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Get Busy, Not Bored, During Slow Times

Like the top companies on Fortune magazine’s 50 most admired companies, veterinary practices also view employees as assets not expenses.

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Each year, Fortune magazine publishes a list of the 50 most admired companies in the United States as voted on by business people.

For example, the top five for 2011 are Apple, Google, Berkshire Hathaway, Southwest Airlines and Procter & Gamble.

Not bad. Not a single veterinary clinic is on the list, but that’s not my point.

A year ago, Geoff Colvin, the author of the article on the most admired companies of 2010, wrote: “This year’s leaders differ from the stragglers in at least one way. They actually believe what every company proclaims about people being their most valuable asset.”

Also, they “were much less likely than the others to have laid any people off in the past two years (only 10 percent did so, vs. 23 percent for their less admired peers).”

In other words, these companies view their employees not an expense but as valuable assets.

A Virtuous Circle

I wondered, does this apply to veterinary clinics?

When times are bad, employers seem to look at three main options: fire people, reduce their hours or maintain the status quo.

Is it easier to retain employees if you run a Fortune 500 company as opposed to a solo-practitioner hospital or even a multidoctor practice?

In Colvin’s words: “Another objection is that the industry champs are so rich they can afford to be magnanimous with employees in a way most employers can’t. But what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Each factor clearly helps the other, creating a virtuous circle.”

Dr. G, a Pennsylvania veterinarian and clinic owner, seems to agree: “We have a responsibility to our staff members. They signed on in part because we promised them a full-time job. They make the commitment to work full time, and we have to honor our promise to give them full time.”

Several solo practitioners I interviewed confessed to taking a pay cut rather than cutting their employees’ hours.

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Fill Idle Time

Let’s go through a few ideas to keep employees busy during slow times. For example, what could receptionists do during a slow spell?

• Improve telephone and customer service skills.
• Educate themselves about flea and tick prevention, or whatever the clinic has to offer.
• Conduct role-playing games to better answer the most common client questions.
• Educate themselves about pet food.
• Make the waiting room more inviting for clients.
• Educate themselves about internal parasite prevention.
• Implement a reminder or call-back system.
• Repaint the waiting room, exam rooms and hallways.
• Cross-train.
• Create dog and cat sections in the waiting room.
• Make calls or mail reminders about past-due vaccinations and dental work.
• Create patient records (if you are not a paperless practice).

Other Options

And what could technicians or kennel helpers do during boring times? Here are another dozen suggestions:

• Repaint the treatment room, operating room or kennel.
• Review X-ray safety and OSHA compliance.
• Invite a pet food company representative to give a crash course in nutrition.
• Improve blood smear skills.
• Revamp the ordering system.
• Scrub exam rooms and the OR from top to bottom.
• Learn about internal and external parasite control.
• Reorganize drawers and cabinets to improve efficiency.
• Review anesthesia monitoring and problem solving.
• Go through individually wrapped instruments and resterilize expired items.
• Do call-backs on recent surgery patients.
• Make puppy and kitten packs.

Get Creative

These are obviously partial lists of things that could be done. Most of these suggestions came from staff members. Other motivated employees probably could come up with many other creative ideas that may be more appropriate in a particular clinic. Ideas could be discussed during a staff meeting.

Another bonus is that these suggestions don’t cost a lot of money.

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Would staff members find these tasks degrading? Beneath them? “That’s not what I went to school for!” might be a comment.

Well, most probably would agree with that statement in theory, but painting exam rooms surely beats unemployment, no? It’s all a matter of attitude.

Amy, a technician in Pennsylvania, participated in the designing and painting at her clinic. She notes: “We were all happy to help to make our practice more appealing for our clients.”

There is nothing degrading about patching holes in the wall, tidying up the kennel or sorting through a pile of ancient magazines in the lobby.

Dr. G says: “If a staff member refused to do tasks outside their job description, I wouldn’t hold it against them, but then I would also feel free to cut their hours.”

Get to Work, Vets

To be fair, veterinarians—whether head honcho or associate—also could use slow times to check off a few things from their never-ending to-do list. Here are some suggestions:

1. Clean up your desk and office.
2. Help the receptionists with their task lists.
3. Read unopened veterinary journals.
4. Take an online course.
5. Help technicians and kennel staff with their to-do lists.
6. Call three local colleagues.
7. Revamp the employee manual.
8. Learn a new skill.
9. Organize a staff meeting.
10. Conduct an employee performance review.
11. Spruce up your clinic website.
12. Solve a problem or two.
13. Design or revise an animal health care program, such as weight loss, with your staff.
14. Invite a company representative to improve your knowledge about product offerings.
15. Create an educational presentation for clients about a specific topic.
16. Create a journal club.
17. Give a face-lift to the landscape outside the clinic.
18. Organize a meeting of your clinic’s
veterinarians. 

One for the Team

I have met highly trained technicians who performed spontaneously and without any embarrassment some of the above tasks when they had a slow moment. At the end of the day, they at least had the feeling of accomplishing something useful that would benefit them the very next day.

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Dr. D, a practice owner in Pennsylvania, agrees wholeheartedly. “When it’s slow, everyone at my clinic is expected to help out. Anyone can clean rooms and paint doors,” she says, adding, “And actually, our clinic tends to be a lot cleaner over the winter!”

Let’s conclude with a quote from the Fortune writer: “The industry leaders didn’t launch their enlightened human capital philosophy when the recession hit; they’d followed it for years. Once a recession starts, it’s too late. Champions know what their most valuable asset really is, and they give it the investment it deserves—through good times and bad.”

And when the economy improves, your practice will be more inviting for clients and filled with happy, educated and motivated staff members. And what could be better than that?

So if clients are absent sometimes, order pizza, crank up the music and have a collective blast! 

Dr. Phil Zeltzman, Dipl. ACVS, is a mobile, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, Pa. His website is DrPhilZeltzman.com.

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