The Power of Trust: Establishing Client Relationships
With Dr. Dan Bieck
Midwest Veterinary Conference Preview Series See All Episodes »
Photo by Karolina Grabowska
The key to a positive relationship is a solid foundation of trust, and that is especially true when it comes to relationships with clients. It’s the difference between compliance and non-compliance. Retaining clients and losing clients. Job satisfaction and burnout.
In this episode, we’re joined by Dr. Dan Bieck, whose journey in veterinary medicine has led him to some powerful realizations that have changed the way he practices—and the way he lives. His mission is to share these simple but revolutionary ideas with the veterinary community, so we can all be happier, healthier, and more successful.
Get a sneak peek at these revelations in this episode, then sign up for his sessions at the 2023 Midwest Veterinary Conference to learn more!
Registration for the 2023 Midwest Veterinary Conference is open! Featuring 300+ hours of live and on-demand CE in 25 tracks, 75 expert speakers, and more than 100 exhibitors, this is another event you won’t want to miss!
Krysten Bennett: Mia and I are here with Dr. Dan Bieck, who joined us today to share a little bit about his MVC sessions. Welcome to the show, Dr. Dan.
Mia Cunningham: Thank you for joining us.
Dan Bieck: Yes, I appreciate it. This is very cool. It’s my first podcast.
KB: Why don’t we start with something easy, then? Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey in veterinary medicine?
DB: I officially retired from practicing in May of ’20 because of burnout and compassion fatigue. My main job now is I do a lot of lectures. I joined with the organization that I sold my practice to, Heartland Veterinary Partners, and I established the campus program there. The bulk of what I do is interview students and adding I call it dad advice to the students. I put my dad hat on and we talk about quality life, burnout, compassion fatigue and different things like that. I’m actually an adjunct professor now, down to LMU.
MC: Do you find a lot of students are receptive to what you have to pay?
DB: Yes, very much so. I was just up at Iowa State last night. I had dinner with a few vet students graduating in 2024. And I kind of go back and forth between the campus guy hat and the dad hat, just trying to ideally help them be better veterinarians than I was. And I was a really good vet—but I messed up my priorities.
When my wife and I bought our practice in Illinois, we had a two-year-old child and moved from Charleston, South Carolina. Took my wife from five minutes from the beach to the middle of a cornfield. That’s love for you there! And we bought a practice. She was the practice manager, I handled all the medicine, and we became really, really successful. And it was great, except for the fact that we put the clients, the patients, the building, the staff, the business, everything above our relationship and above our kids.
So in 2016, I burned out with a blaze of glory. I’m a big emotional guy, so when one of the technicians came up to me and she was going through some personal issues and I’m always a big helper. So I was talking about different things for her, and she said, “Dr. Dan, what is wrong with you?” I’m like, “I just helped you!” She said, “I know, but you didn’t cry.” I said, “Oh, my gosh. What do you mean?” She’s like, “When’s the last time you cried? You used to cry all the time when we get the deep heartfelt discussions like this.”
It was later that night my wife and I sat down. Yes. It’s been a couple of years. I just really started to kind of lose the fabric of who I was. So in 2018, we sold to Heartland, and I stayed on board for about two years. To be honest, I wish I would have sold probably two years before. I think I’d still be practicing. But when you fall down that rabbit hole so far, it is just next to impossible to crawl out.
MC: I’m curious if, because you had been so empathetic in how you practiced, if that contributed or accelerated the compassion fatigue that you experienced.
DB: I think it accelerated with like, gasoline, and I think a lot of veterinarians in general are empaths. And that’s one of the reasons they go into (veterinary medicine). AVMA put out a few years ago, I think 2019, that we’re losing 20 some percent of veterinarians every year, just people stopping the profession all together. And so that’s why there’s such a shortage. It’s not that we have this big boom of everyone has a pet. We’re just losing people.
That’s where I think we need to do a better job, from an educational standpoint. And that’s my pay forward, is get to this next generation, talk to as many students as I can so they can realize that you need to take care of yourself. You can give as much empathy and compassion and kindness and just give give give, but you got to give to yourself first. You can give more than you are now if you give more to yourself. We don’t need to work 60-hour weeks anymore. We don’t need to work Saturdays anymore. We don’t need to work twelve-hour days. We don’t—unless we’re doing like three 12-hour days in a week, and that’s it.
There’s a work-life balance that we’ve been missing in this industry for generations, and we need to do a lot better job. We need recognize that if we do a better job of work-life balance, that percentage of veterinarians leaving every year is going to go down. And if it goes down, that means we have more veterinarians for the population, and the number of practices are going to grow. And that’s just a fact of life. So this is my way to kind of pay it forward. This is my way to be able to kind of help the next generation of veterinarians.
KB: Knowing what I know about your sessions, and based on what I’ve heard you say, it sounds like you’re going to be teaching from your own experience.
