While no two equine practices are the same, Equine Business Management Strategies’ 2014 Business Education Program September 7-11 at the Delafield Hotel in Delafield, Wisconsin, helped veterinarians and vet practice managers gain a better understanding of their individual businesses and how to make them more successful.
There were many team and individual exercises, with small and large group discussions that forced the participants to step outside their comfort zones and take a realistic look at their own equine practices.
Aided by his staff, Robert Magnus, DVM, MBA, the principal of Equine Business Management Strategies and owner of Wisconsin Equine Clinic and Hospital, ensured discussions by changing table seating each day, which allowed participants to exchange ideas with many different people.
One goal of the program was for each person to have found a “business buddy” with whom they could continue to communicate and exchange ideas in the months and years to come.
Although there is no substitute for immersion in a topic with your peers, personal interaction with others in your industry and professional leadership and support for discussions, in this article we will cover some of the tactics that you can successfully employ in your practice. Each of these will be highlighted as “Take Home. ”
Branding Your Business
Without a doubt, your brand is essential to the success of your business. In marketing terms, your brand is considered the symbol or words used to differentiate you from similar products. In reality, your brand is what your customers say and think it is.
It was a little scary at first for some of the people in the room to think that they aren’t the ones defining their brand. But in essence, they are. What you do and how you do it creates that definition in the minds of your customers. In the best-case scenario, that could mean that you see your brand as a general equine practice with a specialty in lameness, and your customers see you in the same way.
Or, in a worst-case scenario, you could see yourself as a general equine practice with a specialty in lameness, while your customers see you as a general practice (without the lameness specialty). They don’t see your brand the same way you do.
The owner and key staff members of LePoidevin Marketing from Brookfield, Wisconsin, spent the first day of the seminar helping veterinarians and practice managers in the room define their brands and understand how to better convey that brand to their customers. That conveyance included a discussion of many types of marketing tools and how to judge whether your marketing and messaging are working.
Defining Your Brand
Let’s start with a discussion of what your brand is and how you develop that brand. The LePoidevin marketing leaders wanted the vets and managers in the room to understand that your brand is not your name, your logo or a product; it’s how others perceive you. Your brand is the business’ purpose for existing.
Think of strong brands in and around you, such as Nike, Coca-Cola or Google. When you say those words, you have a specific reaction as an individual. Those “strong” brands communicate a uniqueness and specific qualities, and those brands “express a competitive difference,” according to the LePoidevin experts.
So, in essence, you create the customer experience, and they define your brand. If the experience is good, then you build loyalty and “positive buzz” for your business. If the customer experience is bad, then you not only have lost opportunity, but there is the potential for that dissatisfied customer to tell others how they define your brand (and that’s not good).
When you are defining your brand, you are developing its personality. “Dr. Smith’s clinic can handle anything, but it is the best around for colic.” “Jones Equine is the most technologically advanced practice in the area and can solve any lameness problem.”
If you are Dr. Smith’s clinic, and you want to be known as the equine go-to health care folks who are experts on colic in your area, does everyone who works for you know what you want your brand to be known for? Does everything you and your staff do and say support that brand? When you engage your customers or potential customers, does that brand resonate in every discussion?
Take Home: Write down what you think makes your practice stand out in your area. What are you known for? What do your clients think you can do better than anyone else? Ask your staff, your clients and even other equine service professionals (i.e., farriers, stable owners, referral hospitals, feed stores) to see what they say. Better yet, survey your customers (more on surveys in a moment).
There are many ways to learn more about your audience (horse owners and managers who are clients and potential clients in your area or region). But before you rush out to do a survey, first determine what you want to know and how the results of a survey will help your business.
First, never assume you understand your market. You might think your clients and potential clients have no interest in your input into their deworming decisions, but is that really true? You might want to invest in a digital X-ray unit, build a clinic or offer acupuncture, but do your clients want those services (and will they pay for them)?
The LePoidevin marketing team reminded the attendees that when you are gathering information, make sure you collect quantitative data and qualitative data. Quantitative data is factual information that can be collected through surveys, direct interviews or third-party sources (such as AAEP or EquiManagement ). Qualitative data seeks to get thoughts, opinions and feelings about a subject, usually through interviews and group discussions.
