At the height of the pandemic last year, a massive corporate vetmed chain decided to shut down their office just down the street from one of our independent practice clients. It was an interesting case study in the difference between corporate care and independent medicine.
There’s no solid data publicly available on how many of their locations were closed nationally, or what the rationale was – whether it was worry about legal liability, unwillingness of their staff to come to work, or something else. But one thing we know for sure: there were many local pet owners who depended on that hospital to serve them and keep their pets healthy, and this chain decided to turn their backs on them. We have a sense of how many were affected because those clients flooded into other local practices, who rolled up their sleeves and did their best to fit them in and care for them.
When COVID hit, who was there for everybody? Not the corporates – it was independent practices like mine. We were getting clients from corporates left and right, and we still are. And I think that will always be the trend now, which is one of the reasons why I think we've grown so much. Another corporate practice just opened up, literally across the street from me, but it doesn’t worry me because I know our quality and our service will be far superior, and our clients expect and demand that. But I don't think the corporatization of vetmed is good for employees. I don't think it's good for owners. I don't think it's good for clients either, or their pets.
– Dr. Michele Drake, Owner, The Drake Center for Veterinary Care
Yes, conditions were tough, with curbside drop-offs, masks, bubble staffing and all the rest of it. But none of the practices we work with across the country closed down for their own convenience. From talking with many of these practices, the commitment to serving their local communities was stronger than any fear or stress created by the pandemic. So these practices thrived. Many of our GeniusVets clients are up 20%, 30% or more year-over-year because they maintained their commitment to serve their communities even in the toughest of conditions.
Quality Counts – In Your Practice and Your Clientele
It’s become fashionable in vetmed media these days to talk about how miserable and exploited veterinary staffs are. We fully recognize the challenges teams are facing – we talk to them every day. But we also believe that there is a self-reinforcing spiral happening that does nothing good for the profession – or for pets.
There’s a tendency to blame clients for their frustrations with practices, and to see them as victimizing the staff. While there are definitely some terrible clients out there, they aren’t in the majority. Most clients, even the ones that do get frustrated or upset, aren’t bad people. They’re just confused about their pet’s treatment plan, surprised at the cost, had expectations set incorrectly, or have experienced poor customer service. These are trying, emotional times, and having a sick pet just becomes one more layer of stress for your client. So it’s more important than ever to work diligently on your practice culture and communications right now, to ensure your clients feel cared for and supported.
Building a strong culture that emphasizes not only quality of medicine but also quality customer service in your hospital can make all the difference. A few tips we’ve heard from top practices:
- Don’t make clients wait unnecessarily – answer the phone promptly and do your best to stick to the schedule
- Fit people in, and don’t be afraid to prioritize – it’s just bad business if a client who has spent thousands with your practice over many years is told they need to wait eight weeks for an appointment
- If you’re struggling to keep up with demand, hire more staff! (Here are a few tools to help with this)
- Communicate clearly about treatment plans, options and costs
- Ensure that anyone requesting payment for a treatment plan actually understands that plan and can answer questions about it
- Where possible, focus on attracting a clientele that values great quality and great service, and is less price sensitive
While great medicine is at the heart of quality care, it’s not the only factor. Attracting high-quality clients who are willing to pay the costs associated with that care is also crucial. Trying to deliver top-notch care with a mediocre clientele creates frustration, “sticker shock”, bad reviews and stressed-out staff.
Clients who are truly engaged with their DVM and committed to giving their pets “only the best” can be demanding. But at the same time, if you’re willing to make the commitment to serving them, you’ll position your practice for the greatest possible level of success – and team satisfaction.
When it comes to attracting a quality clientele, it’s never about delivering services for the lowest price – it’s about having a practice culture where clients feel valued and know their pets will receive great care. We need to recognize that in order to be able to deliver the best care and to be financially strong, that means having a clientele that demands the best – but it’s worth it!
– Dr. Becka Byrd, Owner, Northern Oaks Bird & Animal Hospital
Good Care Is Good Business
Being there during tough times is not just “self-sacrifice,” as some vetmed media often seem to suggest. Practice owners shared with us many reasons for why they stayed open and did their best to fit in every patient. Beyond just their personal commitment to their community, it’s good business to be the practice that is always there for your clients when they need you.
Always get your clients in – no matter how busy it is, it’s important that our clients know we’re there for them; this is part of offering a higher level of service. –Dr. Becka Byrd
The lifetime value of a single veterinary client can be over $5,000 – often much more. Retaining your clients for the long term is the most important way to protect your profitability and valuation. And in particular, if you are a practice that focuses on delivering the highest quality of care – and we believe you should be – then the “high maintenance” clients that are willing to spend more are the ones that will give you the ability to deliver that top-quality care and be profitable at the same time.
And for the capitalists out there, keep in mind that if a hospital valued at $10M grows by 30%, that’s a gain of $3M in valuation in a single year. Not too bad!
It’s Not The Business Structure, It’s How You Use It
It’s not a foregone conclusion that a practice owned by a group rather than an individual has to let quality slip, or treat its clients badly. We work with some group-owned practices that have continued to deliver excellent medicine. And we also work with groups that are growing organically as one successful practice owner acquires other neighboring hospitals, and those are among the strongest groups out there. But at the same time, the incentive and accountability structure does change, and its our hope that more groups will hear this message and look more carefully at how they are managing.
Most DVMs we talk to didn’t get into this industry because they were focused on business metrics like revenue or EBITDA. They didn’t take this job for the high pay or the short hours either. They put years of their lives into medical training because they have a passion for helping animals and serving their community.
So if corporate ownership tries to run a hospital off a balance sheet alone, they will always under-deliver. They will burn out their staff, they will frustrate their clients, and they will fall short of providing the care that pets deserve.
That’s not to say that practices shouldn’t be strong businesses. But the first steps to building a strong business are to create a shared sense of mission; to build a strong culture; to perfect the quality of care; and to foster strong relationships in the community.
In other words, the first steps to building a strong business aren’t really about “business” at all. They’re about people, connection, community and quality. Get those right and the rest will more easily fall into place.
And for those big corporate chains who try to ignore these values? Maybe shutting down and handing those patients off to your local independent isn’t such a bad idea.