On The Front Lines

Your practice’s administrative staff can help drive your success. For practitioners looking for their first admin, here are some basic guidelines from been-there-done-that colleagues.
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Whether you call them administrative assistants, clerical staff, support team or office managers, these people are invaluable to your business. From answering phones to managing the pharmacy, they are the pros that handle myriad day-to-day functions so you can focus on being a veterinarian.

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Critical Positions

The administrative staff at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, represents roughly 25 percent of its 200 employees. “Hiring the best people for these positions is extremely important because we’re running a business, not just a hospital,” says Dr. Bill Rood. “Vets should understand that in order to manage any size practice for growth and profitability, a good support team is critical.” Dr. Patricia Blakeslee of Unionville Equine Associates (UEA) in Oxford, Pennsylvania, agrees: “Our support team represents half of our 14-person practice. They are the ‘do it all’ people who handle everything from scheduling appointments to billing. If they don’t take good care of us, we can’t take good care of our patients.”

The same holds true for small practices. Dr. Frank Reilly in West Chester, Pennsylvania, knows a capable office manager is a necessity. And he knows what happens when the wrong person is in the job. “We had a bad experience with someone who had such a bad attitude that we actually lost clients.” To that point, human resources consultant Kurt Oster adds: “An admin is often your client’s first and last impression. I can’t overestimate the value of the right choice for your team.”

While an individual who answers the phone and talks with clients should know the difference between a Coggins test and a colic, this knowledge can be taught. However, inherent traits like attitude and personality are even more important.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

During the current economic downturn, one thing that’s gotten easier is finding excellent administrative candidates. That’s especially true if you have a good reputation in your locale, says Rood. “We find most of our people through word-of-mouth. We are very visible in the region and have a steady stream of people who know about us and come here looking for work.” Reilly also believes that, as in marketing, word-of-mouth networking is the best source for candidates.

Unionville likes to advertise in regional equine media. Candidates that respond to those ads may have some horse experience, which is valuable. However, Blakeslee notes that she doesn’t particularly like to hire clients or friends of clients. If it doesn’t work out, it can be very awkward. When you’re running an ad, however, note that wording is extremely important. Make sure you clearly detail the skills and expectations of the job. If the receptionist is expected to move boxes around the pharmacy, include, “must be able to lift 50 lbs.” If weekends or nights are part of the job, include that as well.

“Ads are your best screening tool,” says Oster. “A well-worded ad attracts and screens candidates at the same time. Run an ad stating all of your requirements and wishes, even if it’s more expensive, because you’re better off attracting five good candidates than 50 bad ones. In addition to traditional media, you can use online and free resources like craigslist.com.”

Personality References are Key

Once you’ve decided to interview a candidate, an absolute “must do” on everyone’s list is to check references, and get creative about it, too. “Someone might interview well and have a great resume, but references can make or break them. We want to speak to at least two or three former employers and acquaintances to find out if the candidate will fit in with our team,” Blakeslee says. Do they get along well with others; are they reliable; do they have a Type A personality? Some references will only confirm employment history. But if you ask the right questions, many will find a way of sharing the kind of information you’re seeking with you. One great interview question is, “If this job was open in the future, and this person applied, would they be rehired?”

Once the candidate has arrived for the interview, be sure to ask the right questions in the right manner, and watch the body language. Many human resources experts recommend using behavior-based interviewing techniques. The questions in a behavior-based interview are designed to determine if the candidate has a history of performing desired behaviors that you want in your practice. Most terminations come from a poor attitude and/or personality fit, so hiring someone with a history of the proper behaviors improves your odds for a good fit. You can teach veterinary medicine and admin skills, but you can’t teach personality.

“Although it’s nice to have some kind of horse background plus the right set of administrative skills, including attention to detail and commitment,” Rood says, “it’s essential for admins to have good communication and people skills.”

Compensation Counts

The best salaries and benefits attract the best candidates, plain and simple. Even in this economy, you’re competing with law firms and other healthcare businesses, so you need to offer a good package. Rood and Blakeslee both agree you can enhance entry-level compensation by pointing out how other admins have grown—career- and salary-wise—over the years. You can also set up salary ranges for skills. As the entry-level person learns and gains new skills that are useful to practice growth, the salary will also increase according to a step-wise system.

Adds Reilly: “You can add non-monetary value to the job by creating ‘islands of sanctuary’ for your people. We are very liberal about personal time for sick children or a loved one coming home from military duty, letting people go home early after a crazy week and creating a positive working environment.” If you’re not sure what to offer, Oster says, “the Internet makes it easy to find out the local market rate in your practice area for any administrative position.”

SIDEBAR 1

Five Interview Questions for Administrative Candidates

1. Describe a time when you went out of your way to deliver exceptional customer service to a client.

2. Describe how you handled working on a team where someone didn’t like you.

3. Give me an example of an important goal and how you went about meeting it.

4. Describe the most creative project you’ve done at work. What were the benefits to the workplace?

5. Describe a situation where you had to make a quick decision.

SIDEBAR 2

About Our Resources

William A. Rood, DVM, partnered with Dr. Thomas Riddle in 1986 in Lexington, Kentucky, to handle the area’s growing horse population. Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital is now one of the nation’s largest, full-service equine referral hospitals and is a worldwide leader in equine healthcare. Dr. Rood is also a founding member of Veterinary Management Group III, composed of veterinarians who meet yearly to discuss topical equine issues.
Patricia Blakeslee, VMD, joined Unionville Equine Associates (UEA) in 1990 in Chester Country, Pennsylvania, a practice that services a wide range of horses owned by hobbyists to USET Olympians. Dr. Blakeslee is a 1988 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and received certification in Animal Chiropractic in 1998 and Equine Acupuncture in 2003.

Frank K. Reilly, DVM, has practiced equine medicine and surgery for more than 20 years. After working at racetracks along the eastern seaboard, he started his private practice in 1987 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, focusing on show hunters and jumpers as well as race, event, dressage and pleasure horses. A graduate of the University of Illinois, Dr. Reilly is gaining a national reputation for his research about insulin, laminitis and stem cell usage.

Kurt Oster, MS, SPHR, has more than 25 years of veterinary practice management experience. He is certified as a Senior Professional by the Society for Human Resource Management and consults on veterinary practice operations and HR management. His advice has been published in books and magazines including AAHA Trends, Veterinary Practice News, DVM Newsmagazine and DVM Training Room. He and his wife live in Connecticut and own 15 horses.