When collecting any type of information, it is important to ensure your questions allow you to get the facts and don’t “provoke” your desired response in the person answering the question. In other words, seek honest feedback and opinion and don’t steer the questions to get predetermined answers. Sometimes it is better if the persons answering the questions know who you are, and sometimes it is better if the survey is done “blinded” so the respondents don’t know who the information is for.
According to Team LePoidevin, understanding the thoughts, actions and feelings of your clients allows you to discover areas of need and determine how to deliver services that cover those areas of need.
Remember, as the practice owner, you are the “chief marketing officer” and “brand manager” of your practice, noted the LePoidevin people. However, every member of your staff is part of your marketing support team. Some will take a more active role than others, but every interaction with a client is a direct reflection of your brand. Consistency of your brand image and your messaging is important, especially with a larger veterinary practice, according to LePoidevin’s representatives.
Asking and receiving feedback from your staff is critical to your marketing efforts. Keep in mind that in order to keep this information flowing freely to you, anything that you consider a criticism should instead be seen as an opportunity for more effective communication between you, your staff and your clients.
If your receptionist (who speaks to your clients more often than you do) told you that Sally Smith is unhappy with the progress of her horse Buttercup, you might get upset that Sally didn’t tell that to you when you were out at her stable yesterday seeing another horse. Instead of snapping at the receptionist, thank the receptionist for letting you know, determine why Sally might not have told you and seek to resolve the problem. Make a point to call or stop by and see Sally and follow up on Buttercup. Maybe you were in a hurry the day before and Sally just didn’t want to seem like an over-anxious “horse mom” to you, but in a casual conversation with your receptionist she felt comfortable expressing her concern.
Part of your marketing effort is proactively addressing problems as they occur and trying to learn from them so you and your staff can do a better job in the future with all of your clients.
Perhaps what you learned from this problem with Sally Smith is that in the future, you could have your tech or receptionist give you notes on any other horses you or your colleagues treat in the barn where you are going.
This reminder can help you communicate more effectively to that client. It helps you remember to check up on any horse that has been ill or had an injury (especially if you are a multi-vet practice), or if one or more horses are due for dental work or vaccinations. That will probably garner you gratitude from the owner, and more business in the long run. That is marketing!
Take Home: Get together with your staff and ask them what they would like to ask your current customers and what they want to know about the horse industry in your area. Have someone take notes and make a list of the questions. Have whoever is leading your marketing efforts (whether internal or external) create a survey for your clients that can be sent by email (through something such as SurveyMonkey.com), surface mail and/or hand-delivered as you are making calls. Analyze the answers and determine what marketing efforts can be made to better communicate your brand to your clients and the industry in your area.
Sales and Marketing
How do you feel about “selling” in your practice? It was interesting that most veterinarians and practice managers in the room were not comfortable with a discussion of sales. They were happy talking about marketing and the cause and effects of marketing, but when it came time to talk about “closing the deal,” they didn’t want to think of themselves or their staffs as sales people.
The LePoidevin team discussed why sales is not a “dirty word” and how to train yourself and your staff to be “selling all the time.”
They gave these tips:
• Listen to customers/prospects
• Offer recommendations/advice
• Deliver solutions
• Follow up
If that is what you do already, then you are already selling. Because of the importance of this topic, it was covered later in the program on Non-Sales Selling, which will be addressed below. Keep in mind that not all of your clients know all of the services you offer; it is up to you to let them know, then to put those services to work for their horses.
Take Home: Make a list of all of the services you provide and the name of the “go-to” person who knows about that service. Put this list of services on your website, discuss each one on your social media and newsletter. Make sure each staff member—from the frontdesk receptionist to every veterinarian— knows and understands those services in order to discuss them with clients or refer any questions to the “expert” for that service in your practice.
You have decided to invest some time and money in marketing your practice. You need a marketing strategic plan, and you need to create a budget that includes media investment, creative production and printing—as well as staff time—to handle your marketing efforts. Your year-long marketing budget should be part of your overall operating budget. Make sure to include all marketing efforts. These might include:
• Business cards
• Facebook development and maintenance
• Events (i.e., your practice puts on an owner education event)
The LePoidevin leaders stated that you should invest a minimum of 1% of gross sales in marketing your business, and at times up to 2-5% to maintain your position in the marketplace. Make sure to include a “contingency” fund for marketing opportunities in the year that you might not know about when budgeting.
