Looking ahead and navigating the Cost of Living (CoL) crisis in the veterinary industry

An interview with Gemma Barmby, Veterinary Business Consultant at Vet Dynamics and Senior Vet 

By Kim Lam

9 March 2023 5 min read


In episode 14, we take a look at the Cost of Living Crisis in the veterinary industry, “navigating the same sea with a different boat!” Words nicely put together by wonderful Gemma Barmby who is a Veterinary Business Consultant with a head for numbers and a love of PowerPoint.  

Whilst becoming an established senior veterinary surgeon, Gemma realised that her true driver was to help others – be it the animals, the clients, or the team she was part of.  Her knowledge of leadership, team dynamics and client experience grew over time and puts her in a prime position to lead others, especially right now in the Cost of Living Crisis conversation. She became the clinical director of a busy four-branch practice that included its own out-of-hours service prior to joining Vet Dynamics as a Veterinary Business Consultant.
Her experience, passion for constant improvement and development, supporting people to reach their goals and enjoy their lives is what make Gemma an excellent guest to take key advice from. 

Looking beyond what’s just in front of us 

Following our eBook release on 2023 Veterinary trends and insights, I asked Gemma what her thoughts are following the survey findings and what practices should be thinking about for the remainder of this year. Interestingly, she immediately points out the need to look beyond what is in front of us. The need to have long-term vision instead of being short-sighted.  

“Generally vets are very good at seeing immediately what’s in front of us. We see emergencies, the daily grind. But it’s important to think ‘What is it I want to achieve this year? Where do I want to go, where do I want to be in the next three years?’ And have a plan for that. ‘What are the big things that will make a difference to me, my practice and people?’” 

There’s a general consensus that with mental health and the veterinary shortage still being in the top three challenges, investment in people should be your top priority as a practice. COVID-19 highlighted these even more so and allowed a period of reflection as well as the abrupt, speedy adjustments that happened! As Gemma recognised, perhaps “unprecedented” is the most overused word in the last three years as we move from one big storm to another, but with COVID-19 by the wayside, we’re now dealing with the Cost of Living (CoL) crisis.

Using your people and resources effectively 

Picture the scenario. Bills are mounting, staff want increased salaries and as a practice owner, you may just be trying to keep the lights on and customers happy. It can often feel difficult to even think strategically whilst you’re busy fighting fires, but the way around it is being able to manage your time, resources and staff more efficiently and effectively. 

“Manage your resources sensibly, by using skilled people effectively and get them feeling like their contributing alongside well thought-out planning will help you get your best foot forward. Planning is key to being a forward-thinking practice. I don’t deny the stress when a practice is simply trying to deal with day-to-day life and keeping the books in the black. It is really tough. But I believe, that by thinking beyond the next month and being organised is the key to get out of the mode of fire fighting.” 

Scrape out a little time to focus on the bigger picture 

Gemma’s advice is to carve out 30 mins. Starting small, it’s at least a step forward up the mountain. From there, it’s like building blocks. You go from 30 mins to half a day or two hours in the morning spent thinking about big-picture plans. 

“Work on your business, not in it.” 

With that statement alone, Gemma goes on to explain how this is a more strategic route, providing more yield. Anything that’s urgent or chaotic in front of us, tends to be generated from not thinking bigger and having no plan. 

“If we focus our precious time, we tend to reduce the urgencies and falling over bits and pieces.” 

It’s no longer sustainable to keep being pulled into ad-hoc tasks, emergencies and lastminute.com type tasks – the cycle will just repeat itself if it isn’t broken.  

Creating change amidst the global veterinary shortage 

The beauty of managing time well means that it has positive implications in every corner of your practice and on its most important asset – people. Where it’s struggling with recruitment and retention, the first thing that can be addressed and is within a practice’s control, is the satisfaction of its staff. Once again, Gemma highlights the consequences in a very relevant example:  

“Even if you do manage to hook a well experienced and fitting vet, you’ve newly recruited them but you throw them into a manic and chaotic environment, it’s not going to work long-term. You work with what you’ve got, improve it, ‘what can we do about it?’ is the big question. And we need to train our brains and work culture enough to be proactive – not reactive. Again, it’s back to the resources and planning – cannot overstate these or repeat it enough – plan, plan, plan.”  

