Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is the president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc., director of veterinary practice management at Mission Veterinary Partners, and founder of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association. His column won first place in the Florida Magazine Association’s 2020 Charlie Awards.Read Articles Written by Mark Opperman
I often wondered over the past year when I would be able to write this article, but today I see signs of optimism. What will life look like when we are out of the pandemic, and how must we adapt to the reality that follows?
First, let’s take a quick look back. Although COVID-19 took us by surprise, the veterinary profession responded quickly to the challenges. We started wearing masks, initiated social distancing and took temperatures. We learned how to keep our teams safe and informed. Curbside service became the norm. We adjusted clinic hours and, in some cases, services. It was and continues to be a stressful time for our team and clients.
Throughout all this, veterinary practices did well, at least financially. While most practices witnessed a decrease in the number of invoices, they saw a significant increase in the average client transaction (ACT) and professional client transaction (PCT). Some reported a rise in new patients.
Just as the profession emerged from recessions of the past and is called recession-proof, we will emerge from the pandemic and be called pandemic-proof. I find that to be a testament to our profession and the essential nature of our services.
What Lies Ahead
Speculation abounds as to the future of veterinary practice. Among the predictions are that patient numbers will go down, door swings will decrease and the economy will tighten, which might mean that getting clients to follow recommendations and schedule non-elective procedures will get harder. Some clients will want to come back inside, while others will prefer curbside service. I heard from some team members that they enjoyed not having to deal with clients inside the reception area and exam room. I’m not sure what that says about our practices being client-centered, but I heard the comments often.
I also know of practices that discontinued sending client reminders because the clinics were too busy and had stopped taking new patients.
Here are seven strategies to consider as we approach the new normal.
1. If you stopped emailing client reminders, resume them and backtrack to the date you stopped. I endorse this three-tier reminder system:
- Email a reminder two weeks before a pet is due for a visit.
- If the client does not respond, send a follow-up 30 days later.
- If still no response, send a third and final reminder 30 days later.
The wording should change with each reminder. I suggest using a postcard for the second reminder.
2. Run a report from your practice management software that lists the patients you saw over the past 12 months but for whom you do not have reminders scheduled. These might be patients you saw for skin, eye or ear issues, but preventive care was not addressed at the time. Without further contact, these clients might never return, or only when the pet has another problem. Recapture these clients and patients by running the aforementioned PIMS report, and then email or call the owners to obtain preventive care information, and enter it into your system.
3. If your hours of operation changed during the pandemic, you might need to readjust. Some practices discontinued evening or Saturday hours without a negative effect. Clients who were unemployed or working from home found it easier to schedule daytime appointments. If they are commuting to work again, they might be unable to come in between 9 and 5. Tuesday and Thursday are the best days for evening hours. (I recommend staying open until 8.) Saturday hours were popular pre-pandemic and will be again. Sunday hours can be controversial with practice staff but are a popular option with clients.
4. If you expect a decline in invoices and door swings, make sure your fee schedule is up to date. I normally recommend a fee increase of twice the cost of living every year on non-shopped and exposed services. The cost of living is the amount of money individuals need to maintain their standard of living. A 1.3% cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits went into effect in January 2021. I think that is low for your purposes. Considering the predicted decrease in door swings, I suggest a fee increase of 10% on non-shopped and exposed services as soon as possible, especially if you have not raised fees in the past 12 months.
5. Make sure inventory purchases are entered into your PIMS. If the price you pay increases, then the retail price must be adjusted. All practices mark up their inventory differently, but regardless of your policy, make sure it’s followed. The majority of the profession marks up inventory purchases by 150% unless an item is shopped and exposed, such as with flea control and heartworm medications, in which case the markup would be 100%. The other exception is expensive items, which should be marked up 100%.
6. Outside laboratory pricing needs to be monitored because those companies normally raise their fees once or twice a year. Look for the price increases and enter them into your computer system. Most practices mark up outside laboratory costs by 150%. With expensive tests, the markup can be 100%, but it should not be any lower. Also, understand that many practices negotiate special pricing. If that describes you, the markup should be based on the standard fee, not the negotiated price.
7. Many marketing activities done pre-pandemic were discontinued or put on hold. Now is the time to get them going again. Let’s break it down.
- Website: Does your website reflect the quality and excellence of your practice? When was the last time your website was updated? Educating clients is important and often can best be done with an online video that gives a virtual tour of your hospital. Also, make sure your website is updated with doctor, team member and practice information. Using fewer words and more professional-looking photos is key.
- Social media: How often do you post on your practice’s Facebook page? Doing it can be a highly effective marketing tool if used correctly. If you do not have someone in-house to post for you consistently, consider hiring an outside company to assist. Your practice should actively solicit positive reviews on social media. When clients comment favorably in person, ask them to write an online review or present them with a card showing how to post a review. The practice should respond to all online reviews, not just negative ones.
- Campaigns: Did you discontinue dental month, senior wellness promotions, feline health month or other targeted marketing programs? If so, think about ramping them up again. For targeted marketing programs to be effective, you need to identify the clients who need the service you are promoting, then educate them about its importance. You also need to develop a package of services that you wish to offer and provide an incentive for clients to take advantage of it. You do not need to discount the package. Instead, think about offering an additional product or service as a bonus. Many times, the product or service will have greater perceived value than a financial discount.
What does our new normal look like? No one can say for sure, but what we can be sure of is that things are going to change and we must adapt. Now is the time to plan and be proactive. Our profession has done well during the pandemic. We need to continue to do well after it.