Your strategic plan should include branding, learning about your market (i.e., surveying), determining who your competition is and positioning your practice.
Positioning, according to Team LePoidevin, is who or what you want to be (you and your practice), to whom, in which competitive environment. The example they gave was: “We are an exclusive equine veterinary practice specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of senior horses in southeastern Kansas.”
You also need to set business and marketing objectives. Business objectives are “financially based and reachable goals for you and your practice,” according to the LePoidevin experts. For example: We will generate $2 million in revenue over the next 12 months.
Marketing objectives would include strategies and tactics geared toward accomplishing that goal.
For the business position given above, your goal might state: “We will increase the interest and understanding of our full range of services among horse owners of senior horses.”
Strategies are the initiatives you use in support of a specific marketing objective. A strategy for the above goal might be: “We will utilize local PR efforts to convey success stories of how our clinic has treated lameness in senior horses.”
Tactics are specific action items. A tactic for this strategy might include: “We will develop three senior lameness case studies and distribute via local print and online media prior to and during the summer equine competitions.”
Make sure to track what is and isn’t working. If you get phone calls or people stop you at horse shows to talk to you about their senior horse needs after one of the articles has run, then you know it was effective at reaching your community. How many of those people actually schedule work on their senior horses because of that marketing determines the business success of your strategy and its execution.
Take Home: Create one marketing goal with strategies and tactics for the first quarter of 2015. Make sure it is something you can accomplish and measure. For example, your goal might be: We will use our Facebook page to encourage spring vaccinations with the goal of increasing vaccinations in January, February and March 5% over last year (which means you have to know how many horses were vaccinated in that time period the previous year). One strategy might be to give concise information about a particular disease and its effects on a horse. One tactic for that strategy could be for each veterinarian and/or vet tech to write up a paragraph about a disease that can occur in your area and for which you recommend vaccination, then put that up on your Facebook page each week in January, February and March.
Editor’s Note: There were many more discussions about marketing during this program. You can find other articles on this topic by going to EquiManagement. com, clicking on the “Articles” tab and scrolling down to “Marketing & PR.” For more information on branding, see LePoidevinMarketing.com.
As mentioned before, this session was difficult for some of the participants. They don’t want to be seen as “salesmen” or have their practices be seen as good at “selling” their services. One veterinarian who has been fairly outspoken in the industry as an advocate for veterinarians “selling” their services as well as products, said it is “hard to be thought of as a salesman. It seems self-serving.”
Chuck Johnson, DVM, MBA, a presenter and principal for the Decretum Group, a business education and consulting group for the healthcare industry, led the discussion on sales. He encouraged veterinarians and practice managers to understand that selling is merely gaining a commitment to an action.
For example, if a horse is lame and you think the owner should have an X ray of the sesamoid area of the right forelimb, you will explain your thoughts on possible diagnoses, listen to understand the client’s goals, help select the appropriate solution, then handle any objections and gain a commitment to the action. According to Johnson, that is “consultative buying and selling.”
Johnson said research has shown that clients are more easily influenced by people they like. Therefore, building business relationships with your clients is important. The question was asked: “But how do you train someone to build relationships?” Johnson noted that you should:
• Have relative competence
• Have positive intent
• Be a problem solver
• Be receptive
• Be trustworthy
• Have an open communication style
He noted that the first impression a veterinarian makes on a client can be lasting. One of the first impressions you make on a new client is when you drive into the farm or stable. Johnson said it is important that your practice vehicle be clean and organized to convey a good first impression.
Research shows you can’t sell your goods or services before you sell yourself to a client, noted Johnson. He advised that each veterinarian be aware that his/ her communication style is different from that of other people.
“The number-one people skill for sales is being a good listener and asking open-ended questions, then listening again,” noted Johnson.