Working more efficiently and effectively is naturally going to be more appealing for new staff to know you’ve got a plan, something you’re working towards and the feeling like they’re part of something. It’s much more attractive and is a no-brainer when you want to retain and keep the “good ones” when it comes to skilled staff members. This helps with retention but does indeed involve investing in your people and giving them your time.

Investing in people means… 

Exactly how you’ve probably been reminded and read of many times – communication, transparency and training are essential for your staff.  

“Investing – we think money. But really, it’s back to time – giving them that, the space for their needs, to talk to them about their own development, their career trajectory and all that makes a huge difference. It helps them feel valued and away from being a cog in a machine. You may not know what skills your team have and the only way to discover that, is by talking to them!” 

Our episode with Kay Ritchie, a Veterinary Recruiter at Future Nobles is also a great key resource for knowing which questions to ask and how to conduct a performance review that will benefit the staff and the practice.  

Remapping, realigning and readjusting means you can find efficiencies in many places. You know the saying “to make money, you need to spend money.” We believe it’s the same for time! To save more time, you need to spend time in the right places. And that’s how you make big gains.  

Don’t forget to look at the positives 

A kind reminder in any evaluation isn’t just to look at making changes or what can be changed, adjusted, moved or otherwise – but looking at the positives. 

“The human brain isn’t very good at looking at progress. Even with COVID-19 – we need to look where we were in 2020 to today. We made it through that. I don’t think we can underestimate how big of an achievement it is, that many of us made it through that! Learning from what worked well, is just as useful as asking ‘what didn’t work well’.” 

As we dive more into the conversation, Gemma talks about balancing priorities and how start-up practices or new players can gain a foot in the door and have an advantageous start.  

Tip: scrub to timestamp 12:21 to discover more about this area as well as the research aspect that plays a large part in successful operations in a practice.  

Building commensurate revenue and putting prices up 

On the commercial front, the veterinary industry is known to be a very compassionate and loyal industry, often putting customers first and making sure their needs are accommodated. This is important but also equally important to ensure the practice is commercially viable, successful and profitable. In the Cost of Living Crisis, everyone is feeling the pinch and it’s becoming much harder to navigate financial strains for each and every party. Gemma’s fascinating insights remind us not to think of profit as a dirty word.

“If your suppliers have put their prices up but you haven’t put yours up – you could be making a loss and at best, break even. And that’s a dangerous position to be in because you don’t have that cash to put back into the business.  It’s a key area to look at – look at all your suppliers, lab services, phones, internet, pharmacy supplies etc. Keep yourself on the black side of the line. And most importantly – do not be afraid to increase your prices.” 

Raising prices for many can be a scary step, but if you’re doing it ethically, responsibly and sensibly, it is essential for the practice and most customers will understand. There are also many ways to deal with customers in the Cost of Living crisis, giving them the flexibility and options to pay for the services you provide. This includes pet-health plans, which are also one of the most talked about channels for building commensurate revenue relative to all the inflationary costs.  

Additionally, on staff salaries, if you don’t increase your prices, you’re unlikely to be able to give those deserving of any salary raise. If there’s no money in the bank, it isn’t possible, so it is better to become more comfortable with raising prices for the sake of your practice’s commercial viability and investment in people and resources.  

Value isn’t just the pet treatment 

“Just make sure that when you do increase your prices, that value is reflected in that. Your customer needs to know what they’re getting from the consult, the x-ray, the medication, the treatment etc. Be transparent. But value is also equally the receptionist smiling when they come into the clinic and booking them in. It’s all the little things. Saying the pets name, fussing over the pets. Don’t lose sight of personal touch. We need to keep giving the value.” 

As outlined, the pieces of advice from Gemma (might we say golden nuggets!) are invaluable and all stem back to the need for planning, truly understanding and embodying the values of what your practice stands for. Performance reviews, pricing, commensurate revenue, training and business planning mean being a step ahead and comes with the territory of being a forward thinking-practice. 

Furthermore, we discuss the role of technology and how it can be extremely helpful when used correctly, especially aligned with your practice’s values.  

To hear more from Gemma, dive into our episode!

Additional resources: