The first time Yelp reviewer Courtney M took her 14-year-old black lab, Asher, to West Coast Animal Hospital in San Diego, she was a little wary. Especially as the owner of an older dog with specific care needs, she feared her concerns might be overlooked or written off—to great expense. “My dog is my whole world,” she said. “Every time I took my dog to a practice, I always left feeling like my dog’s issues were glanced over and I was sent home with a big bill with nothing resolved.”
The visit went well, however, and about a month later, she received a surprise call from her veterinarian—but it wasn’t bad news. Dr. Young had called simply to ask how Asher and Courtney were doing.
“Honestly, that blew my mind,” Courtney said. “I’d never had that kind of level of customer care. The fact that the vet remembered me, reached out to me a couple of weeks later and asked how his progress was—that really touched me.”
Dr. Megan Gibbings and her husband Tom own West Coast Animal Hospital, a practice dedicated to repairing the relationship between pet owners and animal health practices. They know many pet owners, like Courtney, are stressed or anxious entrusting their worlds to a new doctor, and they work hard to earn that trust.
“When you go to a veterinary hospital, the last thing that you want to do is have the doctor trying to sell you something that you’re not quite sure that you need,” Tom said. “And since this is a trust-based business, we do everything that reinforces and develops that trust because we see this as a long-term relationship. That’s what has our customers singing our praises to their friends and family.”
Friends, family, and Yelp users, too—Courtney had such a positive experience with Asher’s care team that she wrote a review: “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.”
How exactly have Megan and Tom earned the trust of clients who live 10 hours away? To start, they’ve built the business on core values, from client communication to a positive work culture. Externally, clients receive regular communication, such as Courtney’s check-in call; internally, staff members meet daily with their team and managers. This level of communication—rare in the animal health field—has made all the difference, according to the Gibbingses.
“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, who came from the corporate world. “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, adding: “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.”
Megan, who’s worked in animal health for 20 years, brought a passion for evolving the practice to include the best and most innovative practices in patient care. Meanwhile, her husband Tom—who came from the corporate world—has helped adapt management strategies such as the one-on-one and daily scrum (or 10 minute stand-up) to accommodate the hospital’s needs.
“I was able to take a lot of lessons that I learned in corporate America and combine those with the values of mom pop and make something that’s special because we have the structure that people want, but we also have the value that people want,” Tom said. “And when I say people, I mean both our employees and our customers, because the two things are intrinsically entwined. Without our employees, we don’t have a business.”
For example, Megan expanded the concept of regular staff meetings into daily rounds, where the techs and vets spend 10 minutes going over the cases of the day. She also 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 and bouncing ideas off the associate veterinarians and the support staff,” she said.
And the callback that inspired Courtney to review? That’s a key part of the customer process at West Coast. The practice uses an electronic medical record system, which allows staff members to record details about each patient and easily pull it up on a screen. This has helped the owners maintain long-term relationships with clients, even as the practice itself has changed and grown—from three staff members in 2017 to seven full-time vets and 45 staff members in 2021.
For other business owners, Tom sums up the secret to their success in this way: “Talk to your coworkers, talk to your subordinates, talk to your superiors, talk to your customers—and of course, everyone talks to the pets too… It’s an obvious thing, but I don’t think there’s enough of it in the veterinary industry.”
No matter your industry, you can learn from West Coast Animal Hospital’s values, including:
- 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.
Behind the Review, episode 47 transcript
The importance of communication
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur … and the reviewer … about the story and business lessons behind it.
Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.
COURTNEY: Yeah, I was actually shocked. I remember taking Asher in, and then a month later I was sitting at an airport and Dr. Young had called to ask me how Asher was doing.
And honestly, that blew my mind. I’d never had that kind of level of customer care. You know, the fact that she remembered me, reached out to me a couple of weeks later and asked, how his progress was; that really touched me. Yeah, I remember that vividly.
