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Success in the new normal: How to adapt and succeed in today's environment (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2010

Let's face it; things are just not the same anymore. The recession of 2007 until now has changed the way we earn, spend, and think about money. Many of our clients have lost or changed jobs during this period. Further, financial pressures have affected the way people care not only for themselves and their families, but also for their pet loved ones. Regardless of whether you believe the recession is over, nearly over or never happened is beside the point. Today's pet owners view veterinary and pet expenditures differently than they did three to five years ago. So what do we do? While I don't pretend to have all the answers, I will share some of the key affected practice areas and what you can do to bolster your practice revenue. ;

Annual Examination and Vaccines?

There was a time, not long ago, when our clients automatically responded to a postcard reminder to schedule their pet's annual examination and vaccinations. Today, that scene is still repeated but with different results. Due to the economic downturn more and more clients are questioning the necessity of annual wellness examinations. "Fluffy's fine; we need to save the money for more important things." Can you blame a cash-strapped client?

While I don't blame their skepticism, I take it as a challenge to redefine the "annual exam." For the past decade we've followed a three-year vaccine protocol. I've had a good bit of experience with encouraging clients to bring their pets in even when they don't "need any vaccines." Interestingly, I think this long-term approach has actually benefited us during the recession. Our clients didn't view us as using vaccines as a lure to charge for exams. Instead, they viewed our firm stance on vaccinating their pet based on their lifestyle and risk as a way of saving them money. We also positioned the annual exam as a way to get advice on how to maintain health and prevent disease, ultimately prolonging their pet loved ones' quality of life while saving them money.

My advice is simple: vaccinate only when necessary and justified and perform a thorough, meaningful and clearly understood physical examination. Offer tips on home care and preventive measures that help our patients as opposed to offering only skepticism and downplaying "home remedies" (unless, of course, they're really silly or potentially dangerous). As science is teaching us, there's often real value in those "old wives' tales." Evaluate your clinic language and insert "preventive" instead of "annual;" consider using "wellness," "health," "natural," and "non-prescription" whenever possible. The real lure for an annual examination should be on your abilities to avoid illness. If you can convince a client there's value in that 30-minute exam visit, they'll be back for more (and more likely to listen to your recommendations). Brush up on your communication skills, videotape yourself performing a physical exam and write our a flow chart for how you'd like to conduct the exam. Who knows, you just may become a better doctor in the process of improving your examination skills.

What do the Internet, Mass Retailers and the Hardware Store have in Common? Our Stuff

There was once a time when a pet owner could only buy their pet's heartworm, flea preventatives or medications at a veterinary clinic. While today this seems like the stuff of legends, it happened. I was there. Nowadays you can find anything your pet needs online and increasingly on the shelves of Costco, Wal-Mart and your local pet supply or hardware store. What can a small clinic do? Throw in the towel?

Not just yet. There are several things you can do today to combat the loss of product sales to these alternative markets.
      1. Create an online store. Duh. If it's convenience you want, give it to 'em. Even if you only sell the top 20% of your inventory items, you'll win more than you lose. Start by focusing on the big three: heartworm preventives, flea products and NSAIDs.
      2. Be competitive on price. If you sell an item for $5 more than PetMedsExpress, you'll lose the sale. Your clients love you, just not $5 worth. Every 2 to 4 weeks check the major online retailers and make sure your prices are compatible.
      3. Use sales incentives. Ask your pharmaceutical reps to give you free goods that you can incentivize sales with. For example, if you but 6 Revolution from us, you'll receive a seventh FREE! Rebate checks are also good.
      4. Use veterinary-exclusive or prescription products whenever possible. Reward products that protect our tiny market. If a product is available at Costco, maybe it's time to find a better product (chances are you'll find one). Veterinarians need to support products that honor our relationship and protect our businesses.
      5. Price-match. Whenever possible, match a price if a client can prove to you it's true. As far back as 1999 I've advocated working with clients whenever possible. There are times when we simply can't match a price; don't worry about it. For others, it's simply capitalism at work (and I'm a capitalist). In many cases, we thank the client for bringing this to our attention and may respond by lowering our price on the product.
      6. Provide specific brand recommendations. If you simply say, "Fido needs a fish oil supplement." chances are, you're not going to sell them anything. Instead, the client will most likely go to Wal-Mart and purchase a lousy cheap supplement that won't do anything other than take their money. Do everyone (and your clients) a favor: find brands you know and trust and recommend them. When you say, "If you're going to give Fido an omega-3 supplement, the nest one is ..." that's what most clients will want to use.