Digital Reboot: Allay Recession Fears by Optimizing Your Software Tools

History shows that, during a recession, companies focus on creating more operational efficiencies, especially related to technology. This article focuses on how to create such efficiencies in three key practice areas: core operations, other operational efficiencies, and marketing. It also suggests where to start.

by M. Carolyn Miller, MA

IF THE 2009 RECESSION taught veterinary practices anything, it was that the majority of practices were capable of surviving. Indeed, the need for veterinary services doesn’t go away, including during the recent coronavirus scare, when they were labeled “essential services” in some states.

However, if you’re concerned that your practice may be one that doesn’t fare well in the looming recession, it’s helpful to see the larger context. The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, published in 2011, gave hints of that larger context. It noted that, despite some suggestions that the 2007–2009 recession had a negative impact on veterinary practice revenues, in fact, decreases had been occurring for some years despite the growth in pet ownership.

The Bayer study identified multiple factors that contributed to that decrease. There are more options for clients when it comes to veterinary care. Clients can search the web for solutions. They don’t always understand why routine examinations are needed. They are also often shocked at the size and frequency of price increases. Add in feline resistance and a downturn, and—voila!—practice revenues can go down.

But perhaps a recession merely points the spotlight on a need that has been there all along. And downturns provide the perfect opportunity to reassess and realign digital priorities as part of a practice’s larger operational reboot.

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Historically, businesses focus on operational efficiencies in a recession. That’s because in good times, they are focused on producing goods and providing services to their clients, noted a May–June 2019 Harvard Business Review article, “How to Survive a Recession and Thrive Afterward,” by Walter Frick, Harvard Business Review’s deputy editor. In recessions, businesses have the luxury, if you will, to do some long-overdue technology-related musing.

Digital efficiencies in a downturn invariably focus on three areas, notes Frick. The first area is analytics. This is a gold mine of information, and it can show you what to do more, and less, of. For instance, if your practice produces a newsletter and blogs, your newsletter and blog analytics can show you what posts are the most popular (translation: have the potential to be shared to boost your marketing efforts) so that you can publish more of those types of posts.

The second way to identify digital efficiencies, notes Frick, is to see where you can automate tasks or focus more on products or services that pay out quickly. And while it may appear that a veterinary practice is more hands-on than most businesses, there are areas that are or can be automated.

For instance, a 2019 study by Brakke Consulting pointed out that while two-thirds of veterinary practices offer online purchasing and home delivery, only one-third of clients are aware of such services. If your practice offers such services, are your clients aware of them? If not, perhaps it’s time for a reminder.

Finally, you can create efficiencies by leveraging technology to respond to market shifts, notes Frick. A perfect example is the recent coronavirus outbreak. Those practices that had already initiated a telehealth program were more poised to respond than those that hadn’t. How ready was your practice?

You can begin to boost your practice’s digital efficiency by taking stock of what you have and who uses it. Based on the input you receive, you can then fine-tune your digital operations to meet the needs of those who interact with it.

Key Questions That Drive Digital Efficiencies

Before you hire a website designer to spruce up your website, or invest in telehealth options, consider all those who interact with your technology. Then, through questionnaires, conversations, and general knowledge about how your practice operates, you can identify the key drivers that underlie the digital efficiencies you put in place.

Who Are Our Clients and How Do They Want to Digitally Connect with Us?

Digital marketing companies talk a lot about the client digital journey—that is, all the digital touchpoints that compose how a client connects with you. That can include an initial visit to a website and online booking. It can also include text appointment reminders and follow-up emails and newsletters.

But not all clients are digitally savvy, nor do they want to be. For instance, if your clients are older, they may be more comfortable ordering pet food on the phone rather than navigating your online store. Millennials, on the other hand, will want the opposite and, in fact, will expect it.F2_04.png

What Are Our Practice’s Operational Needs?

Does your practice manager dream about a more efficient way to schedule staff? Is it time-consuming to update your website with current information? Now is the time to rally the team and have a brainstorming session to review what you have and how to leverage it.

Begin by listing all the types of technology you have in place. That can include your website and social media channels. It can also include your accounting package and practice management software. Once that is done, assess how to get the most out of all the software you are using. Then, together, create a digital wish list of key technologies that would boost your practice operations.

Your Digital Road Map

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by technology, especially when new software platforms with nifty features are emerging regularly. To ease some of that feeling of being overwhelmed, think about your digital needs in terms of layers, from internal operations to external marketing. Then assess each layer in terms of relevancy and features. Pay attention, too, to feature overlaps with other digital products. For instance, is a separate newsletter program like Mailchimp needed, or will your customer relationship management (CRM) software handle the job?

Digital Layers

To assess your digital needs, identify your current digital products. Then prioritize how you will maximize your digital efficiency based on how critical they are to your day-to-day operations.