DB: It all comes down to that decade that I was at Happy Tales in central Illinois, of what we learned. I changed my style of practicing from South Carolina, where I first started to work, to Illinois a little bit, but a lot of it was just trial and error of what really was successful, and then also taking the upper-level view of my own self of why I was successful. And then also, why did I fail? Why did I fail at taking care of myself, taking care of my family? And building a plethora of lectures off of that.
KB: Can you give our listeners a peek into what they’ll learn at your sessions at the MVC?
DB: A lot of what I’m going to be talking at the conference is compassion fatigue, burnout, increased client compliance, euthanasia. That’s my favorite lecture, the euthanasia lecture, which has actually become the most popular lecture.
Also, I did a mission trip to Mongolia; it’s a third-world country with first-world issues. I was there to come teach the Mongolian veterinarians to practice better medicine, different things like that. But I feel I learned more from them than they did from me. I came back with better perspectives. So that’s one of the lectures— I’m giving kind of life lessons I learned from the Mongolian veterinarians.
KB: So you mentioned that your compassionate euthanasia lecture is one of your most popular and also your favorite, which to me is maybe a little unexpected. Can you tell us a little more about it and what makes it so effective?
DB: I think there’s too many of us out there that have lost our way. We are no longer the gentle doctor. We’re no longer the respected veterinarian that we were in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. We’re barely above lawyers now from the respect standpoint. And that’s one of the things I’m trying to get through to this next generation: That we need to remember to be compassionate and empathetic, especially during those euthanasia appointments. This is the most difficult experience that client is about to go through. They’re losing their best friend. Why can’t we put our best foot forward as veterinarians and make this as absolute compassionate as possible? So my big thing is making sure everyone knows where they’re supposed to go, everyone knows what they’re supposed to say, and they say it at the right time. They say it with the right cadence and say it in the right tone.
Oddly enough, my second most common referral was for euthanasia. I had people coming from the north side of Chicago, down to the cornfields, because they heard how we did it. We’d never seen it before. They weren’t clients of ours. They wanted to have the best experience possible with it. So it’s an odd way to get referrals.
KB: But it definitely speaks volumes to the way you do things. If somebody has spent their entire pet’s life with another veterinarian, but at that crucial moment, they come to you, that says a lot.
DB: Yeah, there’s some pretty cool moments there. We need to amplify that view to every stage of veterinary medicine. I have to admit, early on, I didn’t do that. It was just wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Get them in, get them out. There’s always another client waiting. There’s always that panic. And I fell into the habit of just appointments. They’re not people, they’re not pets, they’re not living beings, they’re not God’s creatures.
I had a few uncomfortable conversations with clients when I was in South Carolina as an associate, that really kind of opened my eyes to like, I’m not doing this right. I’m doing it, practicing good medicine. But the extrovert that I am, the social person that I am, the person that wants to help everyone—which is a good thing and a bad thing—but I wasn’t helping the people. And that’s where, after two or three years of practice, I needed to decide to stop practicing just veterinary medicine, and I needed to start practicing medicine. Why can’t we help the client just as much as we’re helping the pet? If Mrs. Stevenson’s husband is dying of brain cancer, why can’t we spend ten minutes to talk to her about that?
That’s where I started to, I think, really grow as a person and grow as a veterinarian. And that’s the message I really try to resound a Happy Tales, at my practice. We are going to be here even if there’s 30 clients waiting; we’re going to give you the time that we need to have, to make that connection. And if there’s something that you need to talk about, then we’re going to be here for you. We’re going to give advice, whatever we can do. We’re not only here for the pet; we’re also here for the client.
All my associates and all the new grads that we hired, we always stress that if the next client can’t understand that the previous client needed your extra time because they’re having some emotional issues, we’re dealing with euthanasia, or they’re having some family problems, and we wanted to sit down and talk with them—if they can’t understand that, then they can go somewhere else.
KB: How did that shift in perspective and that renewed focus on compassion impact your practice culture?
DB: Within about a year and a half, two years of that policy, we had a pretty significant shift in the clientele. Word got out that we were providing high-quality medicine with an extra caring touch. The clients changed. We grew and we grew. And within a fairly short period of time, everyone seemed to have gotten some extra time at some point. So even though you’re late going to the next appointment, you come in, “Hey, Mrs. Stevenson, I’m sorry I’m late.” They put their hand up and say, “Dr. Dan, you were there two months ago, and blah, blah, blah.” And they wouldn’t even allow me to apologize to me.
That is what I think we need to get back to, allowing that compassion, allow that empathy to be there, but also allowing that to your staff and to yourself will create a culture there that is going to be successful. When the client comes into your practice and sees the teamwork and hears the unifying message of how important this diagnostic or how important that drug is, or how important this treatment protocol is, and everyone’s on the same page, and everyone’s giving the compassion and empathy because they’re receiving it from each other. You’re receiving it from the veterinarian, you’re receiving it from the technician, and they’re giving it back and forth, and the receptionist all the way down to the kennel staff. Clients will see that. We may not think they do, but they do. Clients talk about it to us. And when you can create that positive of an environment there, you are going to be a successful veterinarian. You’re going to be a successful practice.
