Sell, Struggle or Grow, Part 1: What Really Causes "The Struggle" – And What Can You Do About It?

What Really Causes the Struggle – And What Can You Do About It?

(This article is a continuation of a series – if you'd like to read from the beginning, start here.)


To get out of the struggle, we first need to learn to understand it. 

We need to recognize that if we got into the struggle based on our current beliefs and habit patterns, we will not get out of it without changing those patterns.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” –Albert Einstein

Symptoms of The Struggle

It would be easy to just say “if you’re in the struggle you know it.” And that’s partly true. However, we’ve also found that many practices who are in the struggle think that it’s the only way a practice can run – and this is NOT true. You can be sure you’re in the struggle if you’re experiencing these symptoms:

  • Exhaustion and burnout
  • Feeling like you’re “spinning your wheels” and not getting anywhere
  • Same problems day in and day out
  • Lack of time
  • Unhappy staff and internal conflicts between employees (feeling resentful towards staff and owners)
  • Difficulty with recruitment
  • Upset clients / lots of negative reviews
  • Feeling like you’re “all alone”
  • Profitability too low
  • Wanting to sell just to get away from the practice


What Causes The Struggle?

Of course, there has been a huge increase in demand for veterinary services, and this puts every practice, no matter how well run, under greater strain. But this doesn’t mean that the team has to be miserable!

We’ve found that for most practices who are really struggling, their problems were all there before 2020 – they just became amplified and elevated with the changes of the past couple years. This is one reason why there’s been a huge increase in practice owners selling just to “get out from under” their practice this year, and we believe this is a HUGE mistake. We’ll unpack the pros and cons of selling in a future post, and there IS a valid case for selling under certain conditions – but being exhausted and burned out is NOT a good reason, and it can lead to years of regret.

So if the pandemic isn’t the CAUSE of the struggle, what is it?

The core causes of the struggle, that we’ve learned from talking with hundreds of practices around the country for many years, boil down to a few specific issues:

  1. Working in your business, but never on your business
  2. Lack of a clearly defined mission, values and culture for the practice
  3. Owner not recognizing they are in control of their business – and acting as such
  4. Not accepting that our profession has outgrown the availability of staff and therefore we must train our own people
  5. Lack of a communications strategy that supports all of the above

I've owned my own practice for over 25 years, and I've been through many recessions, many, many issues. Like everybody else, at first I might be a little bit in shock, but I eventually come around and make a plan to move forward. When 2008 hit, the consumer changed completely how they do business – they had a cell phone instead of the yellow pages, and so on. I always look at these situations as opportunities because I'm an entrepreneur, I'm a business owner and I have to make a choice – be negative about it and stress out, or just get into action and do something about it. From my perspective, it’s basically – this is what consumer wants, so how can I deliver that, while being very ethical and true to my profession? And how I handle that is ultimately driven by the mission of my practice. That was true in 2008, and it’s just as true in 2020 as we deal with the pandemic and all the changes that it brought about for our profession. –Dr. Michele Drake

1. Working in your business, but never on your business

It’s vital to take the time to get outside your practice so that you can plan and create a plan to tackle the new challenges of the increased demand in your community. Solutions like thoughtfully implementing telehealth, text-based scheduling, or launching new recruitment strategies can be transformative for your business – but you need to make time to figure them out!

In veterinary hospitals, it’s often chaos, right? You’re signing checks, taking meetings, and seeing clients, patients, and more. I can say with the utmost confidence that there’s no way to be thoughtful and collected and to plan properly without getting outside your practice—quite literally, you need to step outside. I always tell practice owners to take themselves out for coffee at least once a week and work on their business. – Dr. Michele Drake

As a first step, carve out an hour or two a week where you will step outside the practice to work on your business. Don’t underestimate the value of this. Taking this time could be the beginning of a true transformation in your business – and your life!

If you’d like some help with how to make this happen, check out tip #1 in this article from Dr. Drake.

2. Lack of a clearly defined mission, values and culture for the practice

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” – The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs

One of the most powerful tools you have as a business owner to overcome challenges from your environment is to create and instill in your team a strong sense of mission. 

