Building Your Veterinary Team
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2001
Howell Little
United States

In the spring of 2001 the first blind climber, the youngest climber, and the oldest climber all reached the summit of Mt. Everest. No one would consider taking on the world’s tallest mountain without careful planning. Selection of the team that would be responsible for orchestrating an attempt on Everest’s 29,035-foot summit is a survival necessity. Careful consideration in building that climbing team is no more important than building a veterinary team. Yet, everyday veterinary practices are trying to reach new heights in income, employee satisfaction, and client bonding rates with little consideration of attracting, selecting, and properly training the veterinary team.

There are compelling reasons for veterinary practices to critically evaluate the profession’s ability, as a whole, to generate practice income using all aspects of the veterinary team. The Executive Summary of the Brakke Management and Behavior Study (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 3, August 1, 2000) ranks the mean annual income of veterinarians behind those of physicians, dentists, lawyers, chiropractors, pharmacists, and physical therapists. It has been reported that practices with more than five full time employees generate an average doctor transaction 30% higher than practices with less than two full time employees. Opportunities are abundant!

Practices are searching for profit centers and want to establish their niche. How can the practice attract and retain educated and motivated clients? Having a team of veterinary and paraprofessional talent function as a trained extension of the practice’s medical expertise is increasingly important. We have traditionally structured the veterinary practice to be centered on what the veterinarian’s needs are and what the veterinarian’s time will bear. Practices that will survive and flourish in the competitive years ahead are those that are centered on a client’s animal health care needs, desires, and wants with the veterinary team centered on serving those clients and their pets. Think about your last trip to the dentist. Did you spend more time with the dentist or more time with the dental hygienist? What about your trip to the optometrist? Did you spend the majority of your time with the doctor or a member of the paraprofessional team? Consumers feel perfectly comfortable with this relationship IF those paraprofessional team members are qualified. If they have been critically selected and trained, and are capable of delivering animal health care as an extension of the doctor’s expertise, the paraprofessional can exert tremendous impact on practice income. Many of the profit centers that are being discussed in veterinary medicine require a team-oriented approach in order to be successfully implemented in a busy practice. Pediatrics, geriatrics, weight management, parasite control, pet dentistry, and behavior modification are examples of programs or systems being considered by practices to boost practice income. They are almost guaranteed to fail if all aspects of the veterinary team are not utilized.

Consider the quest for the summit of Mt. Everest. In planning this two to three month test of team performance, building a dependable team is vital. To determine who would be selected for inclusion on this specialized team one would need to know what tasks, duties, and job functions would be critical for success. In essence, detailed job descriptions would be necessary to insure that the team is functional and capable of all that lies ahead. Detailed job descriptions are equally important in a veterinary practice to facilitate not only searching for the qualified candidates but also to ensure that those individuals hired fully understand what they are responsible for each and every day. Time must be taken early in the process of constructing the veterinary team to script out what each job function should be, what qualifications the candidate should have, and what the candidate should be capable of doing day in and day out.

As the task of organizing and articulating job descriptions in a veterinary practice are “fleshed out” the questions arise “How do I attract qualified, motivated, capable individuals to the practice?” “How do we find quality employees in a very competitive workplace?” To be cliché, birds of a feather do flock together. An organized thoughtful business does attract organized thoughtful individuals. Consider your team as a source of referrals for prospective employees. Even better, consider your Top 25 Clients. That top 25% of your client base are the golden clients that are generating 75% of your practice’s income. They visit your practice multiple times every year and should be a source of prospective employee referrals. Ask them!

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian sociologist that theorized that 20% of a country’s population controls 80% of its wealth. Pareto’s Rule or the 80/20 Rule applies to how we select veterinary team members to fill those newly printed job descriptions. In selecting the candidate during the interview, when the person conducting the interview is talking more than 15 minutes (or 25%) of every hour, they are talking too much. Let the candidate explain why they are capable and qualified. Let them explain why they are qualified to fill the position. They should be able to articulate how they have performed in past jobs experiences by sharing examples of past behaviors. To facilitate that exchange of information open-ended questions that “get the candidate talking” are critical. Closed questions that can be answered with yes or no offer the interviewer no window to past experience and behavior. “Tell me about yourself” can quickly gauge if the candidate is prepared, thoughtful, articulate, and capable of communicating. “What are your strengths?” “What is the one weakness that you have had to work to correct?” speaks volumes and can be a revelation. “Tell me about your best (or worse) boss” could uncover information that can be built upon during the remaining interview. Open-ended questions can drive the discussions toward behaviors and examples of past performance that allow you to cull out the unqualified candidate while selecting for capabilities that will fill in a job description.

Simply adding an expanded number of veterinary team members to a practice’s day-to-day operations without investing in training is a recipe for confusion and potential disaster. Regularly scheduled team meetings and regularly scheduled team training are one in the same. Each team or staff meeting should include a training component. What do you want the veterinary team to know, do, and accomplish? Train to that need during scheduled sessions. Each member of your veterinary team (top to bottom) could and should function as a resource to your clients. They can be a direct extension of your veterinary expertise. Top 25 clients will pay a premium for that level of animal health care. Your entire team is ready, willing, and able to build value in your client’s mind. Your team is the animal health care experts in your niche.

Will Rogers said “Things ain’t what they used to be… and they probably never was.” Veterinary medicine ain’t what it used to be in 1954, 1972, 1977, 1981, and 1992. The golden days of veterinary practice are upon us, now. Clients are willing and able to pay a premium for premium-quality expertise in many buying decisions today. The veterinary practice that is receptive to building a focused veterinary team centered on quality animal health care is able to take advantage of the opportunities that are numerous in today’s veterinary marketplace.


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Howell Little
United States

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