The one mistake that we made, my wife and I, is we were giving it to everyone else, but we didn’t give it to ourselves. And if we would have just acknowledged that and realized we needed to also give it to ourselves, we’d still be there, and we would be helping that many more people.
KB: So it sounds like your clients were all around happier, which I bet made them more likely to recommend you to their friends. One of your sessions is about compliance and referrals and how to increase both. Without giving away any trade secrets, can you tell us a little bit about what attendees will learn in that session?
DB: I really like that lecture: The one powerful word to increase your client base and your client compliance—which I’m not going to say because you have to go to a lecture to find out! It’s phenomenal. It’s something that most of us don’t consider, but I bet some of you all can probably figure it out just from the conversation we’re having. But a lot of it simply comes down to, we’ve got to build trust—and trust is not the word; it’s something that leads to trust. But when we have those relationships with our clients and we establish the trust, they’re going to do the dental, they’re going to do the X-rays, they’re going to do the treatment plans, and they’re going to give you that compliance, because you took the time to help them understand why. Not just what you want them to do, but why you want them to do it. They’re more likely to go longer in that treatment plan. They’re going to give the antibiotics or prednisone or antihistamines or cyclosporine or whatever it is. When my clients would come in for the recheck, guess what? They used all their drugs. The vast majority did, when we used that one magic word.
But also, when you have that relationship with your clients, they like you, right? So they’re going to do it because they like you. And then when they’re at the dog park or they’re at the groomer and you get two dog people together or two cat people together, what does the conversation always go to? Their pets. And then, who’s your vet? Oh, I go to Dr. Stevenson down the road. You like him? Oh, yeah. He’s pretty good. She’s pretty good. Where do you take yours? Dr. Dan, he’s freaking awesome! And I may be the worst doctor of all time, but because I’ve befriended that client to a certain extent, I’ve established that trust with that client, they’re going to talk about me. Dr. Stevenson could have saved their cat 30 times in the course of 10 years. But if Dr. Stevenson is just a poke and hope and boom and done, and then they hear about this Dr. Dan that so and so loves… And they never mentioned a single thing that I did medically for their pet, but they talk about me, and they talk about how it’s so much fun to go to the vet practice. Guess what? That client is going to leave Dr. Stevenson. And he may or she may be a better veterinarian than I am—not likely, but I’m going to get the referrals because I took the time to ask them questions and learned over time what are the right questions to ask.
And when you provide the empathy, the compassion, the kindness to the clients, to the pets, they cannot not trust you. It’s just a natural thing. So then they have to trust you as an individual because they establish a relationship with you, because you’re not just there to sell them heartworm prevention and poke a needle in the dog’s butt, but you’re there to confide in them, and they can confide in you. And you establish a real relationship, even with the buggers, even the grumpy old man. And our whole goal is to get his butt to smile once during the whole appointment. It becomes contagious. And when you say, you know what? We got to get something done here because this is not healthy. This is going to do A, B, and C. And you take the time to explain why. Even if it’s a person that barely graduated high school, they can still understand what you’re talking about. You may have to change your cadence and use your words a little bit differently.
But we don’t explain anything. You tell the 88-year-old lady to give her 50-pound cocker spaniel a bath. OK, she might be able to do that, but the 130-pound lab, that’s a year old? And you got an 85-year-old grandma, and you’re telling her to give her dog a bath? She isn’t going to do it! Unless you tell her why it’s important and how she can maybe adjust it. Or maybe you give her a grooming facility or tie the dog to the bumper of the car so it can’t go anywhere. (Laughs) Give her some ideas, help the folks out.
They’re not doing what you ask them to do. What good is the treatment protocol when they’re not going to do it? And the vast majority of time is simply lack of client education and lack of client communication. VIN had a poll that came out from, like, senior panels, preventative medicine, chronic care, dog food treatment protocols. And we are averaging below 40 percent compliance, because we don’t explain what we want them to do. And to me, that’s all the stuff that I work with, all my lectures, really come down to establishing those relationships, establishing that level of trust within the community, within your practice: The veterinarians, the technicians, the receptionists. We got to be able to communicate together. So when we really do need to get these people to get the dental done, to get the bathing done, whatever it is. We have some really significant conversations we got to have with these people. And if we don’t have a good conversation with them and explain why, they’re just bloody well not going to do it.
MC: So you’ll be sharing that at MVC?
MC: So people have to stay tuned. They’ve got to come and get registered. Come check it out.
DB: You got it! Well, I really appreciate this, guys. It’s great talking to you all. I’m really excited. This will be my first larger conference. I’ve done, like, Real Life Real Impact with Christian Veterinary Mission, and I’ve done things like that. But this will be my first time doing, like, a CE conference. Usually it’s more of an intimate setting, where we’re just talking to the same students and we go out and have beers and food afterwards.
MC: Hopefully that part can remain true for you!
DB: If you ever have any questions or ever need anything else for me, just let me know. I’ll be more happy to help out.
MC: Thank you. We appreciate your time. You enjoy the rest of your day.