Sunday, 15 April 2018

Vexatious Vets (Again) – Why They Need to Become Customer Focused and Offer Value for Money


I’ve done a number of blogs on the veterinary profession and I’m afraid they have normally been critical. Obviously, at their best vets can be superb and none of us as owners resent the “necessary” costs we have to pay to treat and look after our horses, both on a day-by-day basis and from time to time when the inevitable emergencies arise. But unfortunately the vets as a community of professionals are out of touch with modern values of customer service and don’t even really regard the owner as the customer. We all know there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and you’ll never find a poor vet.

In the space of three days last week I encountered three completely different experiences with vets: one brilliant, one mediocre and one terrible. That is about the average strike-rate, I find. I’m not going to go into the detail of the three episodes, but here are seven factors for evaluating vets.

  1. Clinical effectiveness. It is a disturbing feature of the treatment of racehorses that there is often an absence of proper, evidence-based research into the effectiveness of treatment, with a notable example being the various operations for wind problems. The same applies to tendon treatments: what is the effectiveness of stem cell injections vs. the medieval art of firing?

  2. Customer orientation. Basically vets regard the trainer as their customer, not the owner. Trainers invariably haven’t a clue about the total annual spend of their owners with their vets, and it is just regarded as a pass-through cost. The owner just pays the bills, and they are considerable. If the average annual vetting cost per horse is £1,500, then for a 50-horse yard that is a total of £75,000. Most vets would cover that with one day’s work per week. A 150-horse yard is £225k, and with 20,000 horses in the UK it is a £30m spend per year.

  3. Pricing for services. There are lots of different ways a supplier can charge a customer: greed (charge as much as you can get away with), time and materials (and many vets just double the price of drugs and consumables), performance (to reflect results), fixed cost and a margin (what are the margins of vets?) or by procedure (see the next heading). Unfortunately there’s often little transparency as to how vets do charge. With many of them it is what I call “pizza pricing” – the base isn’t too bad but there are so many add-ons for all the bits and pieces.

  4. Pricing by procedure. I keep a cost tracker on every single horse and it is absolutely amazing how the charges for the complete range of veterinary services vary between vets and across the country. If you look at the automotive industry, they adopted total quality management and six sigma approaches decades ago, i.e. top quality x standardisation. Now any vet will tell you that you can’t do that with horses because every situation varies. Of course it does, but it’s on a normal distribution. Some are straightforward and you save, some are complex and you lose. If you look at the commissioning model in the NHS, hospitals have to quote commissioning doctors fixed prices for operations. I would love to see a fixed price schedule for veterinary work so that you could compare value for money.

  5. Communication. Invariably the only communication you get from a vet is through an opaque invoice, or a line on the trainer’s bill. There is rarely any contact, and vets just don’t seem to feel that there is a need to keep the owner properly in the loop. I’ve always argued that the worst type of communication between a customer and a supplier is when it is only done by cheque.

  6. Administration and invoicing. Usually it is a constant bombardment with some vets billing fortnightly. Careful checking of invoices pays dividends because there are often mistakes, and lots of over-charging. I’ve even had bills coming in three months after treatment when the horse has since died and the partnership accounts closed down.

  7. No improvement plan. The relationship between many trainers and vets is inertial, with relationships going back decades. The trainer makes no attempt to obtain value for money, nor to press the vet to be owner / customer orientated. At the level of British racing – despite the £30m spend per year – there is absolutely no strategy whatsoever. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything come out of the BHA or the ROA pressing for a better, fair deal for owners.

So as you can see, quite a high level of dissatisfaction. The ideal is probably to be a sufficiently large owner or trainer to have your own vet to address the seven factors properly. Occasionally I wonder whether it would be worthwhile concentrating all the Owners for Owners horses, as well as my own, to one trainer so that we arrive at a preferential position. That would rattle a few cages!





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