Veterinary practices are small businesses, and many food-animal or mixed-animal practices are even smaller than their companion-animal counterparts. Add to the fact that veterinarians receive little or no training in business management and marketing, you’ve got some practitioners who are at a loss as to how to fully engage themselves, their staff and their clients with their business.

Beef cattle practitioner Dan Goehl, DVM, Canton Veterinary Clinic, LLC, Canton, Mo., says, “Right now we’re at a real turning point in the beef industry. What can I do in my practice if the beef industry changes like the pork industry did?” Goehl’s mixed-animal practice in northeast Missouri has four veterinarians and a staff of eight. While Goehl primarily works on the beef side of the business, his wife Rachel, also a veterinarian, handles the companion-animal side.

Get started with a mission
Aside from knowing the finances of your business, having short and long-term goals and plans is critical for developing the path you want to take. “It is equally important to have a mission statement and an idea of where you want your practice to go from a service standpoint,” Goehlexplains, “and what you want it to look like in five years, 10 years, etc.” Goehl says he recently pulled out his five-year goals from 2008. “Some are no longer relevant, some I can check off and some we are still working on,” he says.

New practitioners and those who have been out for years could also benefit from reading about small business. Goehl recommends E-Myth and Good to Great (see sidebar) as books that have given him some insight into managing and growing his business. “These books are worth the time it takes to read if you are serious about having a business and not just a job,” he explains. “If you don’t have time to read, buy them as audio books.”

Goehl has also looked at what other successful veterinary practices or small businesses in general are doing and tries to model them. “I take pride in having a clean, nice looking business with friendly but professional staff,” he says. He will even call in to the front desk  sometimes to spot check that phones are being answered in a professional and courteous manger.

Brand your practice.
It’s important to brand your practice and consciously make that decision of what type of business you want to have. “Have a business plan with SOPs and a marketing plan that says where you want to go and what you want to be, and how you’ll work toward that goal.”

Goehl has decided that while they don’t want to completely price themselves out of business, he doesn’t want to get into price wars. “We are not interested in retaining clients who are looking for the least expensive service,” he says. “Now this is not true of all things – on commodity services such as pharmaceuticals we try to be very competitive, but on hands-on or consulting services we try to be better, not cheaper.”

Be involved in the beef industry
Goehl owns his own cattle and says his clients know that he feels the same pain in a bad market and is dealing with the same issues they are. Also, make sure to be involved in your local cattlemen’s association, county fair, 4-H, etc.

“This helps get in front of producers. I tell the veterinarians in my practice that they have to market themselves and be visible,” Goehl explains. “I think it is very important, even though this is hard to do at times when we are all involved in a million different things. Especially as you have children, something has to give.”

While Goehl thinks it is important that veterinarians belong to things like cattleman’s groups, he also thinks it is beneficial to be active in the community (sports, church, etc.), where you are interacting and putting yourself in front of your clients. “Let’s face it, people want to go to businesses where they know other people and feel welcome. We have tried to put measures in place to remember people’s names. We take web pictures of pets so when someone walks in we can verify it is them and not call them by the wrong name. My family doctor knows my name, my kid’s age, what they are involved in, my hobbies, Rachel’s hobbies, what we discussed last time, etc. He is either the person with the best memory I have ever known or he takes a lot of notes.”

Offer client education
Occasionally Goehl’s practice holds paid producer meetings where certain producers are targeted. “We target a specific group that are either top-notch in our clinic or ones who we want to be in our clinic.” Goehl says these go beyond the “steak dinner” and often outside experts are invited to provide the education.

“Sometimes I think there is a reluctance to bring in an outside expert, but if you are the one bringing them in it doesn’t diminish you in the eyes of your clients. The producers see you as someone who can go get better information and bring it to them. There is real value in bringing in those outside sources.

“We try to have at least one large CE event each year and one more intimate meeting for a small group,” he says. “These are sometimes pay-to-play meetings. Every two or three years we try to have a client appreciation day with an outdoor tent and a meal.”

Use marketing alliances
Goehl has gone beyond just working with cattle marketing alliances with his clients; his practice also works on feed procurement in large quantities for clients, and buying facilities such as portable corrals, alleys, chutes, etc. to offer clients at a discounted price. “Many of our operations are small,” Goehl explains. “They are not able to take advantage of some of the buy-in opportunities on things like feed. We have accounts set up so if the opportunity arrives we can bulk purchase feed and then distribute it back to clients. We are able to generate some revenue and most of our clients see it as a huge service.”

The equipment side is much less frequent but still provides a good opportunity to help clients. “I believe it is to our advantage to help producers get good facilities. Most of the time when people are not willing to handle the animals, it is due to lack of facilities. On a couple of occasions we have bulk purchased chutes or hay rings to help clients get this equipment. It’s amazing how much more cattle work clients will do now, Goehl adds. “The driving factor with clients not wanting to work cattle is facilities. If you don’t have facilities you don’t want to work cattle.”

Stay progressive
Goehl encourages veterinarians in his practice to keep up their CE hours and network with clients, other veterinarians and producers who are prospective clients. He belongs to the American Association of Bovine Practitioners and is an incoming vice president as well as district director for the Academy of Veterinary Consultants, and tries to attend food-animal veterinary meetings when he can.