EMILY: That’s Yelp reviewer Courtney M., owner and guardian to Asher, a 14 year old black lab. Pet owners know they need regular vet care, and finding a good vet you trust can be a challenge. On top of that, caring for senior pets can be more complicated than younger animals.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 57% of American households own at least one pet, spending an average of $410 per year on those pets. I’m one of those people, the proud owner of a beautiful Boxer named Oscar, who’s currently living his best life sleeping on the sofa. And I have to tell you, $410 sounds on the light side if I were to tally up a year of vet bills. It can be expensive! And trusting a clinic to be honest with you and only recommend the treatments, medications, and services they need, is critical.
When Courtney took Asher to West Coast Animal Hospital, she knew she had found the perfect vet for her dog, and now travels hours each way to take him to his appointments.
Let’s listen to her review:
COURTNEY: This is the best practice I’ve ever had experience with. Buckle up for a long review.
I will say I am a bit jaded when it comes to veterinary practices. My dog is my whole world, and I feel a little bit jaded since I do work in the animal health pharmaceutical industries, so I’m pretty familiar with the drug companies. Every time I took my dog to a practice, I always left feeling like my dog’s issues were glanced over and I was sent home with a big bill with nothing resolved.
For example, I took Asher to the vet in Northern California and told them he had itchy skin and did not have fleas. He proceeded to flip my old arthritic dog on his back and looked for the fleas and said he didn’t have fleas and was fine. I felt for years vets didn’t actually listen to my concerns and looked for the obvious and sent me out a huge vet bill and then necessary drugs that didn’t help and actually made him worse.
Dr. Young actually listened to my concerns and fixed Asher’s chronic itchy skin and chronic ear infections almost immediately. She was thoughtful and found more issues and addressed them immediately and enhanced my baby’s quality of life tremendously.
Recently Asher’s ear infections and breathing got worse, so I tried to get an appointment with her, but she didn’t have any availability for days. So I asked if I could be on call for the next appointment. They called me back soon after for a canceled appointment two days later. So I made the arrangements to get there. It was a different doctor, so I was a little nervous because Dr. Young knew his history so well. They take incredible notes, so the vet tech and Dr. Tyler we’re hyper aware of Asher’s history and gave him the best care I could have hoped for. Dr. Tyler was incredible and recommended a treatment plan where Asher is doing better almost immediately.
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. I also never leave reviews so I just hope this helps someone else who loves their dog dearly like I do.
EMILY: West Coast Animal Hospital in San Diego is owned by Dr. Megan Gibbings and her husband Tom. After working in multiple veterinary clinics, Megan decided it was time to open her own shop.
MEGAN: I’ve been in the animal field for about 20 years now. I started working in animal hospitals when I was really young in high school and so forth and went to vet school and graduated and was working in general practices for about five years before we started our own practice.
I kept running into a situation where the hospital owners didn’t want to evolve and change. And it was kind of always like, this is the way we’ve always done things, and this is how we’re going to continue to do them, whether it was regards to, just the general management style of the hospital or patient care, new innovations in the animal healthcare field, adapting to those and adopting those. There was just a lot of resistance and, being that I have an entrepreneurial spirit and my dad was a small business owner, and Tom with his skillset, being that he’s an MBA, we had a lot of discussions about, how can we make this kind of dream a reality?
And that’s what we did. We opened our hospital in 2017 in the fall. And it was just me initially as a single veterinarian and we had three or four staff members and we’ve grown rapidly over the past four years. Now we have seven veterinarians full-time veterinarians. And about 45 staff members, support staff members and, we’re undergoing an expansion project and so forth and we kind of blew up.
EMILY: By any standards, that’s an incredible amount of growth in just four years, and for some businesses, it might be overwhelming. But Megan and her husband Tom planned carefully for this expansion of the business, and are ready to do it again. His years of experience in corporate America, in both marketing and IT, have allowed West Coast Animal Hospital to thrive.
TOM: I was able to take a lot of lessons that I learned in corporate America and combine those with the values of mom pop and make something that’s special because we have the structure that people want, but we also have the value that people want. And when I say people, I mean, both our employees and our customers, because the two things are intrinsically entwined because without our employees, we don’t have a business.
It’s a service-based business. And so it’s not like a product that you can just put in a machine and crank out a million units. Every interaction has to be deliberate and trying to create a culture that aligns with the values and the service that we want to provide.
