmart try to be all things to all customers on the low end. That's not the strength of a small veterinary clinic. Ideally you want to attract clients interested in high-quality (rather than simply low-cost) care. This is important because most small clinics can't compete on price. Fortunately there will always be consumers who want the best for their pet. Remember that a client may choose to buy their flea preventive somewhere else but buy the high-quality pet food from you. These value relationships vary from category to category, so accept that your clients may not purchase everything from you all the time.
Pay attention to what your competitors are offering. If you can't be cost-competitive, then avoid carrying those products. Instead, offer higher-end products in similar categories. For example, Fipronil-based flea preventives are sold almost everywhere. To combat this, I offer a combination heartworm and flea preventive that clients can't find at my larger competitors or purchase easily online. Same goes for diets, shampoos, toys, and treats. Make sure whatever you choose to sell is meaningful to your patients and clients, and think outside the box. Items such as grave markers and birthday kits sell well at my pet-specialty retail store. I sure didn't learn that in veterinary school.
Flexibility and speed tips
The same principle applies to services. If your closest competitor focuses on low-cost services, offer specialized treatments, such as acupuncture, laser therapy, holistic medicine, or integrative therapies. If they offer high-tech services you don't, make sure you have alternatives for clients who are unable or unwilling to choose these more expensive procedures. Canvas your local area and see what services aren't provided—and provide them. Sure, mega-clinics may have surgical specialists, dermatologists, and internists, but I guarantee you there's a service, test, or procedure they're not performing that you can.
The sooner you accept the fact that Wal-Mart and PetSmart can, will, and do sell products cheaper than your small clinic, the better. In fact, it's not uncommon for big corporations to tell a supplier how much they're willing to pay for a product and how much the manufacturer can charge for it. Try that the next time your favorite sales rep visits!
Don't focus on offering the lowest price. Instead, turn your effort toward offering the best value. It's said that value is "what you get minus what you paid." I largely agree with that definition. If you purchase a product or pay for a service and think, "That was great," you've created value. If a client remarks, "That sure was expensive," no value was achieved. Treat all your clients like VIPs and provide consistently exceptional service. The reason customers will frequent your veterinary practice is because they value the experience. Give them value, and the dollar signs disappear.
On the flip side, mega-clinics and corporate practices must see high volumes of patients to realize their economies of scale. This means they don't focus on creating value except in the form of low cost. As a smaller clinic, you need to focus on making every examination the best you can make it. Be thorough; articulate and explain each body system you're evaluating. Include the pet owner in the exam at every opportunity (smell the breath, feel this lump, and listen to the heart). It takes about the same amount of time to do an exceptional exam as it does a lousy one. What smaller clinics have that no mega-clinic corporation has is intimacy—real, authentic, and meaningful relationships with your clients and patients. Use it to your advantage and flip the value equation from cost to service.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND COMMUNITY ROOTS
One of the greatest benefits of being a small business is locality. If you think about it, this is what the multi-national or multi-state conglomerates strive for: to be a part of a community. Sorry, but that's not going to happen. I like the fact that our profit funnels into local homes, schools, and churches—and not into bank accounts in Arkansas, Florida, California, or New York.
Get involved in your community. Write a newspaper column or a blog for your church or synagogue. Host events and invite the whole town. Participate in or sponsor local charity fundraisers. Speak at schools, human healthcare facilities and events, and retirement homes. This isn't rocket science; it's community involvement, and it pays.
Small clinics can also create unique and personalized websites that reflect their community's personality. Bigger businesses won't have the same local search-engine optimization (SEO) advantages that you have as a locally owned and operated business.
Your social media outreach should be relevant and targeted to your community. Cross-post local charities and events you support. Your clinic and staff should be the voice of pets in your area. The big clinics are too busy to be bothered.
Even the smallest practice can out-pace the big guys—if you're tactical. Play up to your strengths, work on your weaknesses, and go where your larger competitors aren't.
Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Ernie Ward owns Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C., a National Practice of Excellence Award winner.