Selling Points columnist Brian Conrad is practice manager at Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Washington, and a past president of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association.
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I was traveling through the Salt Lake City airport in July 2003 when my flip phone rang. My colleague on the other end insisted that I run to the nearest newsstand to pick up the most recent copy of Consumer Reports magazine. I reluctantly complied.
There it was: a cover featuring an adorable, heart-tuggingly cute puppy with an ice pack on his head. The cover story, titled “Pets and Vets,” explained how a pet owner could save thousands of dollars by finding cheaper veterinary drugs.
For those of you who remember, the story felt like the end was coming for veterinary medicine, but more specifically for retail and pharmaceutical sales within our practices.
Jump ahead 14 years and our industry is still going strong. Our swift thoughts of demise were quickly proven invalid. With that said, retail and pharmaceutical sales in veterinary clinics continue to be one of the most emotional and passionate topics within our industry. Attitudes toward box stores and online retailers are all over the place — anger, helplessness, frustration, jealousy and revenge, to name a few.
Consumer Reports wasn’t at fault. The cover story happened to be a visual milestone that would mark a future of change.
Yes, It Can Be Done
I’ll let you in on a little secret: Plenty of hospitals are benefiting and finding success from product sales.
I get frustrated when I see energy and emotion wasted on something clinics cannot change: competition. Don’t get me wrong. I am well aware of the sales hardships that clinics have experienced over the years. But competition isn’t going away, and, in many ways, it will intensify. We need to focus our energy on what we can control. Innovation and adaptation are critical to staying relevant in today’s economy. Save the stories of the good old days for campfires.
A critical misstep is this: We often recommend retail or pharmaceutical products that we know will improve a pet’s overall health, but then we don’t carry the products and we instead encourage a client to find them elsewhere. We have given in to the adage that we can’t compete, we don’t have the room, and we don’t have the control or manpower. We simply have given up.
While some of our strategies and tactics for product sales are outdated and no longer viable, we do have hope. Wake up, practice owners and hospital administrators. Done correctly, sales of food, products and pharmaceuticals can and will continue to bring positive cash flow to practices and, more importantly, will lead to happier clients and healthier pets.
Cut the Fat
Take a pledge today. If you and your associate veterinarians are going to continue to recommend specific products, you will carry them. Nothing is worse than the thought of a client wanting to do what is best for her beloved pet and we being unable to provide it. I find clinics doing the hard work — education and recommendation — and losing out on the easy part, the sale. Through minor changes and greater motivation, we can get this turned around in short time.
The first step is to evaluate our product lines. Now is the time to do a mental inventory and consolidate. Over the years, lunch and learns have brought us multiple lines that produce relatively similar results. You as the practice owner or leader need to work with your medical team in establishing product lines that are consistent and focused.
The last thing you need is five associate veterinarians making five different recommendations. Carrying all five products of the same category confuses the staff. If the team is confused, I guarantee that your clientele is confused and frustrated about getting different answers to the same problem.
Lunch and learns, when done correctly, are integral toward the success of product sales. However, over the years the veterinary industry has had a hard time saying “no” and ends up saying “yes” more times than not. After all, who can turn down an introductory offer? (“But wait, there’s more!”)
Yes, there is more — more confusion and a lack of clarity and vision of what the practice believes in. This dangerous equation can send the client looking elsewhere for answers and you looking at your numbers and wondering why compliance is down.
I don’t believe in a once-size-fits-all mentality, but focus, efficiency and passion are the first steps to finding new success.
Don’t Forget Added Value
The four categories we see shopped most often are food, flea and tick, heartworm/parasite control and NSAIDs. The technology and advancements in all four categories are remarkable. Think back to 2003, when Consumer Reports told pet owners how to save money on meds. Gone today are our shipping lag periods and inability to track inventory. Well-managed practices have streamlined these processes, bringing our overhead on inventory sales to an all-time low.
Many hospitals could use a swift kick in their business paradigm. What I find ironic is that many practice owners and administrators emanate the same behavior that many of our clients do. Where can I find the cheapest food or medications? Which distributor or manufacturer should I switch to?
I am not going to make a blanket statement that everything is cost- or fee-driven. There is great precedence for the value-added equation. That is, when you purchase A, B or C from me you receive additional benefits; hence the increase in price. Many of us forget to tell clients about these additional benefits, and then we wonder why we are in this mess to begin with. Furthermore, we forget to ask ourselves, “Do clients appreciate the additional benefits?” Maybe yes, maybe no, but before we increase fees or prices because of added value, we better be sure it truly is “added value.”
Be inspired, and understand that unlimited success is to be had with food and pharmaceutical sales. While our outdated methods aren’t going to resonate with today’s clients — nor are our pricing strategies — great success is being had in many practices. Our colleagues understand that each client is far more educated today and has many more resources when shopping for products.
Now is the time to realize that you can be and need to be nimble in finding advantages through manufacturer rebates, loyalty programs, bulk buys, and staff and client education. Take solace in knowing that the July 2003 visual milestone was just that: a visual cue that marked the change to the product sales landscape.
Take the impassioned emotions each of you feel and expend the energy on positive changes within your practice so that you can continue to provide superior care to the patients you love and tend to each day.