Friends with benefits

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pet care related businesses
Photography: luckybusiness – 123RF

Non-competing pet care businesses can add real value to your vet practice. But to get results, you need to commit to building relationships beyond impersonal referral exchange programs. By Shane Conroy  

Australia’s pet care industry is healthier than ever. With pet owners now spending more than $12 billion every year, things are looking good for pet care-related businesses. However, many vet clinics are feeling the pinch as competition increases, debt builds and the skills shortage drags on. 

But some savvy vet practice owners are finding success with a new approach to engaging with non-competing businesses in the wider pet care industry. Just ask Dr Shibly Mustapha. 

He runs three successful vet practices in the Brisbane area—Mt. Gravatt Veterinary Clinic, Algester Vet and Monty and Minx Veterinary Clinic—and has built partnerships with a range of related businesses.

“These partnerships increase our visibility in our communities, and that improves our brand recognition,” he says. “It’s like having billboards all over town, but with more social proof. That is, a recommendation from a local business that the client already trusts is worth more than a paid ad which lacks credibility.” 

However, Dr Mustapha is quick to point out that simple referral exchange programs won’t necessarily get the job done. “It has to go much deeper than that,” he says. “It’s about finding ways to add value to each other’s businesses.” 

Dr Matthew Muir, director and operations manager at All Natural Vet Care in Sydney’s inner west agrees. He has also built several partnerships with complimentary pet care businesses, and says a genuinely collaborative approach is vital.

“It might be about creating social media content together, or collaborating on a community event to drive interest in both of your businesses,” he says. “But to achieve that, you need to get to know each other’s businesses. There’s no secret formula you can apply to every partnership.” 

Building a broad service network

Dr Joanne Sillince, managing director at Pets Australia, says there is a clear opportunity for practice owners to set their clinics up as the go-to resource for all pet owners in their community. 

“From groomers and trainers to boarding facilities and dog walkers, there is a wide range of pet-related service providers out there. The opportunity here for vet practices is to act as the central hub for all these services. The vet is the trusted source of advice for pet owners, so it’s natural for them to set themselves up as the go-to resource for pet owners.”

There is a wide range of pet-related service providers out there. The opportunity is to act as the central hub for all these services.”

Dr Joanne Sillince, managing director, Pets Australia

However, Dr Sillince warns against monetising these relationships on a commission-for-referral basis. “Commissions are ugly, and when clients find out about them they tend to be quite hostile,” she says. “There are other soft business benefits you can focus on that are more transparent and avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.” 

One of those soft business benefits, says Dr Muir, is the ability to broaden your service provision. “By connecting our patients with our network of service providers, we can cover all their pet care needs,” he says. “That means they don’t need to go to another vet in search of services we can’t connect them with.”

Thinking outside the referral box

So what do these partnerships actually look like? Dr Sillince says that while you can choose to put formal agreements in place, more casual relationships can be as effective. 

“Getting together for a coffee a couple of times a year will help you build a more personal relationship. You want to feel comfortable to discuss your business needs, and talk openly about how you might be able to support each other.”

Meetings like that can produce surprising results. Dr Mustapha cites an example of a local dog groomer who was so busy she could not take on any new clients and therefore wasn’t interested in exchanging referrals. “We got talking and it turned out that she sees a lot of dogs with undiagnosed infections or irritations,” he says. “So we organised some discount vouchers for our vet services she can give to any of her clients whose pets might need treatment. She was very happy with that. She gets to provide extra value to her existing customers, and we get new patients.”

The solution starts with you

But you can’t expect these relationships to fall into your lap. You need to actively engage with other businesses in your community. Jonathan Whitelaw, general manager at Melbourne-based Woofers World, says that a closed-door attitude is often the greatest challenge for pet services companies wanting to build relationships with their local vet. 

“It can be difficult to get past the vet clinic’s receptionist,” he says. “They’ll often just have a standard line that they don’t refer. But they don’t understand it’s about more than just referrals.” 

Gabrielle Browne, marketing director at Alpha Vet Tech—the makers of Wireless Zoo, a wearable monitoring system that wirelessly measures patient vital signs in real time—agrees that problem solving must be at the heart of the relationships her company builds with vet businesses.

“We want to build long-term partnerships, but we can only do that if we are solving a problem for our clients,” she says. “To do that on a meaningful level, we need to ask questions and identify a practice’s pain points. Vet clinics need to be open to the relationship-building process for it to be successful.” 

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