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Software

Definition

Digital Reboot

Accounting software such as QuickBooks

Software that captures
your hospital’s financial
data, including income and expenses, profit and loss, etc.; enables you to run daily, monthly, and yearly reports

Edit the chart of accounts that came with the software so that it maps to the AAHA/VMG Chart of Accounts (available at aaha.org/coa). Then compare how you’re doing with industry averages (and see where you need to adjust)

Practice management software (PMS)

Software that manages patient and staff information; features vary and can include client invoicing, a payment portal, appointment management, marketing campaigns, automated surveys, and more

Review the features of your specific PMS, and ask yourself:

  • What features do we use, and how effective are they?
  • What features are offered that we don’t use but should?
  • What features are redundant with other software programs, and which is the better option?

Combine your PMS data with your financial data, in a spreadsheet, to get a total picture of your practice’s financial health

Office productivity tools such as Microsoft Office Suite

A set of software programs that includes a word-processing program, a spreadsheet tool, presentation software, an email program, etc.

Ask staff experts to train others on simple how-tos, such as how to:

  • Use track changes in Word when more than one person is editing a document
  • Create a simple PowerPoint presentation for training
  • Navigate a financial spreadsheet so you can plug in “what if” scenarios

Merchant services software, such as Square

Online ordering or point-of-sale software that enables a practice to accept credit cards, bank debit cards, and Apple Pay transactions

Confirm that your software is EMV-enabled (for chip-encrypted cards), required by law as of 2015 to protect against fraud

Understand your pricing model and related fees, noted on your statement, and assess fit. The three most common pricing models are flat, tiered, and interchange plus

Business phone system

Desk and cellular systems, such as Weave and Nextiva, whose features can include messaging, analytics, payments, scheduling, and more

Ask your clients to rate your current phone system, and make adjustments as needed

Become a mystery shopper and call your competitors’ practices to identify best practices. Then adjust accordingly

Digital reminders

Automated client reminders sent via text, email, or in-app push notifications (mobile alerts); clients choose how to be contacted

If you’re not using digital reminders, research the time and cost savings to use them. Then act accordingly

If you are using digital reminders, ask clients for feedback. Then adjust accordingly

 

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Software

Definition

Digital Reboot

Customer relationship management (CRM) software

Software that collects and manages client contact information, including reminders, marketing and outreach activities, custom lists and reports, and more

Compare your CRM with your PMS to:

  • Identify feature redundancies and overlaps
  • Identify which software does a better or more robust job
  • Clarify when to use which software for what tasks

Client communication software (a.k.a. pet portals)

Software that provides a pet portal for clients to book appointments, hold patient healthcare information, keep track of medication schedules, and more

Check to be sure clients are aware of your pet portal service (and offer training if needed)

Train staff on the value of the pet portal—and to promote it—including to increase the “wow!” factor among clients

Employee scheduling software

Enables you to view staff availability and schedule employees based on availability, practice needs, and more; includes schedule distribution to varied devices

Keep a list of staff skills/expertise, availability, overtime restrictions, etc., to refer to

Match those best suited to tasks, such as keeping up the blog, versus anyone who is available

Always have a scheduling plan B in case of emergencies

Telehealth

A way of working with patients and partners via screen-sharing technology such as Zoom to deliver health information, care, and education

Note telehealth options on your website and client mailings

In light of COVID-19, create a plan for going “mostly telehealth” in emergencies

Note: To set up telehealth, see AAHA’s The Real-Life Rewards of Virtual Care aaha.org/telehealth) or Trends magazine, April 2019, “The Telehealth Trend”

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Software

Definition

Digital Reboot

Website

Your online address and storefront tells visitors who you are, what products and services you offer, and how to contact you; Squarespace is a popular current platform

Assess your website’s look and functionality:

  • Is your site easy to update? (If not, migrate to a platform that is)
  • Is the look current or dated? (If dated, consider a different platform and a redesign)
  • Do the images evoke the feeling you want to communicate?
  • Is contact information immediately visible?
  • Is important information “above the fold”—that is, at the top—so the user doesn’t have to hunt for it?

Email newsletter

A software program that allows you to format and distribute newsletters; can be a feature of a CRM or a separate program such as Mailchimp

Assess your newsletter:

  • Is your newsletter short and sweet, with bulleted information versus dense content?
  • Do you include engaging images?
  • Do you include digests of recent blog posts with links?
  • Do you have a “call to action” that demands the reader act, even if merely to visit your website?

Blogs

A page on your website that includes multimedia as well as short and long articles that inform, educate, and entertain your clients

To streamline blog planning:

  • Create an editorial plan that includes a variety of post types, including seasonal, timely, and timeless
  • Be sure most of your posts cover interests and values shared with your clients
  • Watch your analytics to see what posts are the most popular (translation: most read and shared) and do more of them
  • Embed search engine optimization (SEO) words in your articles to boost your SEO

Social media

Social networking sites that encourage the sharing of information, ideas, images, videos, and more

Facebook (FB): Create a business page where followers can gather, communicate, and read your practice’s news

Instagram (owned by FB): Create a business page that automatically links to your FB business page

 

M. Carolyn Miller
M. Carolyn Miller, MA, designs and develops creative learning solutions, from simple how-to articles and books to immersive games and simulations. Visit her website for more information.

 

Photo credits: ©iStock.com/Chan2545

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