Wanted: Strategic Thinkers
Here's what you need to consider with off-the-shelf wellness-plan solutions and other products to manage declining patient visits.
With the introduction of off-the-shelf wellness-plan solutions, the veterinary industry has been hard at work creating products for small animal practices to manage declining patient visits, and more of these products undoubtedly will be available in the future.
In many ways, the situation qualifies as a phenomenon. A year ago, interest in wellness plans was a mere whisper, and 12 months later it is commonly referred to as a hot topic.
I can’t think of a time when a broad solution for improving the business was made available in this format. Yes, the veterinary industry has engaged in notable campaigns to improve care—dentistry and three-year vaccine protocols come to mind—but these drivers did not take the shape of “boxed” solutions. In those cases, articles, media attention and AAHA guidelines assisted with the practice of higher quality medicine.
This time, because of the more critical economic nature of the problem, practitioners are being offered greater assistance. And this is a good thing.
Considerations to Ponder
I think a word of caution is required. Don’t misunderstand me. I have promoted monthly billed wellness plans and will continue to do so because they can be a great tool for improving pet health and a practice’s bottom line.
What concerns me, though, is the tendency to take action before analyzing and measuring the value and relevance of this type of program on an individual practice basis. Has history not shown that we tend to grab hold of a fix and are blind to the damage that this tunnel vision leaves in its wake? We need look only to the price increases of the last decade to recognize the truth in this statement. It was an easy solution until it wasn’t.
Just as with price increases, wellness plans are not a panacea for all that ails us, and before jumping on the bandwagon it is critical to evaluate these programs by answering these questions:
• Will something that may start as a point of differentiation for your practice retain that value over time?
• How will your wellness plans distinguish themselves from those of your competitors?
• Has your practice experienced declining trends or have you managed your business proactively?
• Will monthly billed wellness plans, in the format they are being presented, be seen as valuable for your clientele?
The reality is that our practices are not mirror images of one another. We have different business models, different clientele and different priorities, and the tendency to look to a one-size-fits-all solution shows a lack of strategic thinking.
Perhaps the greatest roadblock to strategic thinking is a misunderstanding of what having a strategy is all about and how it may differ from the decision-making approach you employ. The following is a succinct definition of strategy: the intelligent allocation of limited resources through a unique system of activities to outperform the competition in serving customers.1
Strategy vs. Best Practices
Strategy is not about values and goals; those are the “what,” whereas strategy is all about the “how.” Strategy is also not the same thing as best practices. In fact, if substituted for strategy, best practices can quickly erode the bottom line.
If that sounds ridiculous, think of it this way: If more than one veterinary practice is following best practices, the necessary differentiation of strategy disappears. That doesn’t mean that practicing best medicine isn’t an important goal, it just means that it is not a strategy for growth and success. Being best or better is nothing more than running the same race but going a little bit faster than everyone else, and because clients do not recognize unique value in this, it has minimal, if any, impact on the bottom line.
Strategy requires a willingness to take risks. A strategic thinker is not cautious in his approach to change and realizes that the equal allocation of limited resources is a watered-down business model that leads to mediocrity. It’s the same as admitting, “I don’t have a focus so I’ll just keep throwing the same amount of time, money and manpower at everything and hope that something sticks.”
This demonstrates a commitment to nothing more than survival mode, and until someone is willing to take the risk of developing and committing to a strategy of differentiation, that practice’s services and offerings will suffer the fate of being nothing more than a shopped commodity.
Strategy is about focusing on how you are going to distinguish your practice to gain a competitive advantage, being comfortable with the trade-offs this requires and finding ways to exploit this added value as much as possible. According to Steve Jobs, one of the foremost strategic thinkers in our lifetime, “People think focus means saying yes to all of the things you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the 100 other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.”
Putting It Into Action
What does it take to differentiate a practice from the masses? If you think about it, there are only two options for accomplishing this:
• Performing a different service than your competitors.
• Performing the same service in a different way.
Keep in mind that being different holds no value unless it is based on strategically chosen, distinctive, nonreproducible capabilities.
Rich Horwath, founder of the Strategic Thinking Institute, breaks capabilities into three value disciplines: product leadership, operational excellence and customer intimacy. He explains, “Successful companies choose one of the three value disciplines to excel in and then maintain industry average thresholds in the other two.”2 Going back to the definition of strategy, it is clear that the need to choose a focus stems directly from “the intelligent allocation of limited resources.”
Wellness plans may be a good option for many small animal practices, but as a distinctive capability and overarching solution, it will not withstand the test of time. Incorporate a wellness plan but put it through the strategic thinking process to determine how it will stand apart.
Ask yourself which value discipline will be your focus and whether your strategy embraces the need for recognizable and sustainable advantage in the eyes of the client base you choose to serve. Only through an understanding of the importance of differentiation in today’s commodity-driven world can one avoid falling into the singular focus trap of which we are so fond.
For those who want to elevate their practices from ordinary to extraordinary, studying and employing the discipline of strategic thinking is the only way to go.
Jessica Goodman Lee is a certified veterinary practice Manager has been a member of the Brakke Consulting team since January 2011. Before that she spent 13 years as the hospital administrator for several large veterinary practices in Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas.
5/29/2012 9:33 AM