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The Importance of Communication

According to Megan and Tom Gibbings, communication is the most important component of their successful veterinary practice. They've found it's what sets them apart, and when there's been a challenge or a sticking point, it boils down to a lapse or failure in communication.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Behind the Review host and Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily Washcovick, shares a look at this week’s episode of the podcast.

West Coast Animal Hospital

More than 38% of US households have at least one dog (that’s 63 million households), and dog owners are a special breed. They really, really love their pets. And why wouldn’t they? Dogs provide protection, companionship, affection, and more. 

This dedicated love shows in the growth of the pet industry as a whole, which surpassed $100 billion in total sales in 2020. Pet food and treat sales alone came in over $42 billion, with vet care and product sales coming in next highest at $31.4 billion. In fact, dog owners spend an average of $410 per year on veterinary bills. Plus if you have an elderly dog, like Yelp reviewer Courtney M., that number can double or even triple.

Because older dogs have such special and specific needs, when you find a great vet, you go to great lengths to keep seeing that vet—even if they are hours away from home, like West Coast Animal Hospital in San Diego is from Courtney. 

“Everyone there is so incredibly thoughtful. I live 10 hours away from San Diego, and every time something happens with my elderly baby, I will not hesitate to make the drive to make sure he gets the best care possible. The whole practice is incredible, and I wouldn't trust Asher with anyone else,” said Courtney in her Yelp review. 

Dr. Megan Gibbings and her husband Tom own West Coast Animal Hospital, a rapidly growing practice in Southern California with nine vets and more than 30 staff members. Tom said that rapid growth led to some fast-moving hiring decisions that ultimately impacted the practice’s culture. 

“Once we got enough people on board to see a culture develop, there were some things that we didn't like and wanted to change. We had to trim down, and we had some turnover that we instigated because we needed to hit the reset button on the culture, and fortunately, that was successful. Now we're thrilled with our culture, and our success is because of that.” 

The culture of the practice is essential to Megan and Tom. After all, they are caring for beloved pets, and going to the vet can be stressful for both animals and owners. 

“It's a service-based business. It's not like a product you can just put in a machine and crank out a million units,” said Tom. “Every interaction has to be deliberate—trying to create a culture that aligns with the values and the service that we want to provide.” 

Megan agreed, saying the culture is built on a pretty basic principle. “It's that, do good medicine, do what's right for the pet, what's right for the customer, and the business will follow. It's just that simple.”  

An extension of that customer-first culture is their emphasis on communication, both internally and externally. Tom comes from the corporate world, and he implemented regular staff meetings at West Coast Animal Hospital, something that is missing from many veterinary practices. Megan expands that staff communication into daily rounds, where the techs and vets spend 10 minutes going over the cases of the day. 

“It started with our core value of communication and being hyper-focused on communication. Communication, not only with our clients regarding their pets, but with the staff,” said Megan. “Every time there's been a challenge or a sticking point, it boils down to a lapse in communication. It’s our number one core value.” 

Tom and Megan have also implemented another common corporate practice: one-on-one meetings with staff members. That’s another thing that is not found in many vet offices, but according to Tom, it’s made an important difference. 

“One of the best practices that I got from corporate America was the one-on-one, and that's something that we've implemented at West Coast Animal Hospital through the entire command chain. So from the top, all the way down to the bottom, there are people that are having one-on-ones with each other. It started with Megan, and it started at the top.” 

As the practice owner and senior veterinarian, Megan feels that leading by example is an integral part of her mission of creating a great space for pet owners and her staff.

“I'm there every day. Maybe I'm not seeing patients every day, much to my clients' dismay. But I'm there every day and bouncing ideas off the associate veterinarians and the support staff and saying, ‘Hey, why do this for them?’ Or help them out with this in this situation. Or just offering some advice. But I think also when I’m in the practice, being a veterinarian, leading by example is probably the biggest thing that's helped us.” 

One of the many reasons Courtney loves her veterinarian team at West Coast Animal Hospital is the constant communication. Her vets check on Asher regularly, even if they hadn’t recently been in for a visit.

“Honestly, that blew my mind. I'd never had that kind of level of customer care. The fact that her vet remembered me, reached out to me a couple of weeks later and asked how his progress was, that really touched me.” 

Megan says keeping this core value of communication is made easier by the latest technology. 

“That includes having an electronic medical record system, where we have a templated ability to fill in the details about each patient and easily pull it up on a screen, as well as other communication tabs within that software.” 

Courtney’s review was glowing because she truly appreciates the care and attention paid to Asher when she visits the practice. 

“I don't think people leave enough reviews when they have a positive experience either. That's what motivated me to write that review just because if I'd seen a review that was positive about someone having an elderly dog, I could have resonated with that. My drive was really just to put that experience out there, so if you have an elderly dog like I do, there's somewhere safe and effective to take them to.” 

Every business owner knows not every review is as positive as Courney’s. But Megan and Tom know every negative review can help improve your business, even if it does give you a little anxiety. 

“There's also room for improvement.  We don't have it nailed. We are constantly fine tuning, and that's a commitment that we've made to ourselves and our organization is that we're never going to stop learning,” said Tom. “We know we're not perfect. And we need to always look for those opportunities for improvement. 

West Coast Animal Hospital is currently in the middle of a big expansion project, which could not have happened without following their rules for success: 

  • It’s okay to re-evaluate your hiring decisions. Sometimes you make hires to fill a gap but need to correct later if they don’t fit in the culture you’ve built. 
  • Lead by example, and the rest of the staff will follow. If you want to build a great culture in your small business, you have to live it yourself first. 
  • Communication runs both ways. It’s essential to open up communication channels with your staff and your client base. Your staff should also be able to communicate well with your clients.
  • Own your mistakes and your negative reviews. When you get a bad review, it’s crucial to take ownership of the issue and fix it. It shows your clients and your staff that you’re willing to improve. 

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Megan, Tom, and Courtney, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Emily Washcovick

Written By

As Yelp’s Senior Field Marketing Manager and Small Business Expert, Emily is responsible for building a thriving network of local business owners, operators and marketers through education and networking events (now, exclusively virtual). She hosts events and webinars to provide business owners with resources that help them succeed and grow in the world of online reviews. Emily’s expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management and all things digital marketing. Her knowledge encompasses countless industries and through thought leadership and speaking engagements, she’s able to share insights that business owners of all kinds can leverage for the future of their business.

Emily is also host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media that features conversations with business owners and reviewers about their experiences—whether positive or negative —giving listeners behind-the-scenes insights and real life learnings.