Why You Need to Start Saying 'No'

How it will make you happy in your veterinary career.

Firing even the most deserving client has to be balanced against the risk of retaliation.

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In the course of my 20 years in veterinary practice, I’ve learned lots of stuff—mostly the hard way. Worst of all, I’ve kissed lots of frogs. I know you have, too.

Be they clients, employers, employees, product suppliers, service providers or business partners, we veterinary professionals interact with a wide range of possible reptiles. But as we all know, even princesses have to pucker up to get what they want.

Yes, people will come and go. The hard part is learning to say “no” gracefully so you can move on to the next potential prince with the least amount of slime on your lips.

Indeed, most of us eventually learn that declining specific actions, interactions and scenarios is well worth the stress that accompanies the negativity that comes with “no.” With maturity, we recognize that people, places and things we once tolerated are not worth the energy they demand, and we can finally muster the courage to bid them farewell—and fast.

Unfortunately, the possibility for negative interactions has kept pace with the speed and complexity of modern veterinary practice. Whether you’re firing a client, splitting up your practice’s long-established partnership, tendering your resignation or terminating an employee, divorce, veterinary-style, happens more often than ever.

It only makes sense. The larger volume of mergers, acquisitions and sales in the veterinary industry (not just in practices but among suppliers, too), a surge in part-time workforce members (higher employee turnover, in general), increasing specialization and the still-rocketing rate of human mobility means that almost every veterinary professional deals in some breed of divorce on an increasingly regular basis.

Sadly, as with learning to say “no” gracefully, divorcing with dignity seems almost uniformly impossible, no matter what that smarmy Gwyneth Paltrow says. Thankfully, however, its evils can be mitigated. Consider the following categories of veterinary separation, including specific examples supporting the contention that the word “no” can lead to some serious happiness:

Our Beloved Clients 

We all have our demons, and we know who they are. Limiting their negative influence on our lives, however, is hard to do. Luckily, there are a lot of little steps we can take to accomplish this goal.

Eons ago I worked for a practice that offered an enticing, cash-sparing year-end bonus to its staff. Each year these lucky souls were allowed to vote for the one client most worthy of termination. This client, thereby deemed unworthy of clienthood, would be summarily dismissed and the staff could start the year afresh, happily bereft of one presumably obnoxious client.

If only it could be so easy, right? Nowadays, firing even the most deserving client has to be balanced against the risk of retaliation, usually in the guise of a nasty review posted on a popular online review site. In a world where one star in a five-star rating system is highly correlated with a huge bump in traffic, saying goodbye to troublesome clients is no longer the breeze it once seemed to be.

But here’s the thing: That’s probably for the best. After all, if you know you can’t pull the plug on a relationship, you’re almost certainly going to invest more time in its maintenance, right? Setting boundaries early on and actually using the word “no” when they demand discounts, face time, unlimited access or other special perks keeps them from harboring even more unreasonable expectations in the future. Easier said than done, but that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Our Dear Partners 

Good fences make good neighbors, right? For sure, just like great contracts make great partnerships. In fact, having a detailed, well-conceived contract in place is just like saying “no,” without ever having to use the word.

Of course, that’s not to say that a well-drawn contract could ever resolve the most egregious of irreconcilable differences. In my experience, these tend to stem from one of three causes: major personality mismatches, poor fit in financial philosophy and the poison of an ill-conceived workplace romance.

Once any of these differences comes to light, getting to “no” as quickly and amicably as possible is the only solution to the partnership. It may feel more like ripping Elastikon off an open wound than a Band-Aid off a boo-boo, but it’s better in the long run. Way better.

Employer and Employees 

For me, dealing with veterinary employers has always been easy. I never formalized any commitments (with very few exceptions), never signed any contracts and always managed, somehow.

Not that I recommend this approach. Not at all. Any production pay, in particular, is a sticking point for those who prefer to pay their employees or expect remuneration this way. Women in their childbearing years, especially, would do well to formalize their commitments just in case. (And for our part, we employers will just have to learn to live with life’s “little inconveniences.”)

Last but definitely not least to consider is the sticky thing that is the employee handbook. Ideally, you read this thing before you accept employment. It will reveal a wealth of information about the management style of your prospective employer. I mean, do you really want to work for a practice that mandates makeup as a condition of “proper grooming?” That won’t pay for any CE? That counts getting a tattoo as a fireable offense? That doesn’t even have an employee handbook?

For our part, we should accept that certain “nos” are no longer reasonable in the context of our culture. We should stick to “nos” that protect both parties—our reputations, revenues and sanity along with their comfort, incomes and stability.

Suppliers and Providers 

I leave these for last because they’re the easiest. After dealing with humans, dealing with the increasingly dehumanized mega-corporate world of suppliers and providers is way simpler, humanwise. After all, in today’s world of chilly corporate relationships, loyalty and humanity matters less than ever before. Starting a new business from an old one proved this almost immediately.

When longtime suppliers wanted us to ink less favorable contracts and the bank we’d been working with for over 40 years refused us a loan based on their concretized policies, we did what anyone else would do: We said “no.” “No, we’re not signing that.” “No, we don’t need your services anymore.” “No, we don’t need your X, Y or Z. We’ll go with someone else.”

The tough part came when we had to accept that while competition in the wider world is alive and well, there are too few veterinary suppliers in the marketplace. And it’s getting worse. But that, my friends, is the subject of another diatribe.

Unfortunately, none of what I’ve written here will teach you how to stop being a people pleaser, a doormat, someone who chooses to slum with duds. It won’t even teach you how not to be that frog. (Confess it: We’ve all been there.) Hopefully, however, it’ll offer you some measure of inspiration as we begin this new year: After all, you deserve better.


Dr. Khuly owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at www.drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News. 

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