Dr Dave Nicol is a veterinary hospital owner based in Sydney, Australia.
Dave has published five ebooks for vets and pet owners and is a feature writer for Veterinary Economics (US), Veterinary Team Brief (US) and The Veterinary Business Journal (UK). He is a popular presenter at veterinary conferences around the world, including NAVC and BSAVA.

Problems in vet practices (aka small businesses) happen. It’s normal and to a certain degree unavoidable. Sure it’s better to prevent than cure, but some stuff you are not going to be able to legislate. Trust me…

Stuff like:

  • Not enough clients coming in this month.
  • We didn’t make the sales target today.
  • Something died under anaesthetic.
  • We can’t retain nurses and always seem to run short-staffed.

I don’t know exactly what your problems look like, but I’ll guarantee that you have some. Life’s like that as a manager or owner, it can be stressful and it can be painful. In the short term that’s fine as it provides some motivation to take some remedial action (after – in extreme instances – a couple of days of foetal rocking).

Where things get unhealthy is when the stress and pain seem never ending. I call this spinning plate disease. Or more accurately, dropping plate disease.


Keeping your plates spinning

As managers we are required to undertake a lot of tasks each day/week. When one starts to go wrong it can consume the time we would normally spend on the others. Life as you may have noticed has this awful habit of conspiring to crap on us when we are farthest from a bar of soap.

Ever had something like this happen?                                                                 Two team members leave at the same time your head nurse tells you she’s pregnant. Your BAS, super and tax bills all land right when your cash flow takes a dip. Your team go sick on the one day you need to be someplace else.

The point I’m making isn’t that stress and problems are completely avoidable. The very notion is pure nonsense. It’s that the only way to handle this kind of stress is to deal with your problems effectively.

Easy to say right? But actually way harder for some people than it seems. That’s because once we are stuck in a full blown “panic mode”, the part of your brain responsible for rational thought gets beaten down by your hyperactive and (slightly demented) limbic system.

The result is that we may find shoot-from-the-hip quick fixes. Or worse, simply swim (and drown) around in stress hormones unable to find our way out of trouble.

Decision making while under this stress rarely leads to great outcomes and can cause us more issues down the track.

So how do you deal with problems effectively so your life gets better?

I recommend a three pronged approach. Use it and you’ll find your crisis management not just improving, but becoming less often required.


Step 1: Don’t act right away.

You’re fired up, you’re emotional and you’re crazy. Your neanderthal fight-or flight-limbic system is cajoling you to do something silly. Instead, put some distance between your instinctive emotional response and your resulting reflex action. I call this an emotional buffer zone. If there’s someone pushing your buttons take a breath, go for a walk, count to ten. Whatever it takes to avoid acting rashly.

Though TV shows like 24 or the West wing move at breakneck pace, they are not a good guide for how we should approach the big decision in practice. OK in a surgery if something is bleeding you need to act fast. But in your business there is almost always time to take stock and think about your next move. Act in haste, repent in leisure.


Step 2: Examine the system.

(Say whaaaat?) OK, everything in your practice is a system. Right now it might not look that way, but it is. By inference everything is connected in someway to everything else. And your job as a manager or owner is to know the systems inside and out. If you don’t know the system then how can you possibly know which bit broke? How can you know what fixing one part will do to another part?

This, I suspect, is the bit you might need to work on and it will take a bit of time to understand it properly. Though you might not be aware of it, you have a marketing system. You have a recruitment system. You have a performance management system. You have a financial system. You have a clinical system. These systems may not be intentional or effective but one way or another you have them.

Patients, people, products and money take journeys into and around your practice. Your practice interacts with the environment in which it exists (the local pet and business ecosystem).

Once you start to think of your clinic in these terms, it becomes a lot easier to take control.

Let me give you an example. If you don’t have enough clients per vet then the wrong response is to buy a bigger advert, or spend more on Google – that’s classic limbic system fight-or-flight silliness. The right response is to examine your marketing system thoroughly and work out which bit needs fixing.


Step 3: Act with wisdom (preferably based on facts) and without judgement.

Once you work out what you need to do, then just get on and do it. Again easily said, but sometimes hard to do. Let me give you another example.

If you have lots of clients walking through your doors but your monthly revenue has dropped then you have either got a problem finding work (clinical system), fixing things (clinical system) or billing problems (financial system).

Analysis will reveal which issue is the problem – in this circumstance however you are likely to have a tough conversation with a team member. What makes this easy is that by gathering accurate data, you are giving feedback based on numbers (facts), not your opinion. This does make those combat conversations a heck of a lot easier, and often much more constructive.

One final tip I’d add (at no extra charge), is to try never to do the same piece of work twice. Life is just too darn short. So once you work out what your systems are and what the regular problems/fixes are, document them and use this as your reference manual in future.

Approached like this, stress melts away, and your effectiveness as a manager will increase exponentially.


Dave writes a free monthly business blog for vets called The Hamster Wheel Biz Report which you can follow here.