EMILY: While their rapid growth has been admirable, it hasn’t been without its issues. Sometimes, when your business is booming, you add headcount out of necessity. Those new hires fill a gap, sure, but they might not be the best fit for your business, as Megan and Tom discovered.
TOM: We had an 80% turnover of our staff because we weren’t really excited with how the culture was forming in the very early days. It was just a scramble. Like we need somebody, okay. You, you’re hired. And then once we got enough people on board to see a culture develop, there were some things that we didn’t like, and we 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. And now we’re thrilled with our culture, and our success is because of that.
EMILY: In addition to providing excellent veterinary care, West Coast provides additional value to their clients in what they don’t do. They feel strongly about not adding on unnecessary or expensive procedures or products. Those are usually big revenue drivers for vet clinics, but Tom and Megan don’t like the idea of running a transactional business.
TOM: The biggest value that our customers relate to is no upselling.
So when you go to a veterinary hospital, the last thing that you want to do is have the doctor trying to sell you something that you’re not quite sure that you need. And since this is a trust-based business, we do everything that reinforces and develops that trust because we see this as a long-term relationship.
This isn’t a transaction. And really that’s what’s made us successful against the big corporate guys is because they see this as a transactional business and they look at optimizing transaction. And I do the opposite. I don’t want to sell that $20 vaccine. I don’t want to sell the extra shampoo.
I don’t want to sell a payment plan that forces you to pay when you don’t necessarily want to right? And so that’s what developed the trust and that’s what has our customers singing our praises to their friends and family.
MEGAN: And I think too, having really strong values. And it was, one of my mentors, when I first started in practice explained to me very early on, it’s so simple and it makes a lot of sense, but it’s that, do good medicine, do what’s right for the pet, what’s right for the customer and the business will follow. And it’s just that simple.
EMILY: Tom is absolutely right—veterinary practices are a trust-based business. As a pet owner, I’m very particular about who can treat Oscar. You have to have a rapport with your vet, and you have to trust that vet to do what is in the best interest of the animal, not just what’s in the best interest of the practice. That trust needs to extend to every member of the staff. So how do Megan and Tom make sure their entire staff stands behind their value system?
MEGAN: I think the number one thing is to lead by example. I’m in the practice—like I’ll be in there six days this week. 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 of the associate veterinarians and the support staff and saying like, ‘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 am in the practice being a veterinarian leading by example is probably the biggest thing that’s helped us.
TOM: I completely agree, but Megan, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit.
There’s other things that she does related to communication and mentoring, associated with one-on-ones. 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, and it started with Megan and it started at the top.
MEGAN: 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.
And with me in particular with the associate doctors, and then we kind of have a hierarchy amongst our staff where they have monthly check-ins with a superior, if you will, a leader. And we have mentors within our team. The thing is just being hyper-focused on communication, and every time there’s been a challenge or a sticking point or something that comes up, it boils down to a lapse in communication or failure and communication. And it’s just, it’s like our number one core value.
EMILY: I’ve driven well over an hour to go to a vet I like and trust, and Courtney does as well—not only for the incredible care they give Asher, but because they extend that core value of communication to their clients. As she mentioned at the top of the podcast, Courtney was delighted when her vet called to check on Asher after his last visit. We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back we’ll hear how the West Coast team has leveraged technology to keep that core value of communication alive.
EMILY: And we’re back! West Coast Animal Hospital is very intentional in their communication strategy, and they’ve utilized the latest technology to make sure they are getting the right messages to the right clients at the right time.
MEGAN: We do try to leverage technology as best possible within the practice. So 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 some other kind of communication tabs within that software—messages and so forth, like this client drives down from seven hours away.
TOM: Courtney specifically made reference to our callbacks. We have a callback reminder, and that was a conscious decision as far as how we want our process to flow. And then the doctor gets a reminder to call the client back, and Courtney appreciated that.
MEGAN: A lot of doctors too, we’ll just set our own reminders like, oh, that was really weird. We got to follow up and see how that dog is doing later. Or, you know, that client was really upset about something that was going on. I need to follow up and see how they’re feeling about it. So we try to leverage technology as best as possible to facilitate that communication, especially within patient record keeping.
