“THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS!” My friend is a practice manager, and she was having a bad day. “Why do vets just think they can give everything away?” Apparently there’s a doctor in her practice that has a habit of “giving discounts.” In this case, it was regularly providing subcutaneous fluids to a cat with renal disease for no charge.
I know that doesn’t sound like a bad thing. In fact, it sounds like a wonderful thing. But here’s why the practice manager was so upset: The vet who gave away the service at no charge — something that’s certainly within his discretion to do since he’s the owner of the practice, I suppose — wasn’t there that day. Another vet was on duty, and that vet was getting absolutely mauled by the client who usually saw the practice owner and was accustomed to getting things for free. Chaos was breaking out in the clinic, because the vets’ practice of inconsistently offering discounts and free services was leading to angry client demands when those freebies didn’t happen.
That’s just one way that giving discounts on the fly can backfire.
Listen, I’m a veterinarian. I love pets. I also have a bad habit of really, really wanting people to like me. No one knows the urge and desire to discount and give services away more than I do. But time and time again, it’s a habit that gets us into trouble. Worse, it’s a practice that’s strangling struggling vet practices and damaging our profession as a whole.
Before I go on, let me say that I am not advocating for not helping people or pets in need. We got into this profession to do just that. What I’m saying is that there are better ways of helping animals and families in need than offering discounts willy-nilly without a plan. That kind of thing actually hurts our ability to make a difference where it counts.
Most vets understand that giving away products or services means the clinic makes less money. That’s not a hard concept to grasp, and honestly, most of us are OK with that, to a degree. But I’m convinced that we vets — and I count myself as guilty of this — are generally pretty dumb about when and how we discount. We make assumptions about people and what they can pay. We reduce prices for good clients who have spent a lot of money at our practice even if they haven’t indicated that they need assistance. We decide that services aren’t really worth their normal price if they are happening along with a lot of other services and the overall bill is getting high. We use this logic to override our regular pricing system, and in the moment, it seems to make sense . . . sort of.
In fact, however, this behavior goes against common sense. Our practices have to make a certain amount of money to keep the lights on. I want to work in a clinic that’s in good financial health and can assure its clients that it will continue to stay in business to take care of their pets in the future. I want our nurses to get a living wage and for young vets to avoid drowning in their student loans. I want to make thoughtful decisions about any extra money we make and how we can apply it to have the greatest impact for the clients in greatest need. When we’re flying by the seat of our pants and giving things away without a plan, we’re basically ensuring that we won’t have the money to make those things happen.
When vets give things away without a plan, the staff suffers because we can’t afford to pay them what they’re worth; the practice suffers because it doesn’t have the resources needed to keep up facilities or invest in equipment; and our knowledge suffers because continuing education is the first place we cut to make ends meet. Our happiness suffers, too.
That’s right. I believe we are less happy when we give things away without a plan. We get that great feeling in the moment, but we carry around the stress of not having the resources we need to do the medicine we want to do. I think we can all agree that financial difficulty plays a part in the problems our profession has with depression and suicide, actually. It’s a fine line we walk between being compassionate in the moment and being wise businesspeople on the whole — but I believe that with a more thoughtful plan for helping pet owners in need, we can do both.
Start by not giving things away in the exam room. We need to price our services fairly and consistently for pet owners, and everyone needs to understand and believe in the prices we set. Next, if you want to be able to support pets and people in greatest need, sit down and make a plan for how to do it. Consider creating an angel fund pet owners can apply for, giving the practice manager a set budget she can approve withdrawals from, or using the money you’d give away in discounts to subsidize a day of helping pets in need in the community. Establish criteria, put processes in place, and set limits. Remember that your goal is to run a financially healthy veterinary practice that will be around to serve as many pets as possible, not to hand out wads of cash haphazardly until you’re broke.
Let’s stop random discounting and start thinking through our actions, for the sake of our staff and practices, our clients and their pets, and ourselves and our profession. When we take care of our future by giving back in meaningful and organized ways, everyone benefits more.