6 Ways to Fight the Veterinary Competition — Without Fighting
Originally Published: Veterinary Economics, November 1, 2011
They did what?” I sputtered. The practice owner I was talking with on the phone was a longtime friend. He lowered his voice and explained, “They bought reviews on Google.”
We were discussing the megapractice down the road. This practice had been amassing negative online client reviews for months—at the same time that my friend’s clients were posting glowing reviews of his small startup clinic.
But suddenly, the megapractice had garnered 30 five-star reviews in a matter of weeks, all from “clients” who had all—coincidentally?—given five-star reviews to a slew of other unrelated businesses across the United States. Either these reviewers were traveling cross-country together, reviewing the same random businesses, or the competition was buying their praise. Unbelievable.
Now, a little friendly competition can be healthy. It can motivate you to improve both your medicine and your business practices. Plus, the presence of others in your business space pushes you to create better value for clients and patients and keeps you from resting on your laurels.
However, the fear of competition stealing clients can also make for a stressful situation—especially when your rivals play dirty. In my years as a veterinarian—working at a fledgling startup practice, a megapractice, and now at a three-doctor clinic in an area where new practices are constantly opening—I’ve dealt with many different competitors. I’ve led strategic planning sessions for veterinary organizations, clinics, and corporations, and dealing with veterinary competition is one of the most frequently discussed topics.
In facilitating these discussions, as well as leading veterinary teams on the ground, I’ve discovered some excellent tactics for addressing rivals. It’s time for the gloves to come off so you can focus your energy on tackling what’s most important: your practice. Here are six tips for handling interclinic aggression without stooping to your competitor’s level.
1. Don’t take the offensive. Most of us learned this lesson on the playground: Punching back can get you into worse trouble—and sometimes leave you with a broken hand. Even if you’re bigger, stronger, and absolutely in the right, the odds of being damaged by your own aggression are high. Don’t risk your reputation or your business by lobbing aggressive initiatives at competitors. They’ll usually backfire. Strategies to avoid include: direct price and service comparisons; disparaging comments about your competitor’s medicine, morals, location, or business practices; and observations about your competitor’s bad personal hygiene or holiday decorations. (Yes, I’ve heard these before.)
None of these things will make your practice look good. In fact, they’ll do the opposite—and make your clients start to question your integrity.
2. Focus on personal performance.
Stop aiming at your competitors and point your focus inward. Win the battle on your home turf by shoring up your strengths and ensuring that your veterinary team is performing at its best. Pull together your personal advisors, discuss what the competition is doing, and build a strategic plan for what you’ll do to rise above the pressure. Polish your fundamental service model to make sure you’re providing a solid client experience and avoiding common practice mistakes such as missing charges, neglecting your reminder system, and failing to schedule recheck appointments or follow up with clients.
Are you taking your clients for granted? Discounting your services into oblivion? Dropping the ball on preventive care? If the answer is yes (or even maybe), then conquer those issues first. Those are all things you can change at your practice.
3. Start innovating. There’s nothing wrong with adapting ideas and techniques that are succeeding in other clinics and businesses. Once you’ve worked internally to raise your own standards, look externally and consider what other businesses do to better serve clients and distinguish their brand. Read widely, talk to everyone you can, and expand your thinking to find and modify ideas that will help you grow and evolve. Innovation, when applied to a fundamentally sound business, can radically change the competitive landscape.
I have seen clinics pursue successful innovations such as wellness plans, social media initiatives, community outreach events, and niche marketing plans. I was recently involved with a small business that gained a foothold in its community through regular talks at the local gay pride center. The business is currently growing by replicating these talks for local church groups. This is an innovative marketing approach that is working well because competitors aren’t doing it, thus the opportunities are plentiful. The take-home message here is that great ideas and opportunities are everywhere. Don’t be afraid to harvest them.
Once you have a plan for innovation, don’t go all in just yet. Present the idea to some of your best clients and people you respect both inside and outside the veterinary industry. Incorporate their feedback into your master plan and begin the program one step at a time. That way you can gauge success—and prevent unmanageable losses if the idea doesn’t work out. Set up and monitor performance metrics carefully. Remember: Not every initiative will work out, so don’t get too emotionally attached to any one idea, and don’t be afraid to abandon plans that aren’t delivering results.
4. Honor your values. As my father and mentor used to say, “In the end, all you’ve got is your reputation.” It’s easy to let fear, frustration, and uncertainty push you to make decisions you otherwise wouldn’t make. But what does your long-term picture look like if you become known for tactics such as buying positive reviews, slandering other clinics while hiding behind online anonymity, upselling beyond what patients need, or never referring cases to specialists regardless of the situation? Think about your actions and image from the perspective of your clients, most of whom know nothing about your competitors or perceived business battles.
If you take a hard look and find you don’t like your practice’s image, then regroup and start fresh. You want to succeed, but you also want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror every morning with a clean conscience.
5. Improve your closing techniques. While client education is of great importance, your ability to get your veterinary clients to commit to and pay for services is what will ultimately dictate success. When clients check out, ask them if they would like to book their next appointment. (Yes, even if it’s a year in advance. Remember, your dentist does it.) Ask price shoppers if they would like to schedule the service they’re calling about. And encourage doctors to make firm recommendations.
Note: These are not recommendations that start with the words, “You might” or “You could.” Firm recommendations start with phrases like, “I recommend” and “I suggest.” Finally, empower technicians to follow up with clients after the exam to determine which products they want to take home. Brushing up on your closing techniques will help increase your practice’s bottom line.
6. Don’t take client behavior personally. Clients will leave your practice. This is a business reality. Don’t let it damage your confidence or, worse, push you into a panic. It may feel like two clients leaving in a week is a mass exodus—especially if they’re going to the same competitor. It’s not. It’s a sign that your competition is doing something that works, and you need to know what that something is. It’s a time for strategy, not emotion. Your veterinary clients will usually act in their own perceived best interest. Understand that inclination and strive to make your clinic the obvious choice for self-interested clients in the future.
Six weeks have passed since I talked to my friend about the megapractice’s dirty tricks, and 18 more five-star reviews have been posted. I asked whether his business had shown signs of suffering as a result. “No,” he said. “The last two months have been the best we’ve had so far.”
What was going on? Well, for one, my friend had hired a technician away from the competing practice. But even more important, he stopped looking at the online reviews. “They’re just a distraction,” he said. “We’re doing great things, so getting upset about the competition just doesn’t make sense.”
You can’t control your competitors. What you can control is your own practice: its strategy, its relationships, its culture. Letting go of the urge to engage in direct conflict frees up your energy so you can direct your best efforts toward your own veterinary practice. It’s like Sun Tzu says in The Art of War: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”