Small practices need to toughen up for the retail turf war... - Veterinary Practice
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Small practices need to toughen up for the retail turf war…

Robin Fearon went to listen to the irrepressible Dr Ernie Ward at last month’s BSAVA congress and heard him challenge owners of small clinics to meet the many challenges posed by others…

IT’S war out there, according to
Ernie Ward. The US vet and media
personality spoke at the BSAVA
management stream on practice
strategy to toughen small clinics up
for turf war, as the battle with big
retailers and corporates heats up.

Huge retail operations, corporate
buyers and online
have chipped
away at
but he
suggested there are four ways for
smaller clinics to fight smarter.

Individualised service, flexibility,
value creation and community
involvement are opportunities to show
how small is beautiful.

The magic starts at reception, said
Ernie, so re-think your relationship
with the client. “Make sure when they
walk in that they are treated warmly
and personally. Everybody on your
staff needs to know the next three
appointments by name and the reason
for their visit.”

Getting into the habit of checking
the schedule produces results. A new
client could walk in with a dog and
though the receptionist does not
recognise the person can address him
or her by name and
know the pet’s name.
“You want the
relationship to start as
soon as they hit your
front step,” said Ernie.

Details such as
calling or e-mailing a
client afterwards to see
how the appointment
went and checking that
medication is going
well takes little effort
and makes all the
difference. Asking about other pets and family members,
or sending congratulatory cards for
special events like graduations or
sporting wins, creates loyalty.

Treat all your clients as VIPs and
the effects will be felt throughout the
business, but observe the Pareto
principle: 80% of profits come from 20% of your clients. “I get my staff to
memorise the top 20 spenders in my
practice by name and I tell them to be
familiar with the top 100,” said Ernie.
“Send them cards and pay special
attention to them because these people
are paying your salaries.”

Important moments

Ernie is a vet in Calabash, North
Carolina, and is known for his TV
appearances in the US as well as
regular business lectures on the
veterinary circuit and a love for
gruelling Iron Man triathlon events.
Healthy mind and body, healthy
practice, was a clear theme underlying
his presentations.

Defining the practice mission and
individual goals are important moments in a
clinician’s or a practice
owner’s life. “Most
people suffer from the
lack of a clear
objective,” said Ernie.
“They have simple
metrics they go back to.
Did we make more or
less money? If you are
only chasing money that
is shallow.”

But simply
providing better veterinary services is not enough
either. “For me it would have to be
about the quality of interactions,” he

Make an impact

“What were the stories, the lives I
touched? How did I make an impact in
my community? How did I help one
cause that I am really passionate
about? I don’t know what the answers
are for you but until you have them
you cannot move forward.”

Left field thinking means looking
beyond pricing. If big companies are
not providing a particular service or
product, or educating clients in a
certain way, then you should. Use
value creation as your guide.

“Go where they are not,” said
Ernie. “You cannot compete strength
on strength with them. They can out-
market and out-advertise you, they can
charge less than you. You have to find
where they are not because that is
where you compete best.”

Smaller practices can adapt to
market changes and adopt new
products faster, because they take
time to clear through corporate
channels. “They must negotiate with a
company, make a deal, develop
marketing strategies, get orders and
train their staff,” he said.

“You might have a couple of months to beat them.
That is time to
establish buying habits,
which is important in
consumer behaviour. If
we create a channel
where they can buy a
product or have a
service, then they tend
to come back.”

Buyer behaviour is
influenced by convenience. If your
client goes to a dog
groomer and they start
selling shampoos,
leashes and food, then
chances are they will start
buying there. “We are creatures of
habit so we need to get them in the
habit of interacting, buying product
and services from the vet clinic,” said

Know your enemy. Visit stores
and take notes or pictures on your
phone. You are not just competing with the practice across town and you
need to know what is out there. This
is vital reconnaissance, said Ernie, so
do it at least every three to six
months. Check the price of the top
10 products you sell at the top four or
five online retailers or pharmacies.
This process takes about 20 minutes
once a month, but provides vital information.

Being realistic about the products
that you stock means
getting rid of those
that do not sell. Be
prepared to lose
money on boxes
gathering dust just to
get rid of them.

“You can change
an entire product line
in a week,” said Ernie.
“To reps I say that if
your product is not
moving in my clinic
then it is ‘adios’. This
is business.”

Clients do not miss a product or a
brand: they follow the clinician’s lead.
“What clients love more than that
product is your recommendation,”
asserted Ernie. “At big box stores
they know people do not have loyalty
to a brand or product, but to the
information provider. There is a huge distinction.”

Practices should aspire most of all to being a trusted source, so use
traditional and social media to inform
and educate clients.

“I want to be part of the
community and as a professional, as a
business, you need to lead,” he concluded. “The more that you are
seen as an authority, the better it is
for your business.

“There is no reason why we
should not continue to thrive as small
clinics, but we have to be strategic,
thoughtful and committed. Combine
those elements and we win.”

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