COVID-19: Communication creates business success

Published on April 8, 2020

During the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, veterinary practices will see revenues decline – even practices that implement creative strategies to bolster cash flow and stay afloat. Although the short run is going to involve some financial pain, it’s important for the long term that veterinary practices continue caring for their greatest asset: the veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

Having a strong line of communication with animal owners during and after the pandemic is critical. This is a time when small businesses, including veterinary practices, can really support their clients and strengthen those relationships. Nurturing the veterinarian-client-patient relationship now will pay dividends when the economy bounces back.

Communicate with clients

As practices are switching to alternative business delivery models like telemedicine and curbside care, it’s essential to make clients fully aware of these changes and communicate that the veterinary clinic is open for business. Clients also need to know of any other types of new offerings being introduced by the practice, such as delivery of food and medicines.

It makes sense to employ a regular communication program that supports connections to clients on a regular basis, through email, text, and other digital platforms. This will remind clients that the ongoing health of their animals is important to the veterinary team and that the veterinary clinic is open for business. These communications can include science-based information about COVID-19, its effects on people and animals, what clients should do to protect their animals, and how you are protecting both clients and your team from exposure when in-person care is needed.

Nurturing the veterinarian-client-patient relationship now will pay dividends when the economy bounces back.

AVMA has developed a range of resources you can use to support these communications, including FAQs, ready-to-share social media infographics, and a downloadable flyer on planning ahead for your animals’ care

Talking about price

It’s more important now than ever before to communicate with clients about various options for treatment, their cost and price, as well as financial options available to pay for that care, including credit, financing, and deferred payments. There will be many pet owners either without jobs or with reduced income.

Even before the pandemic, 1/3 of pet owners didn’t see a veterinarian on an annual basis. Cost is often cited as a barrier by some pet owners whose animals don’t get regular veterinary care. Given the economic downturn, cost will play an even greater role. Proactively communicating with clients about financial options can help them make the decision to seek veterinary care, as can being thoughtful in developing care plans for patients whose owners may be struggling financially.

Things are changing fast. Veterinarians who let clients know what’s happening and how the veterinary practice is protecting them as customers, keeping their animals healthy, and watching out for their pocketbook will reinforce their clients’ trust and their relationship with the clinic. This relationship will pay dividends when the economy recovers and businesses reopen.

Communicating with team members

For practice owners, team communication is also essential to strengthen the business. If a daily huddle isn’t part of the regular routine, consider adding one; it can be an effective way to build team rapport and engagement. The purpose of the huddle isn’t for the practice owner to tell the team what she or he wants, but rather to listen to the team and build an understanding of what they need. In this unprecedented time, there will be fear and anxiety among team members. The simple act of listening can build trust and connectivity. Again, the AVMA has developed resources that can help you here:

Decentralizing management

Every owner also should re-examine their decision-making process. Research shows that companies with decentralized decision-making fared better in the 2008 recession than those that clung to authority. Leaders who passed authority further down the chain of command found that employees remained more committed and involved.

Research shows that companies with decentralized decision-making fared better in the 2008 recession than those that clung to authority.

For managers who aren’t used to delegating and decentralizing, a good way to start is to actively seek more input from the team. Sometimes just asking open-ended questions like “What do you need from me to help you do your jo better?” can be revealing.

Why do decentralization and delegation help? The uncertainty of a recession necessitates experimentation, and decentralization matches decisions with expertise. In the uncertainty and turbulence of the last recession, decentralized businesses were better able to adapt to changing conditions because they delegated decision-making further down the hierarchy. 

Although it might make practice owners feel uneasy, delegating various elements of practice oversight can help strengthen the business and make it more resilient. At the very least, owners should seek more input from employees at all levels. Every veterinary practice can improve by hearing from employees at all levels when making key decisions.

Talking about the downturn

It’s also important for owners to communicate openly about the reality of the difficult times ahead. This is especially true as the industry is facing record-breaking revenue losses. For some practices, layoffs are not off the table. Team members will appreciate knowing where the practice stands and what the future might hold.

That said, the companies that weathered the last recession the most successfully relied less on layoffs to reduce costs and leaned more towards management and operational improvements. Talking openly about the downturn gives team members an opportunity to share ideas and make suggestions. Ask how they would improve the operation, and you might hear great ideas that will make the business more efficient and flexible and ready to withstand change.

Layoffs should always be the action of last resort because they are harmful to workers and costly for practices when the business recovers. Hiring and training are expensive. Layoffs can also hurt morale, dampening productivity at a time when practices can ill afford it. Practices should consider hour reductions, furloughs, and postponing performance pay as options. 

Before making any staffing decisions in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s also important to have a clear understanding of the federal relief options available to your business. Some options require you to keep all employees on the payroll.