Time to try something different - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Time to try something different

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

THERE is a great dinner-party
game where all the guests sit around
and try to nominate the three people
they’d most like to share the future
with, in a post-apocalyptic world
where all the normal rules and
services of modern life have been
removed.

Of course, we’d need people to
organise food, others to arrange the
basics of clean water and sanitation or
security for our new microcosmic
society and this is usually where the
game falters as most of us don’t know
anyone capable of organising such
fundamentals of
society; or if we do,
we would probably
struggle to get them
to join our team as
they’d be in huge
demand.

Not only that but
this game needs a
certain frisson of
Cold War fear and a
healthy mistrust of another superpower
for people to engage with it and, in
today’s world, many of us fear Soviet
sabre-rattling rather less than trans-
Atlantic disingenuousness and are more
focused on finding new and entertaining
ways to lynch bankers than to worry
about how to dig an eco-friendly latrine.

We have perfected the art of
ignoring things which trouble us,
possibly because we feel that we are
largely powerless and without even a
voice to effect change. Additionally, we
recognise that societies – whether
national, political, religious or
professional – function like machines
and are resilient to any critical need to
change things.

We’ve seen political scandals come
and go and even when they’re on the
scale of MPs’ misappropriation of
expenses, deep down we know that,
despite all the outrage, nothing material
will happen to the miscreants and
nothing will change in the future. Is that
cynicism or just reality and is one just
the precursor to the other?

I was fortunate enough to be in
Barcelona for the Southern European
Veterinary Congress and näive enough
to have chosen the day when Spaniards were exhorted to form a national strike
to go walkabout in that wonderful city.

As luck would have it, the
authorities managed to contain the civil
unrest remarkably well and none of us
felt remotely threatened by the massed
ranks of protestors. Within 20 minutes
of the various processions passing
through the Playa Catalunya, the shops
and restaurants were all reopened for
business and life on Las Ramblas had
returned to normal.

As one young Spaniard told me,
“We cannot afford to strike. With
unemployment running at almost 20% in parts of Spain, who
can afford to strike
and what will it
achieve?” That
message and a sea of
discarded gold and red
beer and Coke cans –
almost as a parody of
the Catalan flag – are
my lasting images of the day of civil disobedience.
Little of this chimes in accord with veterinary practice in a wet and windy
British autumn but there is a
connection. If the Spanish, the Irish,
the Greeks, or we Brits for that matter,
are to see an improvement in our
national fortunes, we can either leave it
up to our elected representatives, we can
stamp our feet in protest or we can all
pull together to hasten the process.

Perhaps the Australians have done
us a slight disservice by referring to just
the Brits as whingeing Poms, as
complaint and dissent is commonplace
from Eire to Ecuador, but it should be
clear to everyone that negativity can
have no other sequelae than fomenting
further dissent, whereas a positive and
optimistic approach conveys much-
needed confidence.

How does this relate to everyday
practice? On the one hand, it’s obvious
that small animal practice dynamics
require us to arrest the decline in
practice footfall if we are to restore
healthy profit margins without reverting
to the old trick of hitting those who do
frequent our businesses with higher fees
to compensate for shrinking volume.

Contrary to what we might prefer to believe, veterinary practice is a “people
business” and healthy transactional
volume is its lifeblood. All around us we
see dramatically increased competition
both within and without the profession
but we still choose to conduct our
“people business” as we did 20 years
ago when the competition was scarcely
half what it is today.

We don’t have significantly more
animals to use as a platform for the
business and it is likely that we may have
a more or less similar universe of pets
but with fewer dogs and more cats,
although confidence in the robust
nature of these data is diminishing.

Whatever the actual UK pet
population, all the data point to an
urgent need to draw more pet owners
into practice and to restore confidence
in the relationship between pet owner
and practitioner that is indicated by the
significant decline in the numbers of
active patients and active clients/FTE
demonstrated by the Fort Dodge
Indices between 2002 and now.

There are a host of contributory
factors to explain such an attrition in
footfall, ranging from the drop-off in
numbers of the annual booster
vaccination and the accompanying
examination, through to the widespread
availability of what clients have come to
see as pet-care commodities in myriad
non-veterinary locations.

Ghastly expression

The Americans have a ghastly
expression which says that “if you do
what you always did, you’ll get what you
always got” but that’s no longer true, at
least not in the case of veterinary
practice. If we go on doing what we’ve
always done, we cannot any longer
expect to count on getting the return we
believe we should be getting, as the
world has moved on, leaving many small
animal practitioners behind.

If we want our clients to treat us as
a preferential source for their pet-care
business we have to provide an
attractive relationship which encourages
that interface between us.

Consumers are driven by brand
awareness and the supermarket chains
have formed powerful relationships
based on the promise and equity contained within
their brands. While “our” consumers
may have an infrequent relationship
with their chosen veterinary practice
(and may have a different type of
relationship with multiple practices),
these same consumers have a regularly
repeated, and therefore reinforced,
relationship with supermarkets and pet
superstores where the overall trust in
the brands sold supersedes any inability
of staff to give constructive advice.

More worryingly, product
recommendations by staff in pet
superstores and many other retail
outlets have now been legitimised by the
advent of SQP training, narrowing any
perceived difference between the
usefulness of the alternative sources for
product purchase in the eyes of many
consumers.

If veterinary practice is to restore
footfall it must find ways to develop and
foster relationships with pet owners,
especially when the pets are neither sick
nor injured.

We already know they will bring sick
and injured pets to the practice for
treatment but what encouragement are
we delivering for them to have a
productive relationship with us that will
steer them to purchase their pet-care
commodities, such as food, flea and
worm treatments, from us instead?

For us to create new reasons for pet
owners to come to us, we need to stick
our concerns and complaints into a
drawer and leave them there. To engage
with this group of people who are
already satisfied with a wide choice of
outlets for products to keep their pets
healthy, surely we need to invest far
more of our energies to engage with
these healthy pets in a wide range of
different ways.

Otherwise, quite frankly, why will
they bother?

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