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What really, really annoys me

C’mon, veterinarians, you can do better. You need to stop discounting, and clients need to pay for all services rendered. Oh, and two more things: Dress the part and treat your employees properly. Now get to work!

What really, really annoys me

You might not believe me after reading this article, but few things bug me in life. That is especially true with regard to my personal life. I subscribe to the philosophy “Life is too short, so don’t let the little things bother you.” Some things on the business side of my life, however, do bother me. The problem is not so much that these things happen but that they continue to happen. Many have been going on since I became involved in this profession 35 years ago. I guess some things just don’t change. Let’s see if I can make a dent.

1. Giving Discounts and Not Charging for Services

Veterinary medicine is a profession. We are not a discount store, a Walmart, a Target or a tire shop. What other profession discounts services? Does your physician, dentist or chiropractor discount? The answer is one big NO. So then, why does veterinary medicine discount services?

Discounting bothers me a great deal and for many reasons, but chief among them is that our employees are severely underpaid, as are owners and associate veterinarians.

We also don’t charge for all our services. I can’t tell you how many practices I have consulted with that do not charge for nail trims. Think about it: You have one or two team members restraining the pet, a third cutting the nails and, lastly, someone needs to clean up the mess. Yet we don’t charge for the nail trim. Where else would you go in this world and receive a free service other than at a veterinary hospital?

Why is that? People will certainly pay for a nail trim, and many practices charge for one. I consulted with a practice that did not charge for anal gland expressions. Are you kidding me? If I had to do it, I would charge $80!

Think about this: If your practice charged $12 for a nail trim and in one year did 1,500 nail trims per full-time DVM, you would have generated an additional $18,000, and that’s with just one service.

If someone comes to your practice because you give a 10% discount or because you don’t charge for the first examination, then the client is coming for the wrong reason. People should come to you for the quality and excellence of your services, not for a discount or freebie.

Remember that price is an issue only in the absence of value. Instead of discounting your services or giving things away, why not educate clients about the value of your services and charge appropriate fees? What most amazes me is that when veterinary hospitals finally decide to discontinue discounts or stop giving away services, they report little or no negative client feedback, only improved profitability.

I suggest that if you decide to discontinue discounts, do not take them away from clients currently receiving them. Instead, stop giving the discount to new clients. Eventually, you no longer will give discounts to your clients.

2. Not Valuing Your Professional Services

Many people who attended my seminars over the years have seen the exercise I call “Do You Value Your Professional Services?” If you have not witnessed it, I display a chart with three headings: hospitalization, daily doctor care and comprehensive physical exam. I inform the audience that I have a dog that got into the owner’s trash and has been admitted to their hospital. “My dog Casey will be in your hospital for three days,” I say. I then ask attendees what they will charge me for hospitalization, daily doctor care and the initial comprehensive physical exam. Many times, I will get responses that look like this:

Look at the first and second rows. They would charge more for 15 or 20 minutes in the outpatient clinic than for 24 hours in the hospital! Does that make sense? No. What is more amazing is that when you ask the third and fourth practices on the list how many clients complain about being charged for daily doctor professional care, the answer is “none.”

I think clients value our services more than we do. The exercise is one example of how veterinarians give away their services or fail to value what they do. It bugs me that I value most veterinarians and their services much more than they do.

Some doctors hesitate to charge for medical progress exams or rechecks. If an animal needs to be seen again to determine whether it is getting better or needs further treatment, then you need to charge for the visit. A veterinarian went to school to obtain that knowledge. Clients who could make the determination wouldn’t need to come to your practice in the first place.

My business partner, Sheila Grosdidier, and I teach at up to 20 veterinary schools every year. What I love to ask the students — they are usually juniors — is: “You have just graduated from this great academic institution and now have to charge clients for your intellectual knowledge. You need to charge for what you have learned, just as a physician, dentist, lawyer and accountant charge for their time. What are you going to charge for an hour of your services?” What they tell me is almost always the same: $35 an hour.

When we discuss that they will be paid only 22% of what they charge, that they wish to make $80,000 or more a year and that lawyers and accountants charge $300 or more an hour, the students rethink what they need to charge. Unfortunately, this is how many students see themselves and value their professional services. The mindset needs to change and is one of the reasons I spend so much time teaching at veterinary schools.

3. Having a Sloppy Professional Appearance

Too many times I have walked into a veterinary hospital and seen pictures and posters taped, stapled or tacked to the walls. Just as bad, signs are taped to countertops. Really! Would you tape a picture to the wall of your home? I hope the answer is no, but many, many practices do this in a “professional” office environment.

I have a simple rule: Anything affixed to the wall needs to be professionally framed and attached, or it should not go up. Remember, it’s a professional environment. If you want clients to perceive you as a professional, then present yourself in a professional manner.

Which brings me to the next thing that bugs me: Doctors and team members who look like they just got out of bed or returned home from the gym. While I don’t need male doctors to wear a tie or female doctors to wear a dress, I do need them to look professional. That means nice pants, a button-down shirt (not wrinkled), nice shoes, a professional jacket, and no jeans or T-shirts. Attention to personal hygiene and physical appearance is a must. I would like my team to look professional, so uniforms are required.

Check out your team.

  • Do they look professional?
  • Are you impressed with the way they look and how they present themselves?

If the answer is yes, then good work. If not, how can you turn things around?

4. Failing to Value Team Members

Some veterinary practices look at their employees as replaceable commodities. The hospitals do not invest in their teams or truly value what the employees bring to the table. Employees deserve to have job descriptions, formal training programs and annual performance reviews. Employees deserve to be treated with respect, not yelled at in front of co-workers or clients. Employees deserve to be paid fairly for the work they do, and they should be able to live on their wages.

I know of too many practices where these expectations are not a reality. Practices that don’t invest in their employees suffer high turnover, low morale and lost revenue.

In addition to the advice above, I would love to see more practices embrace my company’s incentive program. My employees are evaluated each quarter and given incentive bonuses based on both a percentage of the increase in gross of the practice and the hours worked by the employee during the incentive period. The program does not discriminate between job classifications.

In your practice, a kennel assistant’s bonus could be just as much as a technician’s or receptionist’s, depending on the scores received on evaluations and the hours worked. I don’t know about you, but I think this is the way it should be. No one person is better than anyone else. If an employee performs well, as verified by the evaluation, and works equivalent hours as another employee who received the same evaluation score, they should receive the same bonus regardless of their position.

I know we all have things that bug us, but some really get to me. I hope that someday I can say that certain things used to bug me but now they no longer occur in veterinary practices. Boy, wouldn’t that be great?

Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc.