What vets need to know about business

In familiarising myself with the international veterinary profession during 2014, there were two events that provided me with startling exposure regarding what vets need to know about business.  The events were the American Veterinary Medical Association Annual Economic Summit (28 October, 2014) and the London Vet Show (20-21 November, 2014).  The take-home messages from both events are related to veterinary business marketing.

At the American Veterinary Medical Association Annual Economic Summit, significant attention was given to the over-supply of vets in developed countries which is difficult to reconcile as there is also a climate of increased population growth and an increased number of pets.  Nevertheless, the over-supply of vets channelled discussions to competitiveness and the main message emerged about the need for veterinary service providers to change their behaviours to meet client demands: be transformational in your approach to veterinary business as a transactional approach will not see clients returning. Consider extending opening hours so fellow professionals can receive care for their pets outside office hours.  Also consider the quantity of pets that fail to receive veterinary care (44.9% of cats and 18.7% of dogs in the USA) and the opportunity to segment the client market to attract pet owners who do not recognise the need for preventative health care plans. Finally, consider the complete lifecycle of a pet and recognise that while a lot of revenue can be earned from puppy and kitten care and veterinarians can benefit from the excitement of clients owning a new pet; there is also a great opportunity in providing geriatric care for pets towards the end of their lives.

At the London Vet Show, I attended two particularly insightful presentations with similar messages about the marketing of veterinary services in the face of increasing competition.  Sadly, these presentations were far less popular than those about clinical practice.  Alan Robinson from Vet Dynamics (see: http://www.vetdynamics.co.uk/) stated that veterinary practices fail due to lack of:

  •        Leadership & vision
  •        Team engagement
  •        Focused marketing & client care
  •        Internal communication systems
  •        Accounting, financial and systems knowledge
  •        Focus on professional fees vs. drug sales
  •        Ability to charge appropriately for services
  •        Relying on pharmaceuticals as the sole source of profit

I was particularly struck by what this list did not include: there is absolutely nothing on this list that suggests veterinary practices fail due to lack of clinical skill or breach of professional standards. What are listed here are a range of commercial and social factors that are leading to the downfall of UK veterinary practices and the lack of people seated in front of this list during the presentation leaves me wondering about how many members of the profession are willing to even consider relaxing their dedication to clinical excellence and focus on keeping their business alive.

In the UK, the competitive nature of veterinary service provision has resulted in the need for more superior practice marketing than ever before. Alan Robinson and Alison Lambert (the latter of http://www.onswitch.co.uk/en/) agree that veterinarians do not need to work harder, change more for their services or put in longer hours.  The recommendation that was made by both professionals is that veterinarians need to take advantage of their existing skill set, adapt their business(es) to addressing client needs and having a better knowledge of their client base (NB not a better knowledge of clients, but a better knowledge of the client base).  Industries such as food retailing, telecommunications and even coffee providers have understood this for years (e.g. how long have you had your Tesco card, Boots card or buy-9-get-one-free Costa card?). 

The key message is that veterinary businesses need to change.  They need to understand that the performance of the vet is not the only decision factor when determining client satisfaction: the client will be making decisions about practice before even opening the door.  Decisions about the practice will be made upon picking up the phone to check a price or make an appointment. Furthermore, decisions will be made about convenience.  Why is it that petrol stations are so often located in retail parks next to hypermarkets?  It’s for convenience.  Rather than being physically located in the middle of a quaint village where parking is impossible, should practices be located close to where clients (who are expecting to pay large sums of money on a weekly grocery spend) can take care of their pet in the same trip as another domestic chore?  This mind set is greatly removed from that of clinical excellence but vets improving their knowledge of business and changing their approach to business may result in them being able to continue with their vocational passion of animal care rather than going out of BUSINESS.

Elizabeth Jackson, RVC

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