EMILY: Communication strategy with clients isn’t the only thing Tom brought to the practice from the corporate world. Believe it or not, something as common as a staff meeting isn’t exactly common in a vet clinic. And maybe it’s not common in your industry. But can it provide value?
TOM: Another little example that seems obvious, but is not necessarily employed by the rest of the industry, is staff meetings. So we have an all hands staff meeting every two weeks. We talk about things that are happening at the practice, protocol changes, whatever comes up.
MEGAN; We have a daily huddle—we’ll call it rounds—but we have a daily team gathering for maybe 15, 10 minutes, something like that.
TOM: And in that rounds, I tried to put my thumb on the scale there by my influence from agile scrum, right? And so in software development, you have the scrum, which is the 10 minute stand up. And the reason it’s 10 minutes is so people can’t sit down and get comfortable and talk about stuff too much.
MEGAN: And I learned all these business and tech terms: scrum and agile, the roadmaps and all this stuff from Tom. I’ve been in the animal health care field my whole life. I know how to treat a disease.
TOM: Talk to your coworkers, talk to your subordinates, talk to your superiors, talk to your customers—and everyone talks to the pets too. And they’re more like, ‘Oh, aren’t you a cute little puppy.’ It’s just really just: go talk to people.
It’s an obvious thing. I don’t think there’s enough of it in the veterinary industry. And that’s what makes us a little more unique from our management style, but 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—that we’re never going to stop learning.
We know we’re not perfect. And we need to always look for those opportunities for improvement.
EMILY: While communication is a key tenet to the success of their practice, not all communication is welcome in some small businesses. Yes, I mean the dreaded one-star review. Like many small business owners, Tom and Megan have very mixed feelings about reviews. Everyone loves a five-star review, right? But no one loves a one-star review. However, they’ve learned to take ownership of any issues brought up in a critical review and address them head on.
TOM: Reviews are a double-edged sword. Everyone loves the five-star reviews, and we have earned a number of them. And I say, earn, because, you know, we put a lot of effort into ensuring they have a good experience that warrants a good review.
Then there’s the negative reviews, and that’s always tricky for everyone. For me, I have anxiety whenever I see any notification or review, because I don’t know if it’s necessarily positive or negative.
I’m always delighted to see the five-star and upset when I do see the one-star. We, both of us, can’t help but take it a little personally when I see those one-star reviews. That’s always the trick for everyone. My methodology of processing that is, number one, I take ownership of any legitimate problem that surfaced from the one-star review.
First and foremost, it needs to be a learning opportunity for the organization. If we messed up somehow, we got to own it. We’ve got to fix it. And then when you have a need to post a response that lets them know, in a general community, that we are committed to fixing any problem that was discovered. If there’s nuggets in there for me to take responsibility and ownership of, I do it. That’s my opinion of reviews.
How we leverage it is top reviews are shown on our websites. We share them internally whenever we get a five-star review during our staff meetings. And we focus on communication. And so we use those as examples of what the staff are doing right from a values alignment perspective. And so it really helps us reinforce those positive behaviors.
EMILY: What motivates someone to leave a great review? According to Courtney, not enough people leave positive reviews, and she wants to make sure if another elderly dog owner is looking for a great vet, she sings the praises of West Coast Animal Hospital.
COURTNEY: I think for me personally, I worked in customer service before, and for the most part, when people leave a review, it’s because they had a bad experience. But I don’t think people leave enough reviews when they had a positive experience either. So 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. That was kinda my drive. My drive was really just to put that experience out there so, you know, if you have an elderly dog, like I do, there’s somewhere safe and effective to take them to.
EMILY: To close us out, I wanted Megan to share a bit on the importance of listening to your consumer. Because no matter what industry you’re in, this practice can help you have better and deeper connections with your customers.
MEGAN: I think it goes back to listening to the client—again, by my communication, but listening to the client and really listening to what their concerns are and hearing them and having empathy for what they’re going through.
Whether your dog needs surgery or you’re concerned about a tiny little mass that’s on their head or a skin tag, that concern is very real to each person. And we all love our pets, and pets mean different things to different people too. So really respecting that and listening to the clients and being empathetic to their concerns. And it’s easy to be dismissive. But, you know, really realizing that these concerns are very real.
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