How to approach your veterinary practice challenges with alternative thinking

by By Kate Zirkle

15 min read

Unprecedented times, periods of upheaval and tumultuous change, valleys of hardship that we think will exist indefinitely —  not to start this off on such a grim note but let’s face it, these are all inevitable challenges of real life for any of us in veterinary practices.

While accepting this to be true may be healthy for the psyche, allowing it to permit a lack of resolve for resilience and growth is not, especially in business. Uncertain and trying times like we find ourselves in today require some creativity, because what was “normal” is no more and therefore our previous mode of operation can no longer exist. 

Many times in the onset of a crisis, our basic human response is defensiveness and questioning: 

  • “What do I do?” 
  • “How are we going to get through this?” 
  • “I don’t know if we can make it.”

So, how do we get past our auto-negative mindsets?

Veterinary practice challenges require new mindsets 

A small daschund dog poking his head out of a cardboard box.We first reframe it and ask a better question that actually serves us – “How can we get better BECAUSE of this?” Once we’ve found a better perspective, only then can we move forward with a different action, which takes me to the next point. 

I’m certain everyone has heard the old adage “think outside the box.” This may prove to be good advice in good times because it forces us to explore outside of familiarity and security, but right now, it just might not be enough. 

First of all, when the dust settles, the box will still be there to drift back or cling to, and secondly, when enough stress and pressure is applied, we do not come out of a challenge the same as we went in. The old ways cease thanks to a forced evolution so the box does nothing but hold us back and give us excuses. 

So, BLOW UP THE BOX! Today’s problems won’t be solved by yesterday’s strategies. Now that demands an Amen!

But what does this look like for the veterinary profession in light of current pandemic pressures we’re facing? Now that we are several weeks in, there are many great strategies out there that some of you are likely already implementing. But, if you’re stuck or looking for something more, below you’ll find “blow up the box” tactics chunked into three key areas vital to our success in practice – client experience, hospital culture, and financial health.

3 “blow up the box” tactics to solve veterinary practice challenges

1: Blow up your old client service habits

An image of an open van trunk, ready for curbside pickupA world of social distance and quarantine doesn’t lend well to the “if you build it they will come” model so clients need to be reached in other ways now more than ever. 

This means concierge medicine, telemedicine, and curbside services in an effort to meet people where they are. Of course, new practices often require increased communication, training, and revised staff schedules, to name a few. I’ve found, from learning the hard way, one of the most efficient methods of killing a good idea is to not think through the ripple effect and prepare accordingly. 

I believe one of the greatest opportunities we have, as we start to come out of this pandemic, is to evaluate the changes COVID-19 forced upon us and determine which have a place in our “new normal.” I’ve had more than one colleague tell me that these last few months have been a veterinarian’s dream – we get to practice medicine, take care of patients, and not deal with clients! On the flip side as a practitioner, I’ve also had numerous clients voice their appreciation for the new conveniences. 

While there will absolutely always be a need for pet parents to be present with their furry family member in the exam room, let’s be creative in how we continue giving 110% to an excellent client experience long after the effects of COVID-19 have passed.

2: Blow up how you approach your staff

No, this doesn’t mean losing your proverbial stuff in front of them. It means that we lead those we serve differently through a crisis. As John Maxwell so eloquently puts it “A leader knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” 

Let’s break this down into actionable steps:

  • Demonstrate confidence and get organized — Unknowns require take-charge, swift decisions, and when things are scary or new, it will be harder for your staff to interpret what is needed of them and take initiative on their own. That’s why it is important for them to receive clear, concise direction from you. Put systems in place to streamline flow and efficiency for the new normal as much as possible, including streamlining communication by having regular or more frequent all-out team meetings and quick huddles. By getting organized, the hospital as a whole can operate on “default mode” by establishing good habits that everyone can naturally follow.
  • Be honest and positive — Although many don’t automatically agree with this level of openness, I believe our job as a leader is to create clarity and hope. Lead with open and honest dialogue on the state of things, but show up with positivity and courage for them, even if you are worried on the inside. Remember, you can help shape their perspective as mentioned above by conveying how as a team you will meet the challenges and also by how you celebrate the small victories every day. For example, a colleague of mine recently shared in conversation that she was often tying it back to KPIs: “even though we are in a recession, here is how we are doing compared to the rest of the world or other hospitals.” And she wraps it up with praise to them: “Thanks to you all for working so hard through this difficult time.”
  • Double down on emotional intelligence and empathy — Leading with empathy and a strong culture of support is epically important during any harder than normal time. Stay connected to the needs of your team – check in with everyone frequently on how they are doing and what they need. A little emotional intelligence goes a long way. 

3: Blow up the bottom line

A screenshot of the VetSuccess Industry Impact Tracker, showcasing changes in daily revenue and invoices per practiceHistorically, our profession has done a poor job of leading our businesses like what they are, small businesses. 

Recent headlines around wellness and wellbeing have helped raise awareness of the importance of wellbeing. The top three contributors to poor wellbeing and career satisfaction come down to money – low compensation, high student debt, and work/life balance which most often loops back around to the first two points. 

It’s been interesting to watch hospital trends in revenue and client visits. While factors like geography and state mandates around what range of services we provide impact these trends, we consistently find examples of hospitals who have “blown up the box” and are significantly bucking the trends. These hospitals are exceeding state and federal guidelines around COVID-19 and creating environments where their team wants to come to work, which says a lot these days given the unemployment benefits!  

What separates these hospitals from average? Two components – Mindset (see the intro to this blog) and financial health going INTO the pandemic. When, either personally or professionally, we live on the edge of making ends meet, it’s difficult to take the risk of blowing up the box. Hospitals that are thriving now, and by all accounts should continue to thrive as we enter the next phase, are hospitals that have intentionally managed their hospitals to create free cash flow and a safety net.

Veterinary practice challenges won’t last forever

Entropy and the world around us keep things moving, so the great news is hard times do not last forever. Given that many things are never going to be the same after COVID-19 and that backward isn’t an option, our only choice is forward. 

Fortunately, we have a chance to make our profession and ourselves better, despite (and thanks to!) the challenges we face today. So, will you become locked like a time capsule in your box? Or will you lead your team through this and come out a new and improved version on the other side.

Kate Zirkle

Kate Zirkle

Kate Zirkle is a Product Marketing Manager for Vetsource. She is passionate about animal rescue, personal development, and travel. When not working to advance the veterinary industry, she can be found kayaking, reading, and planning her next trip.

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