Some private practices have not been scared off by the arrival of corporate vet clinics. In fact, they’re welcoming the challenge. By John Burfitt
According to a recent newsletter by business advisor Graham Middleton of Synstrat consultancy, the best place to start a new veterinary private practice in the current climate is right next door to a corporate practice: “Synstrat has seen significant evidence that practices located near recently-acquired Greencross practices pick up substantial numbers of clients who used to attend the practice acquired by Greencross.”
As it turns out, it’s not a rare viewpoint among private practitioners. “If a corporate buys a local practice or moves into your area, I think it’s time for celebration,” says Dr Dick Gelderman, industry trainer and president of the Australian Veterinary Business Association. “A corporate clinic appeals to a very unique demographic, and when you set yourself up to be different as a private clinic offering a different level of service and one-on-one relationship with clients, then you are setting yourself up for becoming hugely successful.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Dr Kim Kendall of The Chatswood Cat Palace, NSW. “If I was starting up a new practice today, I would be opening next to a corporate,” she says. “Why not make the most of all their research and set up in the same area, but offer a far more personalised service that clients want? So, if people feel they’re not getting the service they want at the corporate one, give them a choice of what they do want at your smaller private practice. It just makes good business sense.”
This is just one example of the spirited response to the arrival of corporate clinics across Australia. While some practitioners have reacted with fear to the changes wrought by corporatisation, others have reacted in a far more proactive way. Dr Gelderman claims now is the time smaller practices need to be taking a long, tough look at just what they are offering to the market, and if their business is really being presented in the best way possible.“What I see too often is many practices don’t really know what they offer and that is something they need to be well across,” he says. “This is not a time to be worried about what the big new corporate clinic is doing down the road. Rather, you need to know what you are doing, and if you are doing it as best as you can. It really comes down to the old corner store mentality. Be personal, and make the fact you are a smaller practice your best asset, not a detriment because the new corporate clinic has 10 vets on staff. Take the time to know the clients and their animals by name. Get to know that animal’s history. Make a note that family went to Bali for Christmas, and say hello to the kids and make them feel involved. This is not hard, just good basic business.”
Dr Tristan Robinson is a co-director and senior veterinarian at the Wagga Wagga Veterinary Hospital in rural NSW. While Dr Robinson says no corporates have yet opened there, the number of private practices makes it a competitive area. “We have put a lot of work into customer service, because I don’t think it matters whether it’s another small private practise or one that the corporates run—if someone’s able to provide a superior customer service, then that’s a distinct advantage,” he says. “That comes down to the basics of how the initial phone conversation is conducted, the waiting room setting, the manner people are greeted when they come in the front door and then what happens inside the consulting room. If we’re not on our A-game in terms of basic service, then we might lose them to competitors.” There are two significant areas where there is a distinct contrast between a smaller private practice and a corporate clinic, adds Dr Matthew Muir of the All Natural Vet Care Clinic in Sydney. Dr Muir says attention needs to be paid to the lessons about clinic variations he observed while working overseas.
“If you’re a one-or-two-bit practice, you’re like a jazz band. It’s individual, it’s unique and it can move quickly and take advantage of things that are happening now.”—Dr Kim Kendall, The Chatswood Cat Palace, NSW
“I’ve seen both corporate and non-corporate businesses that are succeeding and ones that aren’t, and the main difference is definitely staff continuity,” he says. “It has become a case that every time a client goes to the clinic, their animal sees a different vet, and there’s a new receptionist they don’t recognise. It makes an impression.”
The closest corporate veterinary clinic to Berry on the NSW South Coast is one hour away in Wollongong. And that distance suits Dr Anthony Bennet of the Berry Vet Clinic just fine. He insists this has not made him and his business partner Dr James Carroll complacent about how they operate.
“We are prepared to go the extra yard if someone really needs it,” he says. “We have an after-hours service, and are well aware a lot of clinics now don’t offer that. It’s a matter for us of making sure the same level of service is provided each time someone comes in.
“To achieve that, we have put a huge amount of energy into staff protocols and training. It can be about how the phone is answered, and making sure everyone is on the same page with those protocols.”
The hospital has also diversified in recent years by offering an equine reproduction service, and Drs Bennet and Carroll make the most of the profile they earned on the TV show Village Vets Australia by taking up a number of speaking and lecturing engagements.
“We are always looking for different revenue streams—and that is important to continue to develop the business. The more services you have, the less likely you are to have quiet days or indeed quiet periods.”
Two of the additional services Dr Kim Kendall’s Cat Palace now offer are boarding and grooming. She has found that paying attention and responding effectively to clients is good business. “I’ve heard it described that if you’re a one- or two-bit practice, you’re like a jazz band,” she says. “It’s individual, it’s unique and it can move quickly and take advantage of things that are happening now, before they go wider and get adopted by the bigger general vets and corporates, who have so many levels to go through before they can make any changes.
“The good thing about being small is you can adapt and change any time.”