The sense of a shared mission has enabled human beings to do extraordinary things throughout time. Whether defending their country from invasion, launching a world-changing startup company, or fighting for civil rights, people who share a sense of mission can take on massive challenges, and yet do not “burn out” or becoming exhausted, because they truly recognize the importance of what they’re engaged in.

While your practice isn’t being invaded by a hostile enemy (even if it sometimes feels like it!), you can still take a lesson from great leaders throughout history and develop a powerful mission for your practice that can help your team get through difficult times together.

If you don’t have a mission statement, this can lead to struggle because your team isn’t pulling together for a real “why” that they believe in, and they can therefore start to have more infighting or become defeated by the stressors in the environment. 

So creating a mission statement is a powerful step toward getting out of the struggle.

In developing your mission statement, it’s vital that it start authentically with you as the business owner – but you also need to work with your team to develop it so that they are “bought in” to the mission and committed to executing it. 

Once you’ve come up with the mission statement, you need to make sure the team knows it “by heart”, that every new team member is trained on it, and that it’s posted prominently in the practice to keep everyone thinking about it throughout their day, and truly using it as a decision-making tool when faced with tough choices.

The mission of The Drake Center is to provide the best medicine and surgery in a compassionate environment, and unsurpassed customer service for our clients. That's always been my mission and it will always be our mission. To show you how this applies in practice – when the pandemic pets started coming in, I knew we needed to increase our staff rapidly to ensure we could deliver the quality of care and the service we promise, while handling a big increase in appointments. At first, I had to increase the number of staff per doctor as we didn't have enough doctors. This even meant hiring employees that didn’t have any experience in veterinary medicine, and training them. It’s been challenging but it allowed us to stay true to our mission. And of course I’ve hired doctors, too – three new DVMs in just the past 12 months.

We’ve also started implementing telehealth and text-based communication for curbside clients, and many other innovations to help us streamline so we can keep up with the workload while delivering great care. So it was just really taking the attitude of, “we need to deliver for our community and meet this new demand without compromising our quality.” So that’s just what we did – and as a result we’re up 50% year over year, and our margins are as strong as ever. I could not have accomplished this without having my team fully on the same page and committed to our clearly-defined mission. – Dr. Michele Drake

To get a jump start on defining your mission, check out this article.

In addition to a strong statement of your mission, it’s vital that you are intentional about the culture you want to create in the practice, and that you live this culture every day.

We like to describe culture as “how we play together in the sandbox” – basically the behavioral norms and expectations each team member has of the others that lead to a productive and happy environment.

When the practice culture isn’t defined thoughtfully by the leadership team, this can lead to team members feeling marginalized or disrespected. It can also lead to keeping toxic employees around who are making the others miserable. This greatly amplifies the struggle.

On the other hand, if you get specific about the culture you want to create, it’s much easier to confront employees (or clients!) who are acting in a manner that’s contrary to the established culture, and help them to correct their behavior. Or, if they simply won’t change, they need to be shown the door. It’s the only way to ensure your team knows you “mean business” when it comes to having a positive and supportive environment.

For more tips on how to create a strong practice culture, check out this article.

3. Owner not recognizing they are in control of their business – and acting as such

It can be a hard lesson to learn, but you MUST learn it as a business owner if you’re going to be successful: in your business, the “buck” stops with you. Of course it can be tempting to point to under-trained employees, problem clients, or the general craziness of today’s environment as the cause of your problems. But if you do this, you lose all your power to do something about it, and you will remain stuck in the struggle.

The first step of overcoming any problem – in business or any part of life – is to take responsibility and ownership over it. Only then can you start to take action. The good news is, once you do take that responsibility, you’ll find it gets easier and easier to come up with effective solutions. – Harley Orion

The reality is that each day, you create the business that you want – by your decisions and actions. (Or by your indecisions and inactions!). This is actually good news, because if you don’t like something about your business, you can change it! 

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you try to find solutions to the problems in your practice. We’ve made plenty of small mistakes at The Drake Center as we implemented new systems, or hired and trained people with no veterinary experience to work in our hospital. But much more importantly, we got the BIG things RIGHT, by having the guts to take on hard challenges and making course corrections along the way until our solutions hit the sweet spot. It would have been a much bigger mistake to try to “play it safe” by keeping the status quo going in the midst of all this change. – Dr. Michele Drake

Dr. Drake provides more guidance on how to make effective change in your practice in this article.


