Why is your veterinary clinic giving up pharma sales?

August 2, 2019
Brian Conrad, CVPM
Brian Conrad, CVPM

Brian Conrad, CVPM, has been the practice manager for Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash., since 1999. During his tenure at Meadow Hills, the clinic has been named Veterinary Economics Hospital of the Year in 2001 and the 2004 Mid-Columbia Small Business of the Year. Conrad is a frequent lecturer for the Fetch dvm360 conferences and a contributor to Veterinary Economics and Firstline magazines. He was recently appointed to the board of directors for the Veterinary Hospital Management Association.

After your hospitals veterinarian has explained the need for a product or pharmaceutical, dont hand off your clients to websites, pet store employees and big-box aisles and aisles of competing products. If this is the right product for this pet, carry it. The sales will follow.

On the lecture circuit, I hear many veterinary clinic owners and managers complain about how the internet and big-box stores are taking over their prescription business and cutting into their profits. But there's a little irony here, as a lot of the same practice owners and managers who cry about the prescription marketplace are buying their eye glasses at national discount outlets, their groceries at Sam's Club and Costco, and playing veterinary distributors against each other for the best deals for products and supplies to stock their clinics. So I have to ask: Why is it OK for you to shop around but not your clients? Don't get me wrong, I'm on your side, but some of what we're seeing is human nature.

“It's not personal,” goes the old cliché, “it's business.” And business is about innovation and change, and the prescription and retail business is continuing to change. What clients want and expect is changing. Take it as a compliment that the veterinary industry is on the radar of many businesspeople who want to compete for those veterinary dollars. What worked for us in the 1990s and early 2000s isn't going to cut it in today's market. The good news is, there's still plenty we can do to adapt and stay successful in our pharmacies.

What, no online pharmacy?

Improving your sales and getting more patients the right products you recommend isn't about dumping your online pharmacy, say some practice owners. It's about knowing which items folks should buy online from you (with online pharmacies set up through companies like Covetrus' Vets First Choice or Vetsource) and which items you should carry in store. Read more about a well-rounded pharmacy approach here.

Clients want ‘easy'

I am a firm believer in the truth that veterinarians know what's best for their patients. That goes for diagnoses, treatments, services and, yes, products and pharmaceuticals. And after a doctor makes the recommendation and educates, explains, sets expectations and convinces a client about the need for a product, the client will be disappointed if that product isn't in stock.

The days of ‘Come back next week and we'll have the product for you' are over.

Clients value “easy.” The days of “Come back next week and we'll have the product for you” are over. Drug stores are promising to fill prescriptions in 30 minutes and text and email you when they're ready for pickup. Don't bother getting out of your car-they've got a drive-thru. Get it? Easy! We live in a world of “Right now!” and instant gratification. UPS and Fed Ex took over with overnight shipping.

Carry the product and close the open loop

I see doctors every day working tirelessly to evaluate medical plans and communicate those plans for optimal patient health. This care often includes products to achieve or maintain peak health that clients want for their beloved pets. The veterinarians have done the research, been educated on the products and expected results, and understand the safety information and precautions. They've worked harder and harder in recent years to improve their ability to communicate these recommendations to clients.

But what happens when veterinarians convince a client, but then they have to be shy about product availability?

  • Hit the pet store down the road.
  • Wait a few days and pick it up.
  • At their home in a week.

I know veterinarians don't like to think of themselves as salespeople, but in a sense, we're all salespeople. It's true that bad sales folks are pushy, mean and even cutthroat. But what's so wrong with assuring a client their pet needs something and making sure you've got that on hand to sell right now?

Making the recommendation, convincing a client of the need for a product, and then selling it in the hospital is anything but dirty. It's closing the gap between recommendation and compliance. It's doing what is in the best interest for the pet. When you recommend something but don't sell it, you decrease the likelihood that the client will find the exact product on the internet or in the pet store or big-box store and follow the exact directions you intended. Selling the product is closing the loop; sending clients off into the wild, wild world of pet care outside your doors is leaving it open. When the client walks out your door without the pharmaceuticals, the supplements, the behavior aid or the nutritional product you recommend, you're playing the odds. And the odds favor a negative outcome when the client runs into less-informed salespeople out there on the internet and in stores, giving well-meaning misinformation. Ultimately, the pet loses.

‘But I can't compete with the internet!'

Before you give up on your pharmacy, have you, your manager or your best product-minded team member explored all the options to improve your ability to carry and sell products your patients need?

As long as my clinic experiences positive cash flow on these purchases, I'm happy.

> Dump across-the-board mark-ups and hard-and-fast percentages-especially for flea, tick and heartworm preventives, NSAIDs and other long-term medication you prescribe. As long as my clinic experiences positive cash flow on these purchases, I'm happy. It's not just about the profit on a bottle of something. The relationship your team is building with clients, face to face, is priceless, and the more times you can get clients to walk through the doors, the greater likelihood they'll be back for future services and products. Client loyalty and stability is worth a few percentage points off any product sale.

> Watch for rebates and promotions. Product and drug manufacturers offer significant deals to you and your clients. I see many clinic leaders refuse to participate in programs like these-too much like “sales programs,” right? Do your business a favor and investigate today all the ways you can offer clients deals on products you recommend. You'll find you can compete with the internet and not take a huge hit to your bottom line. Embrace these programs and educate your staff to spend time educating clients on the advantages of purchasing products with you as opposed to calling around to other sources to find them a better deal and losing the sale in the process.

I did it. You can too.

I firmly believe it is a huge mistake to dismiss product and prescription sales. By no means is it easy, but if it were, everyone would be doing it. When I led an initiative in my clinics to improve product sales, we saw double-digit growth in flea and tick preventives in 2017 and the start of 2018. The product was one you can find on multiple websites, in many supermarkets and plenty of big-box stores. Yet we still found success with our recommendation and the ability to leverage manufacturer rebates and consumer programs. 

It's time to rally your troops and take back what you've lost. Get yourself and your staff excited and focused. Find unique ways to stay competitive and celebrate with the clients as they walk out your doors with the most advanced and efficacious products available for their beloved pets from the most knowledgeable pet person in the community: You.

Frequent Fetch dvm360 speaker Brian Conrad, CVPM, has been practice manager for Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash., since 1999. He is a past president of the Veterinary Hospital Management Association.