Is there something we can learn from accountants? - Veterinary Practice
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Is there something we can learn from accountants?

in which a guest columnist takes
the temperature of the profession –
and the world around

THERE is a firm of accountants, London based but with branches elsewhere in the country, which has chosen to take customer service to a different level with its “While you are here…” programme. The theory is simple; the firm recognises that people are very busy and that everyone has a mixture of tasks to achieve in everyday life as well as in their workplace. Most importantly, the accountants recognise that there is plenty of competition and that, to a certain extent, the professional accreditation that recognises them as chartered accountants confirms on the mind of the consumer the fact that all chartered accountants are capable, reliable and professional, thereby creating a commodity out of the profession. How ironic that the public recognition all professionals seek has come round almost full circle. When you think about it, it isn’t the professional accreditation that has caused the problem of commoditisation, it’s the ubiquity of supply that encourages consumers to make a selection of their chosen service provider based on a series of individual requirements rather than any specific test of fitness for purpose. This latter test is taken as read, because of the recognised universal standard of achievement and, as is so often heard, the public thinks that all vets walk on water.

Simple idea

The accountants’ “While you are here…” concept is such a simple idea. It recognises that if their clients are distracted by thinking about their need to get some shopping done, pay in some cheques, buy petrol, get cash out of the bank, etc., then not only will they not be concentrating fully on the matter in hand, they may be trying to rush though the important parts of the process to manage their time in order to get other things done. In just the same way that many hotels run a concierge service to find you theatre tickets, get your dry cleaning done, have the car washed or serviced, etc., so this chain of accountants is willing to provide a personal concierge service for its clients while they are in the building. When questioned, one of the directors commented that clients are now more willing to meet on-site and that while everyone liked and appreciated the offer of assistance, the things that they have been asked to do for clients have been minor and undemanding. The benefit is clear and is valued by clients; the cost to the provider has been minimal to date. The ubiquity of service provision, the universality of recognised standards of service provision and the willingness of consumers to shop around or to change horses completely, provides considerable similarity between the two professions of accountancy and veterinary practice. In both cases, there is over supply and little clear differentiation between suppliers, requiring consumers to make choices based on other factors than capability or fitness for purpose. Without doubt, we have oversupply of veterinary practices for the UK small animal market. No one is quite sure just how many cats and dogs we have now but the general consensus is that there
are around 14 million of them as there were in the late 1980s. Around that time, there were around 3,900 veterinary practice addresses and the split between exclusively small animal practices and mixed practices was around 50:50. There were far fewer farm animal practices, of course, but still several times the number we have today.

Few farm animal practices

In July 2011, we have just 79 farm animal practices in the UK but 2,714 small animal practices and just 1,262 mixed practices. In total, today’s pet owners can choose from 4,332 business addresses to purchase their veterinary care1 and we know from data published around six years ago that more than 20% of pet owners using the vet used more than one practice.2 In addition, Fort Dodge Indices show that veterinary footfall has been declining at an almost steady rate since 2002 with the numbers of active clients and active patients having declined by 19% between 2002 and 2010.3 Not only do we have too many veterinary practices to meet the diminishing demand, but we now have too many veterinary surgeons chasing the elusive, more lucrative work and a raft of other purchase points for much of the preventive care business which was largely the veterinary preserve until the Competition Commission rewrote the rules.

Strategic changes

At that time, instead of seeing Baroness Kingsmill as the villain of the piece, perhaps the profession should have taken the opportunity to assess the likely impact and make strategic changes to the element of our future which we could control. In hindsight, more help from the Government of the time should have been forthcoming as the veterinary profession was among the last to be reviewed and, to some extent, deregulated. We can all have a doctorate in hindsight, however, but it is foresight which we urgently need now. There is nothing which currently suggests that veterinary practice footfall will miraculously improve in the next decade if left to its own devices and the Fort Dodge data show a definite trend of attrition which, if left unchecked, will result in veterinary unemployment and some practice closures.

The great leveller

A Keynesian economist would say that market forces are the great leveller and that this would simply provide the checks and balances which we are unwilling or unable to make for ourselves. In many ways, the decision is the easier part of the conundrum: do we, as a profession, wish to be masters of our own destiny or do we want to simply go with the flow regardless of the outcome? If we are able to answer that question, then – if we choose to take control of our future – the harder part comes in collectively finding the right way forward. For this to happen, we will need to entrust the primary discussion to our elected representatives and then make decisions which are designed to effect significant change alongside some monitoring process to chart our progress. Some could argue that, whether we need a veterinary union or the BVA is not really the point, what we do need is a representative body which will take the responsibility to guide this profession into safer waters. Perhaps what we need
is to rediscover the excitement and energy which saw the creation of the highly successful BSAVA so many years ago and to harness that same energy in defence of our profession. The RCVS has been criticised in the past for exceeding its remit but there is a real and increasingly urgent need for one of the many representative bodies to take the lead here. Until then, we will be forced to find ways to differentiate ourselves from other practices, constantly redistributing a slowly diminishing pool of business amongst ourselves to gain some advantage for our own business. “While you are here…” is a laudable way of doing just that but it is little more than sticking-plaster therapy. We won’t do that for our patients so why do

we insist on doing it for our own future?

  1. Vetfile, July 2011.
  2. Onswitch, data on file.
  3. Fort Dodge Indices, quarter 4, 2010.

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