Time to throw away the rule book and do something new - Veterinary Practice
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Time to throw away the rule book and do something new

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession and the world around.

Re-thinking the large animal business model really did work and we need to find enough consensus among ourselves to adopt the same process of brave thinking in small animal practice.

THERE was an interesting snippet
of TV footage on the BBC World
news as I watched it in my hotel
room in Brno. It featured a series of
adult, and otherwise employable
men who were helping establish a
pilot scheme to interest the long-
term unemployed in doing voluntary
work in return for their
unemployment benefit.

The item was of real interest for
several reasons: because it finally called
time- out on the
unsustainable practice
of paying anyone for
organised inactivity,
because it recognised
that the long-term
unemployed have
pride too and are
willing to do
something, and
maybe almost
anything, to re-establish their self
esteem, and because it trumpeted a
willingness to throw away the rule book
and start with a clean sheet of paper to
plan the future.

It was even more interesting because
I was in Brno, talking to Czech students
about doing things differently in practice
and, time and time again, the comment
came that in Eastern Europe people
have less disposable income.

Change behaviour

My argument probably fell on deaf ears
but it was simply that to effect change
in the market, you have to change
behaviour. To do that, you may have to
change your own behaviour too.

At the London Vet Show, several of
the speakers commented on the
business environment becoming
tougher and one, Arnold Levy,
advocated the need for constant
observation of the business
environment and a willingness to adjust
and fine tune one’s business offering
along the way. Most definitely, don’t just
sit back and hope for the best!

Another, Alan Robinson, made it
clear that the current changes in our
business environment will force us all to review, and possibly change, the way in
which our practices are organised in
order to remain profitable and

Both points of view are absolutely
in line with the overriding business
premise that survival is for the fittest
amongst us and that bemused inertia
will only lead us down a one-way street.

It is refreshing to see people actually
admitting that it is getting tough out
there and at the show I spoke to several practitioners who said
that, despite a chilly
start when many
clients simply didn’t
manage to get into the
practice, life has been
bumping along all
year, more or less
cheerfully, until hitting
a brick wall in August.

The same
expression and the same timing were expressed so many times, I began to
wonder if this comment had been
orchestrated by some outside force but
the situation links back to public anxiety,
an indecisive election and the slow,
numbing spread of more and more
depressing media coverage of our
financial future.

Who can blame someone, employed
in what now appears to be a high-risk
occupation such as local government or
any of the public services, for thinking
that this was never their game plan.

Many people who seek employment
in the local authority are simply not
creative, entrepreneurial or risk takers
and, faced with a real threat of the
widespread culling of up to 500,000
jobs, which of us might seek any other
solution than battening down the
hatches as the storm approaches?

Making choices

It is somewhat galling for those of us
who chose to be entrepreneurial and to
develop our practices to accommodate
the radiant consumer demand by
making available more elective services
and products, to have to recognise that,
in battening down the hatches, consumers are beginning to make
choices about their real level of need for
the things we’ve chosen to change our
business model to provide them.

Many of these clients are beginning
to question their real need to keep
vaccinations current, whether to go on
buying flea and worm products from
their vet when there appear to be
remarkably similar options available in
Tesco, and whether the quality of the
food they’ve been buying for Tiddles or
Towser really is quite so critical in these
difficult times.

Bonded clients

For some, these are not difficult
decisions and they are so bonded to the
veterinary advice they’ve been receiving
that there is no question about their
commitment to continue but, as has
been pointed out before, these are the
people who make up the main body of
our existing client base.

We already have these
people and we need to be
extremely watchful to
ensure that nothing
happens to allow them to
even think momentarily
about changing their vet!
It is the other group that
we need to worry about.

When the FAB talked
about having around 10%
of pet owners solidly
bonded to their vet and a
further 40% floating
around, fully cognisant of
the need, the scientific
argument and their responsibility to do
all the right things for their pets but
governed by inertia rather than action,
these comments were made against a
backdrop of comparative, universal
affluence within the UK but now, in
face of real public anxiety about the
nation’s and their own financial futures,
these data suddenly make chilling sense.

It is this 40% who will choose
whether to buy their elective purchases
from us, from a more competitive
veterinary practice or from a different
retail channel altogether. Alternatively, making no decision
is the easiest thing to do because it
allows clients to keep their options open
by doing nothing at all.

Isn’t that why, as a nation, we love
insurance as it gives us the security to be
able to fiddle while Rome burns?

There was a time when, perhaps,
some of us in small animal practice
looked at our large animal colleagues
with just a frisson of schadenfreude –
wondering where had it all gone wrong
and why hadn’t they forecast this
collapse of the old world which had led
to such a pressing need to re-think their
business model?

Now, several decades on, we in the small animal camp,
have an increasing
need to do something
similar, to re-assess
the business model
and to throw away the
rule book before it is
too late.

It isn’t perfect in
large animal practice
and with farm gate
prices at such low
levels, dairy farming is
becoming less
attractive all over
again, but re-thinking the large animal business model really
did work and we need to find enough
consensus among ourselves to adopt
the same process of brave thinking in
small animal practice.

Without consensus, we cannot
agree even on the size of the blank
piece of paper needed to draft a new

It’s ironic, isn’t it? As a profession,
we should know all about chickens and
eggs but even now we find it
impossible to agree on which should
come first.

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