Open-ended questions are designed to elicit more than a “yes” or “no” answer from the other person. For example, you might ask, “How is Buttercup doing oday, Sally?” and she answers, “Better.” A more open-ended question might be: “Sally, can you tell me what you saw when Buttercup was being led in from the pasture this morning?”
Johnson stressed using “active listening” as a tool to better communicate with your clients (or anyone else). He said that means you should:
• Stay focused
• Be quiet and don’t interrupt
• Take notes
• Use open body language
• Maintain eye contact
• Give feedback
• Summarize, clarify and verify what you learned
One question that Johnson said came out of an earlier EBMS program that has helped many veterinarians was: “Is this a good time to have a difficult conversation?” Whether this question is asked of a staff member or a client, allowing the other person to determine if they want to have that difficult conver sation at that time gives them a sense of control in the discussion.
Take Home: Think of a service you would like to provide to a client (whether a real or imagined occurrence, such as a client who gives her own vaccinations) and write down the following:
• What is the objection? (i.e., it costs less than the vet vaccinating)
• “Apples-to-apples” checklist (cost of veterinarian giving injections per horse versus owner going to store, buying vaccine that might not have been handled/stored properly, cost of needles and syringes, problem of needle disposal, reading and understanding directions and label warnings, drawing up correct amount, giving shot, handling any adverse reactions, etc.)
• Value-added probes (what are the objectives of vaccinating your horses, what are the possible good outcomes, what are the possible bad outcomes, cost savings and guarantee of health verses loss of horse from short-term activity or even death)
• Justification (have a veterinarian give the vaccinations)
• Ask for commitment
Johnson quoted business author Daniel Pink as saying, “In both traditional sales and non-sales selling, we do better when we move beyond solving a puzzle to serving a person.”
Customer Relationship Strategies
According to AAEP surveys, clients want you to:
• Take your time with their horses during each exam or visit
• Explain your diagnosis and treatment recommendations in terminology they can understand
• Demonstrate sincere compassion for the horse
• Value your client’s opinion
The speaker for this session was Joop Loomans, DVM, PhD, Certified Equine Practitioner, KNMvD, who has been a private practice veterinarian in the Netherlands and in 2001 joined the Department of Equine Sciences at Utrecht University. In 2010, he was asked by the university to perform a fact-finding mission at the Heilan International Equestrian Club in China. Joop became the designer and Chief Veterinarian of the first Western equine clinic in mainland China and team veterinarian for the Jiangsu province eventing, show jumping and dressage teams.
With Magnus he organized EBMS International and holds an annual program much like the one in Wisconsin. He also is founder and director of Loomans International Veterinary Expertise, a networking and consultancy firm for the equestrian industry.
He shared a couple of quotes that might help you understand customer relationships through the minds of two business leaders: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it” (Warren Buffett) and “Find out what people want to have before they know it themselves” (Steve Jobs).
What research has shown is that when there is a problem with the process of care given by a veterinarian, it is about “interpersonal” care and not providing appropriate information both orally and written, noted Loomans.
Loomans encouraged equine practitioners and practice managers to read a new book called Communication in Practice, theVet’s Manual on Clienthusiasm.
Take Home: Determine a client behavior you would like to change and outline the steps you and your colleagues/ staff will take to communicate better to effect the change.
This could be a topic such as choosing you for their equine dental care, or having them haul into your clinic for routine health check-ups (for Coggins and health papers) and vaccinations rather than do these on farm calls.
More Business Topics
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is no way to replicate the live, group, professional and one-onone interactions and learning that takes place at an event such as the EBMS 2014 Business Education Program.
Other topics that were discussed this year included Data Value and Uses in Equine Practice; Inventory Management—The Business Within; Lessons Learned and Implemented from Past Programs; and Leadership and Goal Setting—Find the Right Tool and Improve It!
Veterinarians and their business staffs are encouraged to seek additional education to help make their practices more profitable.
Editor’s Note: EquiManagement is a sponsor of Equine Business Management Strategies’ U.S. Business Education Program along with Merck Animal Health, Adequan (Luitpold), MWI Veterinary Supply, Cuattro imaging, IDEXX Laboratories, INOVA software solutions, Decretum Group business consultants, GlobalVetLink, Mg Biologics and Wisconsin Equine Clinic and Hospital.