How to future proof your veterinary practice

Editor’s note: What if you don’t work in a veterinary practice? Don’t worry. These same steps work for all sizes and types of businesses. We can guarantee your biggest competitors are using these kinds of tools and thinking to innovate for the future. Keep reading.

If you jumped into a time machine, zapped yourself into the “way back” and asked James Herriot or any of his counterparts what a sci-fi version of a veterinarian’s job might look like, it’s possible he would dream up a few of the ways veterinary practice has changed, from wearable health monitors and microchips to doggy DNA kits.

In every era, veterinarians have had to face and adapt to new challenges as technology changes the way they offer pet care. Increasingly, pet owners are claiming a bigger say in how, when and where they want to receive their pets’ health care. Whether it’s in a state-of-the-art vet practice, house calls from mobile vets or appointments at the local pet supply store, pet owners have strong feelings about their pet’s health care.

Shifts in client attitudes will change the way you practice. But when was the last time you sat down and defined your business model? I guarantee you, some things have changed, even if you wrote yours six months ago.

Consider these steps to leverage innovation and creativity to ensure your business survives and thrives.

Step 1: Review your business model canvas to make the future less scary.

First, start by recognizing an essential fact: You are not selling a product or a service. You are creating progress for your customer. What does that mean? You’re creating value for your specific customer segments through the bundles of products and services you offer. Clear as mud?

Think of it this way: What does your client really want? Do they want a vet appointment, or is their desire to have a healthy pet? If the answer is a healthy pet, then a veterinary visit might be one way a client can achieve that goal, but are there other methods to have a healthy pet? Even if you argue that a veterinary visit is the only way to have a healthy pet, the pet owner may have strong feelings about how and how often the pet needs a veterinary visit to be healthy.

Let’s pull out the crystal ball for a moment. Or in this case, your business model canvas. You can grab a copy here.

Your veterinary practice launched with a business model. But when is the last time you revisited your model and bumped it up against your current clients and marketplace trends to help you prepare for the future? Schedule some time with yourself and any key stakeholders to review the business model canvas together.

Step 2: Try a little science friction.

In the book “Be Less Zombie: How Great Companies Create Dynamic Innovation, Fearless Leadership and Passionate People,” author Elvin Turner shares the example of Lowes, the hardware store. Using what their strategists call “Narrative Driven Innovation,” they collect data and pass it to science fiction writers. These writers imagine how trends will cause future friction in customers’ lives. Then cartoonists develop the storylines into cartoons that feed the company’s innovation discussions.

Now I’m not suggesting you hire a team of science fiction writers and cartoonists to visualize your future – although wouldn’t that be fun? – but perhaps you and your team members can invest a portion of each staff meeting thinking like those writers and cartoonists.

Find the humor and friction that occurs for your clients. For example, perhaps at your next staff meeting you give every team member a journal and ask them to write down any trends they notice. Maybe your receptionist sees more people are scheduling appointments through your app or your technician spots more dental treats flying off the shelves. Ask them to share at each team meeting.

Dedicate time every week to thinking about the future. You can start with your own milestones or take a page from these trends the industry has already spotted. Next consider how your practice could reposition itself to react to these trends rather than simply responding to them after the fact.

Step 3: Set your experiments.

It’s time to get your team involved in testing ideas for your practice’s future. And starting begins with discussing the consequences of failure.

Your team needs to be running minimally viable experiments constantly to succeed. In the March-April 2020 issue of Harvard Business review, author Stefan Thomke, a professor at Harvard Business School, makes the case that businesses need to “create an environment in which curiosity Is nurtured, data trumps opinion, anyone can conduct a test, all experiments are done ethically and managers embrace a new model of leadership.” Further, he writes, “It’s actually less risky to run a large number of experiments than a small number. If a company does only a handful of experiments a year, it may have only one success or none. Then failure is a big deal.”

Let your team fail. Make the stakes low and constantly test. Run minimally viable experiments, like adding leashes to your retail area or carrying a new line of treats your receptionist raves about. Measure the data and embrace what you learn. Experiments are all learning that you use to build the big idea.

Maybe you want to beta test a new service, like an Uber for pets service to pick up pets for vet visits when their pet parents are too busy. This could fill up that hole in your daily schedule. Or maybe you’ve got an idea for a concierge dog park service that picks up pets for playtime several times a week.

Before you start offering it, choose a few of your best clients who might be candidates for this service. Explain you’re testing an idea for a new service. While it’s not ready for prime time, you’d like to invite them to test it and offer honest feedback to help you develop the idea.

Consider these criteria for your experiments.

 Limit what you’re measuring. If you have too many factors involved, you’ll have trouble sussing out the data to determine what worked and why. An example: If you’re trying to determine whether a social media post about your new wellness plan drives any new appointments, you may want to hold off publicizing the program in your e-newsletter. Or you may decide to ask anyone who schedules an appointment to identify where they first heard about the program.

  Empower your team to lead. If you agree on the experiment, choose a project leader and step back. You’ll likely be wowed by the results.

 Set a timeline for your experiment. Start and end dates will keep you on target to stop and evaluate data to determine if you need to adjust your experiment in any way.

  Think big(ger). While your experiments need to be lean little chihuahuas — big in spirit, small in size — your ideas need to be Great Danes. Although all sizes of ideas will help your practice, future proofing requires you to think “out there” ideas to anticipate the big trends.

The future is coming, and with fewer veterinarians opting for practice ownership and impending shortages in both the number of veterinarians and credentialed veterinary technicians, you need to take a proactive approach to predict the future for your practice. Take time to prepare. Your future self will thank you.

Want to learn more? Check out my conversation with host Brendan Howard on the Veterinary Business Success Show podcast.

Portia Stewart is the former Team Channel Director for dvm360 and former editor of Firstline magazine. She spent 19 years working in companion animal health media before joining Curious Plot as a senior consultant. Read more from Portia.