Forming Healthy Relationships with Competitors

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In a town of 3,000 residents, it doesn’t take a lot for something to become big news. So, when the veterinary clinic across town from mine changed hands, it was big news — there’s a new vet in town. There was constant chatter among our veterinary clients, among people that I ran into at the grocery store, and even among teachers at my son’s school. It seemed everyone wanted to know about this new veterinarian, including me. The only one who wasn’t talking, it seemed, was her.

Now it occurs to me that anytime you’re setting up shop in a new area, you should explore your surroundings, scope out your competition, or better yet, extend a friendly hand and find out how you can best work with that competition. With this in mind I waited a couple of weeks for the new vet in town to do just that, only that meeting never came. So I took matters into my own hands and headed over to her clinic for a quick hello and a get-to-know-you session. The only problem was she wouldn’t meet with me! Her receptionist said something about being with a client (even though there were no cars in the parking lot) and that, no, I shouldn’t wait, it might be a while. Now, I completely understand the busyness that comes with veterinary medicine, but to not even suggest a better time to meet was a little much. Flabbergasted, I left the clinic, not sure what to think of this new competitor. Was she actually trying to make it a competition?

Why a Good Competitor Relationship Is Necessary

It may seem completely counter-intuitive to try to work with your competitors — after all, doesn’t compete mean to defeat or gain superiority over others, not work closely in a symbiotic relationship? Let me put it this way: every veterinarian has many procedures that they like and some that they don’t. I have a friend who used to work as a legal assistant to a lawyer. When a new lawyer moved to town, one of the first things they did was to meet with her boss and talk about what they liked and didn’t like. Not only did this meeting make for an amicable professional relationship, but the two lawyers were then able to comfortably refer cases to one another so that each of them got to do more of what they liked and less of what they didn’t. The same could be true for a veterinary relationship. Maybe you have an affinity for orthopedics and your competitor gets a little queasy drilling through bone — having that positive professional relationship would allow for your competitor to send more orthopedic surgeries your way without necessarily losing clients.

Another benefit of this working relationship is that veterinary equipment is expensive! If your practice is unable to afford the luxuries of an ultrasound machine or digital x-ray, don’t let your medicine suffer. Send them down the street to your competitor who has this equipment, knowing that your relationship with them is such that they’ll send you the results without adding a new client to their system. Sharing is caring, and sharing can also mean more sleep. Try splitting up the days that each veterinary practice will handle emergency calls with the agreement that you’ll provide records back to the original veterinarian the next day.

When Competitor Relationships Aren’t So Positive

Some of you may be questioning why I was so driven to positively interact with this new competitor rather than hunker down in my veterinary bunker and start lobbing grenades in her general direction. The simple truth is that I was tired of the antagonistic relationship my clinic had with the previous owner of the other clinic. There was a rivalry there that went way back before I was even thinking about veterinary school, and it continued on even though I had never had any negative dealings with my competitor. What I mean by this is the other veterinarian would do anything to slander my and my boss’s name even though I had never met him (he also refused to meet with me anytime I stopped by). What ended up happening was anytime we had a situation that we couldn’t handle at the clinic, such as an emergency femur fracture when we were overbooked as it was, we had to send the patient 40 miles down the road to another veterinary clinic. We would much rather our clients drive three minutes across town than down the winding river road, but that relationship just wasn’t there.

Inconvenience aside, having a negative relationship with your competitors can actually hurt your business. As I was writing the article on online reviews for veterinary clinics, I was appalled to learn that some veterinary competitors actually post false negative reviews on other clinics’ websites! We’re all in this for the benefit of our patients, and falsely smearing our competitors does nothing for the betterment of the critters we’re working for.

 How to Build a Good Relationship With Your Competitors

Hopefully by now you’re thinking that cozying up with your competitors a bit more sounds better than both of you standing out in the cold, fending for yourselves. But let’s get one thing straight: creating a good working relationship doesn’t mean you’ll be combining clinics or even that you’ll have to talk more than a couple of times a year. It can simply mean that, when needed, you’ll be able to work together to improve the outcome for a patient. But how do you get to that point? The short answer is talk to them.

There are probably a lot of questions and maybe even fears surrounding a conversation with your competitor and with just cause. Aren’t they out there to steal all of your clients, drag your name through the mud, and effectively demolish your business? Probably not. You may find that your competitor is experiencing many of the same issues that you are, that they have solutions to some of your problems, and that they are just as scared of you as you are of them.

Put all of your negative thoughts aside and set up a meeting with your competitors. Try to make it away from either person’s clinic so that the sights and sounds don’t distract you. Really get into how you can help each other. Talk about your likes and dislikes and work out an agreement in which you both can benefit, such as splitting on-call hours. You don’t have to become best friends with them, just develop a mutual understanding.

Take the High Road

As an undergrad, I spent my summers working at a veterinary clinic near my hometown. A veterinarian who had once been an employee of that clinic had recently moved back into town and set up her own shop just a couple of miles from the clinic that I worked at. That veterinarian had the foresight to come in and speak with the owner and other vets at my clinic and tell them exactly what she had in mind for her business. She was looking to only work part time and to more or less choose her cases. She wanted to work out of her home, so she didn’t want to sink a lot of money into equipment. She and the other veterinarians were able to work out an agreement in which she would send animals to the clinic for radiographs, lab work, and some surgeries if we would send back the animal with the results. In return, she would refer any patients that she didn’t have time for or didn’t want to see to us. Everybody was happy and it worked very well. Nobody tried to steal clients, and the patient’s best interest was always put first.

Now, I completely understand that this isn’t always the case. There may be times that a meet and greet with a competitor goes very wrong and actually makes your relationship more fierce. If you fall into this situation, don’t give up. Rather than duck and cover, you’ve got to come out and show support for your competitor, even if they’re unsupportive of you. Never badmouth them to your clients, and don’t hide your face when you see them around town. If your competitor chooses to do that to you, rest assured that others notice. Consider sitting down with them with a third party present and try to work out a way to at least be civil.

Creating a relationship with your competitors may seem like the last thing you want to do, even on a to-do list that contains anal gland excisions and enemas. However, it could be one of the most important things you do as a veterinarian or business owner. Remember that a little competition is necessary to bring out the best in all of us so that we are giving the best to our patients. Use that to your advantage, and share some of the workload with your competition. 

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