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Training for a down economy


As the world's largest economy faces recession and veterinarians brace for lags in client spending, cutting back on employee training might seem like a sure way to save a buck.

As the world's largest economy faces recession and veterinarians bracefor lags in client spending, cutting back on employee training might seemlike a sure way to save a buck.

But experts warn practice owners not to take the bait. In the long run,they say, slashing training expenses is self-destructive. That's becausewhen the market's bear, clients are apt to be more discriminating aboutwhere they spend cash.

Increasing a staff's level of expertise helps cultivate long-term clientsand can set a practice apart from the rest.

Raising the bar

"I've talked to a lot of practice owners and managers where therule of thumb is to cut back on training resources," says Dr. MarshaHeinke, a consultant with Owen E. McCafferty, CPA, Inc., near Clevelandand a contributor to DVM Newsmagazine. "But when a recession hits,there are less discretionary dollars and clients inspect the services ofa practice much more closely. This is the time when practices can improveprofitability by investing in people and services, which will, in turn,feed its client base."

The goal for a successful practice is to provide a high level of serviceto clients while offering the most value on the dollar, says consultantPeter Weinstein, DVM. Staff should be considered an asset, he says, andif training them is viewed as a liability, they're not going to grow.

"If you want to have the best practice in the community, you doeverything to differentiate yourself, and you build your staff up to getthe best people on the front lines," says Weinstein, who spent 15 yearsrunning a small animal practice in southern California. "You want toinvest money in your front line staff especially in a down economy whenpeople are more conservative in the way they do things."

The 9/11standstill

Conservative consumer spending really didn't hit home for Dr. MichelleVelasco, owner of two practices in Orange Park, Fla., until September'sterrorist attacks. Immediately, she says, things got quiet.

"It's a slow month in our locale anyway, but after September 11,we had 30 to 50 percent of our appointments cancel," she says. "Iwas concerned."

Instead of downsizing her staff of 40 and ridding the practice of trainingcosts, Velasco used the downtime to implement more on-the-job study.

"It's always difficult to hire really great people," she says."Bodies are a dime a dozen, and quality staff is hard to find in anymarket, so training our staff is a top priority. I don't want to lose them."

Dr. Mike Thomas, who runs seven small animal practices in the Indianapolisarea, says he's also seen a downturn in business. Nevertheless, he too,is using the lag time to train his current staff.

"This could be looked upon as an opportunity to upgrade the knowledgebase of our employees," he says. "If practices are not as busy,then they can more easily spare a staff member and allow (him or her) toattend continuing education or spend time in training them in-house."

Bolster knowledge, communication

In-house training starts with communication, he says. Each week, Thomascloses his clinics for two-and-a-half hour meetings. That's when the staffgathers to raise client-related concerns, ask questions, present topicsand train.

"Our doctors and trained technicians have a wealth of knowledgeto share, but you can only upgrade staff knowledge if you make it a priority,"he says. "Having more people saying the same thing to clients willincrease the quality of communication, resulting in a higher level of medicinebeing practiced."

For these weekly talks, Thomas' staff takes turns cooking lunch for thegroup or, on occasion, a vendor promoting pharmaceutical or equipment productsmay present a training topic and purchase lunch.

Velasco also views vendor sessions as a means of on-the-spot training.

"A lot of drug companies will buy lunch, present information andit's a cost-effective way to work in some continuing education (CE),"she says. "All you have to do is ask them to come."

Most bang for buck

And cutting corners doesn't have to mean cutting out off-site training.

According to Weinstein, the Western Veterinary Conference, held annuallyin February in Las Vegas, is one of the most economical and beneficial CEshows to send team members.

"The hotel accommodations and the amount of CE available is sucha good value," he says. "It's a real bargain."

But nowadays, staff could be leery of air travel so planning distanttrips isn't always an option.

"Local and regional meetings can be an alternative," Weinsteinadds. "Technicians are invited to those, and from a customer servicestandpoint, the non-veterinary resources for front line staff are good.

"Most importantly, absolutely everyone in a practice needs to betrained. It's impossible to offer clients the best value for their moneyand run a successful business if that idea doesn't remain at the forefrontof a practice."

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