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The Customer Isn't Always Right

Please note this blog was originally published in the Summer 2021 Issue of Canadian Vet Practice magazine.

Does this sound familiar? Veterinary practices in Canada are often short-staffed. The competition to hire vets and staff is unprecedented, while the demand for vet services is at an all-time high. Over the past couple of months, I have spoken with veterinarians across the world, and all have said that their biggest challenge is hiring and retaining vets and staff.

Unfortunately, there is little relief in sight. The Globe and Mail recently reported that Canadian veterinary colleges are graduating just enough students to replace those that are retiring[i]. Even if every veterinary college in Canada increased enrollment immediately, it would still take 4-5 years for these students to graduate and begin to fill the demand for veterinarians.

At the same time, competition to hire support staff is challenging many businesses as the economy reopens. People are becoming choosier about where they work and are demanding safe and respectful work environments from employers and clients, along with higher wages.

This all means that the balance of power in our profession has shifted from the employer to the employee. It will likely stay this way for a while.

A healthy business depends on long-term clients. It is cheaper and easier to serve the clients you have than continually searching for new clients to replace those that have left. It is no different with veterinary staff, our internal clients.

What can a practice do to keep its team in place amidst all of this pressure? How do we make sure that our practice is the place to be and minimize wandering eyes looking for other opportunities, or quitting because they are burnt out or are fed up with increasingly demanding clients?

Culture, compensation, and leadership/management are the key components of an engaged workforce. Now there are two other elements we should consider: purposely reducing the number of patients we see and doing a better job in selecting clients. Both would be considered heresy before the pandemic but they are now essential if we want to keep our veterinary teams in place, now and in the long term.

Most of us have dealt with an increased demand for services while utilizing the same number of veterinarians and support staff, if not fewer. While we have done what we can with pay raises and staff appreciation initiatives, what we haven’t been able to do is offer them what is needed the most - a slower pace; veterinary staff need the time to take a breath, to not rush an examination, to discuss a case with colleagues, and to take a full lunch break. We have been running at full speed since the pandemic started! Even high-level athletes need some downtime to rest and recover.

We should start saying no to clients, but that is very hard to do as veterinarians. We are here to help sick animals and it goes against who we are to refuse service to a client with a pet in need. The reality is that we don’t have a choice. If we don’t slow down, we are going to lose staff. This will leave the remaining staff handling more patients, leading to more burnout, and a continuing cycle of more staff and vets leaving the practice. Why can’t we return to the same level of business we had before the pandemic started? Our goal should be to work at a reasonable pace based upon the staff we have, and not on the demand for our services.

As much as we want to care for our patients, if we don’t take care of our staff they ultimately won’t be there for our patients.

Yes, many vet practices could do a better job leveraging their RVTs and vet assistants to increase workflow efficiency. That is part of the solution but requires time and training to make it work, and time is what we are lacking. Consider this a long-term solution, but one that would be hard to implement right away.

Another solution to the fatigue facing all practices is to “fire” the clients we wish we didn’t have; let go of those that act horribly to staff, are non-compliant with patient care or argue over every invoice item. When we see them in the schedule our hearts sink as we wonder what misery they will inflict upon us. The sooner we get rid of them, the more energy and enthusiasm we have to take care of the majority of great clients. My own practice has consulted with all staff members to determine the following:

  • What makes a great client for our practice?

  • Which clients do we have that don’t fit these criteria, and why?

  • Is there anything we can do to turn these bad clients into good ones?

  • How do we identify if a new client will be a good fit?

As a result, several clients have been told that we will not offer our services to them any longer and we have had meetings with others where we explained what we needed from them to maintain our VPCR. Surprisingly, this latter group has been very responsive, and we have seen many of them change their behaviour.

The balance of power has shifted from clients to veterinary practices. Demand far exceeds supply.

The reaction from veterinarians and support staff when we “fire” badly behaving clients has validated our decisions. They are relieved to know that they won’t be wasting extra energy on unappreciative clients. Some people will never value what we offer so the sooner we end our relationship with them the better.

We have two types of clients in every veterinary practice; those that work for us, our internal clients, and those who come with their pets, our external clients. As we face the struggle to attract and keep great staff, we must focus on our internal clients to make sure we have the best people in place to take care of our clients as we come out of the pandemic and into the future. At the same time, practices that develop a reputation of taking care of the staff will have a better chance of attracting new people to work there. Just like word of mouth increases the number of new clients you attract, the same will apply to finding new staff. Ultimately, you will have a more engaged team that will offer better patient care, which is what we all want.


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