4. Not accepting that our profession has outgrown the availability of staff – and therefore we must train our own people

Let's face it – if any industry grows by upwards of 20% in a single year, there will NOT be enough already-trained people to fill the necessary jobs in that industry. A staffing shortage is inevitable. And the shortage of trained personnel is going to persist for YEARS – however long it takes for more DVMs and techs to enter and graduate from school, and so on. In the interim, we will have to work with what we have.

Of course you can't grab just anyone and put them to work as a doctor in your practice. So when it comes to being short of doctors, your best bet is to strengthen your culture and build an effective communications program so you can attract quality doctors into your practice. Many doctors that have been working at the big corporate chains are burned out and frustrated at the lack of support and real opportunities for growth. So with the right communications strategy (see #5 below) you can attract these doctors to join your team for a better opportunity. 

But when it comes to techs and support staff, this is where practive owners really need to shift their point of view. We talk to many practice owners that post a job opportunity requiring multiple years of vet tech experience for example, and then wonder why they get few or no applicants. The answer is, there are no experienced vet techs looking for a job right now! And there won't be for a while. So in the meantime, you need to "hire for attitude and train for skills."

Many business owners over-estimate the importance of "skills and experience" and under-estimate the importance of attitude and culture fit when choosing employees. This can lead to keeping toxic employees around because they're "indispensable" due to their skills, and also cause owners to give up on growth because there "just aren't any good people to hire." The reality is, it's much easier to teach someone the skills needed for a vet tech, kennel staff or similar position, than it is to "fix" a person who has the skills but doesn't fit your culture and won't get along with your staff or clients. 

Investing the time and energy in developing a real training program in your practice will pay off massively for years to come. 

To help in your search for quality employees, check out our GeniusVets Recruitment Resources.


5. Lack of a communications strategy that supports all of the above

Through in-person meetings as well as social media, we have the opportunity to hear many practices discussing their challenges with recruitment, bad clients, staff turnover and similar issues. What is often not understood is that there are proactive things that can be done in terms of your practice’s communications that can meaningfully improve these issues.

If you’ve done the hard work to create a great mission statement and build a good culture in your practice, that’s very well done! But it takes another step beyond that to get the real benefits.

Practices that don’t effectively communicate their values to the world will not get the benefit of those values and efforts.

I’ve heard from many veterinarians that their marketing company “takes care of their social media for them”. And it sounds like a big help – we all know how busy we are! But then, you look at their social media channels and it’s all totally generic information that goes out on behalf of probably a hundred or more practices. There’s nothing about the staff, the clients, the culture, or anything else that would show why that practice is a great place to work, or to bring your pet. People know the difference when they see it, and this generic presence completely turns people off – especially the millennial generation that are your new DVMs and techs. It’s fine and great to get coaching and support on your social media from your marketing company – it really does take skill and knowledge to do it well – but your practice team must lean into it as well. Any company that tells you they will “do it all for you”, and you don’t have to lift a finger, is doing a real disservice to your practice. – Dr. Michele Drake

Many practices actually have great teams, great care, and excellent service, yet they have a generic website and social media presence that doesn’t show this to the world. As a result, they attract mediocre clients, and don’t attract new staff at all – keeping them stuck in the struggle.

It used to be that the first impression of your practice was your building, your signage, or your lobby. Today, over 90% of your new staff and clients will get their first impression of your practice from online sources. So it’s never been more critical to have a dynamic and authentic online presence that speaks to who you are and how you’re different.

I’ve hired over 20 new staff in the past 12 months, including three new DVMs. Of course there are many things about my practice that help me recruit effectively, but I regularly hear from new applicants that they discovered The Drake Center online, and that our website and social media presence showed that my hospital is a great place to work, and led them to apply. – Dr. Michele Drake

It’s easier than you think to create an effective digital strategy, website, and social media presence that will help you attract and retain quality staff and clients. If you’re ready to get the support you need to make this happen, schedule a GeniusVets Demo today. As the only marketing company in vetmed co-founded by a DVM and current practice owner, we implement proven strategies to help you move out of the struggle and into growth!

The Struggle

Contributing DVM