We are not paid for just turning up and looking the part... - Veterinary Practice
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We are not paid for just turning up and looking the part…

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

READING an excellent article about
marketing in practice, I was struck
by the opening passage: “As we
begin to emerge from last year’s
economic slowdown…” and that sent
me off down a completely different
train of thought, as I am not sure
that we are, yet, really emerging
from the slowdown.

Three years ago we had the “credit
crunch” and now that has settled into a
recession from which, our politicians tell
us, any unscathed
emergence will be
unlikely. We blithely
bandy around glib
phrases like “no pain,
no gain” but what
does that actually
mean, in real-life

I did a straw poll
of friendly practitioners (and by “friendly” I mean
honest!) and found that most were in
sufficient control of their business to
recognise that their turnover for this
year so far was between 6-10% down on
what they had budgeted.

For most, the horrific start to the
year with appalling weather and
widespread snowfall had left them on the
back foot throughout the period but with
insufficient seasonal uplift to catch up the
lost revenue from January and February.

None of us should be foolish
enough to think that turnover is an
adequate business marker and several
practices in this mini-survey were
struggling to avoid having to make
someone redundant or were trying to
avoid replacing a lost member of staff.

There has been very little
publication of any widespread
redundancies but it is clear that a
number of practices have already, or will
need to, cut their salary costs if they are
to maintain a reasonable profit margin.
Sadly, cash flow issues affect even the
most robust businesses and most
partners and principals have only so
much personal finance available to inject
into their businesses when cash flow
problems occur.

So, from the practice owner’s
perspective, any slowdown in footfall
will soon result in an imbalance between
turnover and committed expenditure
and will immediately damage the
bottom line. Why then, did so many in
this snapshot survey, talk about salaried
staff apparently standing around with
not enough to do?

As an adolescent, I worked for a
leading supermarket chain during one
summer holiday and was appalled to learn, at the end of the
period, that I would
not be invited back to
repeat the exercise as I
had demonstrated far
too little initiative in
finding things to do
when I was

I learned very
quickly that I was being paid not just to turn up but to
make a difference and it was clear, from
the comments of some practice owners
almost 50 years later, that even salaried
veterinarians can still get confused about
what is expected from them. The
concept of taking collective
responsibility doesn’t stop with our
coalition leaders!

Without doubt, the whole business
of being a practice owner is changing.
Not only are these veterinarians now
expected to be experts in employment
law, human resources, professional
management, waste disposal, health and
safety, first aid and ecological
responsibility, they now have to manage
a business in a far more competitive
environment than ever before.

To get some idea of the scale of the
change, I looked at the latest Vetfile data
which shows that in the RCVS
Manpower survey of 1998, some 2,800
practices were listed and that this
number has risen inexorably to 4,156 in
2010. Together with this very
significant rise in actual, physical
competition, practice owners now have
to cope with the widening availability of
many of the same drugs sold within
practice, through other outlets facilitated by a “suitably qualified person” as well
as a selection of drugs which are really
the same as the ones they sell, such as
imidacloprid, but repackaged,
renamed and available through outlets
as diverse as pet stores and

We have, to date, been spared any
significant involvement in this
marketplace by retail pharmacists but
the number of people showing interest
in the veterinary pharmacy course is
increasing and one can imagine that, if
retail pharmacists begin to feel the
shopkeepers’ pinch, there may well be
more interest shown in what this
profession is doing.

What does all this mean, in practice?
It’s all really a bit of a curate’s egg as, on
the one hand, we have well-established
practices feeling at least some draft as
the economic humour of the country
continues its turgid flow.

We’ve seen some redundancies,
many practices appear to be delaying
any replacement of staff and, where
jobs are being advertised, applicants are
either deciding that the devil they know
is preferable to the uncertainty of a last-
in, first-out appointment or, if the
marketing of that job is done
particularly well, the post is inundated
with interested applicants.

Better prepared

This takes me back to where I started
with the original article on marketing.
Without doubt, the old adage holds true
that those who market their way out of
a crisis (provided they do so within
affordable confines) will be better
prepared to accelerate away once the
final hurdle has been overcome – but
there’s more to it than that.

To see it as being a simple expedient
to forestall disaster is really to miss the
point and is possibly akin to those who
have been devout agnostics for a lifetime,
discovering their faith at the last minute
as a sort of spiritual insurance policy.

The Chartered Institute of
Marketing defines marketing as “the
management process responsible for
identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably”. To
take this concept on board, the
profession must firstly accept, even
through gritted teeth, that it will be the
ability to satisfy these customer
requirements which will mean the
difference between success or failure in
business terms, and not the excellence
of the veterinary capability offered by
the practice.

Of course, no self-respecting
combined scientist/clinician/surgeon/pharmacolo
gist and all-round professional likes to
think that the ephemera of consumer
demand should come before the
evidence-based application of hard-won
skills but some things are inescapable
and the obvious need to sell one’s skills
in a competitive market means that one
has to lay out one’s stall in a way that
customers notice.

To date, a number of practices have
done so extremely successfully by
simply asking clients – existing and
floating – what they like and dislike
about the practice and then acting on
the results to provide a level of service
and convenience allied to the
presentation of their products and skills
in a manner that satisfies their own
professional reserve.

No one wants veterinary practice to
turn out like the room on Big Brother or
for clients to be treated as contestants
for the X Factor but we have no choice
but to engage with the world in which
our clients operate so that we can
anticipate and satisfy their requirements.

That, somewhat sadly, is what we
should be teaching our new graduates as
well as how to spay a cat quickly and
professionally. As we should all know,
none of us is being paid just to turn up
and look the part.

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