Goehl doesn’t limit the learning to himself, however. “Our small animal staff attends like meetings. I also will occasionally go or have staff attend meetings on dealing with people, using Excel, etc. Occasionally if I come across something I think is important relevant reading I will ask the staff to all read it. These are usually small articles or a particular chapter.”

It’s important to let clients know that you are staying up-to-date on your continuing education. Goehl struggled with how to let his clients know about the things he and his staff did. “I have a good friend who is a chiropractor and does a lot of what the marketing guru Dan Kennedy promotes,” Goehl says. “While it sounds like bragging, you need to put it in the local papers when you attend meetings. My friend even keeps a book of organizations he has donated to in his waiting room so people can flip through it while waiting in the lobby. We could do a better job with social media but we try to put these things on our business Facebook page and website. Also if we have an article someplace we try to link to it.”

Communications with clients and others has also moved at lightning speed with the new tools that are available. “I am amazed at how we communicate in these times,” Goehl says. “There are clients we want to work with and we don’t let geographical boundaries get in the way. We travel a long way to see some of those clients, but today with iPhones, laptops and digital photos, we can stay in contact with them.”

Goehl notes he often gets text messages from clients and may be giving some of his services away, but that’s an unintended consequence of the technology. “It’s hard to charge for answering a text message.” He notes, however, that while texting and email can be a great thing, it also becomes hard to disconnect in the evenings or even when out of town. “I am probably too willing to give out my cell and contact information but once again we have tried to build a service-oriented business and this is one of the prices to pay.”

A new service Goehl is trying to implement is to set stockers up on a herd plan for x-amount per day. “They get a discount on product for enrolling that will give incentive and offset some of the cost,” he says. “We will then help keep records, etc. This also gives us a way to compensate for things such as reviewing a digital photograph which we currently do on a case-bycase basis.”

Decrease emergency work
Goehl’s practice has worked hard to decrease emergency work. “Client education helps but I credit some of it to a changing structure of the beef industry where we are,” he says. “Herds have gotten bigger and as they get bigger the ownership tends to become more able to handle emergencies. We have also added doctors to spread out the after hours calls. Also, as we look to add services or emphasize services the amount of emergency work goes into the equation on how hard to push a service.”

New client consultation
With new cattle producer clients, especially sizable ones, Goehl likes to go visit, sit down with them, discuss his services and their operation, and draw up a herd plan. He has a standardized plan that he can make subtle changes to depending on the client. “We look at where they want their herd to go and what level they want to be at, what level of biosecurity and biocontainment they are after, depending on what segment they are in,” he says. “It’s fair to do it that way, charge for it hourly and require it up front. The client realizes then that the quality of work or  the relationship you are going to have is maybe more than they have had in the past. I think this helps establish a relationship and lets them know you are serious about providing a service.”

Support your staff
The face at your front desk, the voice on your practice’s phone or the attitude of your technicians has a lot to do with a practice’s success. “I get very annoyed when I call a business and they have poor phone skills,” Goehl says. “This is the first contact a client has with us and if our front desk messes that up I may never get a chance to even meet the person. Our front line team can funnel in or out a lot of business. Have you ever called a business and are not for sure you even have the right number? When we answer the phone we stress to state the business, your name and how can I help.” Goehl also instructs his front desk to not tell a caller the person they want is not there and just leave it at that. “It should be ‘they are not here can I get a number, etc. and call you back or have someone else help?’.”

One way to keep track of calls is to have a running journal of every phone call or relevant walk-in so that at the end of the day it can be reviewed for missed or returned calls. “I tell my receptionist that if she falls over unconscious I want to be able to come in and read the day journal and know what needs to be done,” Goehl says.

Having good communication with the staff is imperative, and Goehl likes to have scheduled staff meetings. “We don’t just want to schedule staff meetings because we’re not happy,” he said. “We want to have interaction with the staff.”

Goehl also makes sure his staff has training to make sure clients are treated the way they need to be. “We’ll have them trained on flea preventive, deworming, large animal vaccines, etc., whatever is up-to-date and current.” He also will send support staff to seminars on customer service, handling clients or managing stress. “We want them to feel like they are part of the team.”

“Fire engine” to “service provider”
“From the time I graduated veterinary school, everyone discussed moving from ‘fire engine practice’ to being a service provider,” Goehl says. “I have found this very difficult in a mixed animal practice in northeast Missouri. It is one of our goals, however, and we have constantly worked toward that end. Many of the things that we have tried to implement that have not succeeded have still increased our knowledge base and scope of practice.”

Numbers and knowledge are only useful if they are implemented, Goehl adds. “Don’t expect what you don’t inspect. Teach your clients (and staff) and then go back and inspect how they are doing.”

And above all else, says Goehl, “Don’t price yourself out of business by undervaluing your services.”

 

Small business books
Dan Goehl, DVM, recommends these books that can give insight into succeeding in a small business. These books are available on www.amazon.com.

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael E. Gerber
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins
• Multiple marketing books by Dan S. Kenney including The Ultimate Marketing Plan: Target Your Audience! Get Out Your Message! Build Your Brand! and The Ultimate Marketing Plan: Find Your Hook. Communicate Your Message. Make Your Mark.