Every vet practice has a culture whether it is by intent or default. Simply defined, the culture is the DNA of the business, or how a business looks and behaves. It encompasses how they treat their clients, patients, each other and how they offer their services. Up until now the foundation of most vet practice cultures has been excellent veterinary skills, courteous receptionists, and well-stocked pharmacies. Differentiating cultural factors would be cleanliness of the hospital or vehicles, how employees are cared for, or customer service. Very few veterinarians set out to define a culture, instead the culture is exemplified by the influence of the practice owner(s) and the behavior they tolerate or encourage. We have all heard of the vet practices that have staff morale issues, practices inferior medicine or conversely, are on the cutting edge of technology or have a great client education program. With this in mind, does it matter if a vet practice purposely defines their culture or is it enough to let a culture just develop over time? Is there an advantage to determining what a culture should be and putting in the effort to bring it forward?
Over the past number of years I have been reading about companies like Zappos and the Union Square Hospitality Group. These companies share several factors that we wanted in our vet practices: excellent customer service, lower staff turnover, a happy work environment, and prosperity in a competitive business. What struck me about their culture of customer service was that it was based on taking care of their staff first. Wow, I thought that customer service was “the customer is always right” or “do what it takes to make the customer happy”. Then I learned there are different approaches to both. First of all, the customer is not always right. In our case, some are mean or petty and do nothing except make our vets and staff miserable. Part of a customer service oriented culture is learning who our customers are and catering to them. Those who don’t fit into our values or type of practice are eliminated. Our clinics enjoy working with the animal owner or trainer that wants the best and is willing to pay for it, and not those that like the idea of having the best but never want to pay for it or expend the effort to care for their animal. This leads to the second approach, that we must take care of those clients who do value us by giving them exceptional value in the services and products we offer. Up until now these were simple concepts for me. What surprised me was the concept that you can only give exceptional service to your clients by first taking care of your vets and staff. If they are happy at work they will be more likely to reflect that attitude back to the client. The simplicity of it astounded me. I remember being miserable in a job and struggling to care about customer service, but when I worked for people that cared about me I would do anything to help the business.
Early in 2010 our vet practices decided that we were going to create a business culture of customer service excellence, both internally(staff) and externally. We were hoping to create a great work environment, which would then translate into better customer service. Based on this underlying vision, my wife and I as practice owners asked staff members to help identify the key characteristics of our culture and created a manifesto of our ten cultural behaviors with examples. Once we had our template we met with all of our vets and staff to explain why we have identified our culture and what the behavioural characteristics were. Since then, we reinforce this by ensuring that new hires have appropriately answered behavioral questions based on our culture. As well, we compensate staff based on positive cultural activity. For example, everyone identifies “gold star” actions of staff members each month in our staff meetings. My wife and I are the drivers of the culture and we set the example for everyone else. I also meet with new hires and go over, not only the values and vision of the practice, but the why of what we are and explain how they all tie into our culture. Our culture is all-encompassing in that it permeates how we make business decisions, treat each other, and influences actions taken individually, or as a group.
What was the end result of this? Now that we know the type of vets and staff we want to work with, we are able to hire people more effectively. We use our culture as a basis for staff evaluations, so that those vets and staff who live up to our culture are more likely to get raises or promotions. We have an excellent record of customer service where complaints from disgruntled clients are rare. A huge benefit is that we have fun at work, laughing a lot and enjoying each others company. I have lost track of the number of times clients have commented on how much fun we have while working. There are no office dramas or crises. We could never say that before. On a dollar and cents basis we are holding our own during this recession. It has transformed our business in more ways than we can measure.
How can your business evaluate and determine your culture? Here are 5 easy steps.
- Practice owners write down their ideal culture. An example would be a workplace where staff work together in a positive and cohesive environment.
- Quiz vets and staff to determine what the culture currently is so areas of shortcoming can be identified and targeted for improvement. A comment on work environment that mentions mini soap operas would reflect that the desired cultural traits need to be adjusted.
- Create a culture document and explain to all vets and staff that this is the desired culture for the business. Practice owners then have to live and breathe the culture as they set the example
- Make staff compensation and HR decisions based in part on positive culture activities.
- Measure internal and external client service metrics to evaluate the success of your new culture. Are you getting less complaints, are fewer staff quitting, have you noticed increased business?
Your veterinary practice has a culture. Is it one that you have created and control or is it one that controls your practice.
Have you done anything in your vet practice to actively influence your culture? Please let us know in the comment section below or on our Facebook Page.