CASE STUDY · September 29th, 2021

Reconstructing Culture: Our Strategy for a More Positive & Productive Team

by Dayna Willems, DVM


Located in Centennial, Colorado, Aurora Animal Hospital is supported by nearly 40 talented professionals. Like most teams in our community, we work hard to deliver excellent client service and high-quality medicine. But also like most teams in our community, this past year brought some unique challenges:

  • As we transitioned to curbside, it was difficult to relay information to pet owners since they weren’t in the room.
  • Rapid growth brought us many new pet owners, increased call volume, all while we still handled the overflow from nearby clinics.
  • Staff turnover, CVT shortages, doctors on leave, and training new hires added to the pressure.

For us, all this change and uncertainty eventually fueled a toxic culture.  Tempers ran high, staff felt stressed, and we had little time to address concerns in meaningful ways to meet the high demand. Something had to change, so we refocused our efforts on creating a new culture that elevated our people and enhanced processes.

These are our four strategies for creating a more positive and productive team:

Refocusing on People & Processes 

Reviving our processes and focusing on our staff development helped us tackle some of our biggest issues head-on.

1. Freed Up Phones with AllyDVM

Even with five phone lines, doctors utilized all the lines to communicate with clients who waited outside. This made it difficult for technicians or the front desk to use the phones at the same time. We adopted  Star-2-star VOIP with unlimited lines, which alleviated the outbound calls, but the phones never stopped ringing because we had unlimited lines. This is where AllyDVM helped immensely. The texting feature helped us communicate with clients directly. We could send clients pictures, lab results and answer questions in real-time, freeing up our phones for lengthier conversations with doctors. This helped quash some of the chaos and stress stemming from the busy phone lines.

A patient takes a walk on one of our phones.

2. Established Urgent Care Days

With visits at an all-time high, it became difficult to manage urgent care appointments in combination with preventative care or vaccinations. As a result, we established urgent care days for specialty surgeries and chronic cases. During these urgent care days, we would block off the entire morning with up to 12 appointments. This helped us schedule fewer work-ins during the week and send fewer referrals to the ER. We also grew our revenue since an “urgent exam fee” was $20 more than a regular exam. We also offered clients new check-in options that included drop-off appointments. This enabled us to see the patient when we had the time, rather than asking a client to wait for a free appointment. When we had a patient that we knew would need rechecks, bandage changes, etc., we booked those well in advance to prevent scheduling problems later.

Loki, the trickster

One of our patients, 1-year-old Loki, came into our Urgent Care after hiding and vomiting. Radiographs revealed foreign material in his stomach — a ball of elastic hair bands he liked to play with. Fortunately, we were able to take him to surgery the same day because we had Urgent Care time blocked off and remove more than two dozen hairbands! He recovered very well, and his owners were very appreciative and wrote us a lovely online review. Were it not for our new Urgent Care days; we may not have been able to see Loki in a timely fashion. This new strategy not only helped our team better manage time but was a hit with our clients.

3. Focused on Staff Development and Engagement

We expanded the ways we invested in our team. For example, staff was encouraged to take their paid time off (PTO) or sick days to help prevent burnout. We also adjusted the way we train on processes and new technology, so team members felt they had the knowledge they needed to do their best work. Growth and development became more of a priority as well. In fact, we sponsored two stellar staff members through NVA’s Penn-Foster CVT program to help them expand their professional knowledge and earn certifications. Finally, we adjusted our hiring process to focus on finding the “right candidate” for our team and not just someone who can do the job. We’re working to invest in our people for the long term, and that begins with attracting new talent that works well with our entire existing team.

4. Recreated Our Culture 

With so much turnover and toxicity, we knew our entire culture needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. NVA’s Community team helped us utilize culture-building tools to create a more empowering workplace. We established new team agreements to change how we interacted and developed a vision to inspire innovation and build loyalty. Communication had always been a challenge, and by focusing on active listening, we worked together to understand better each other’s feelings, body language, and perspectives without judgment or defensiveness. Of course, major culture shifts like ours can reveal employees who are not on board with higher expectations. We allowed ourselves to part ways with those who felt this new level of accountability was not attainable.

Our team takes some time to cuddle with patients.

Our Culture Adjustments Helped Us Survive and Thrive

In the end, these significant changes to culture and efficiency boosted our business. Revenue exceeded the prior year.  New technology and amended processes enabled us to see more pets and welcome more clients. We averaged about nine new clients a day, and our positive online reviews have contributed to our client growth. We have cared for 1,400 more pets versus this time last year! The visit increases were an adjustment, but with an emphasis on culture and innovation, we continue to impact the community and live up to our goal of delivering excellent client service and high-quality medicine. Finally, our team feels more engaged and unified as our culture is more optimistic, open, and goal-oriented. 

Our Tips for Managing High Growth

While compassion and high-quality care keep clients coming in the door, we also need to achieve our growth goals consistently. If your team is experiencing similar challenges and you need to amend your culture, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Set Clear Expectations: Communicate with clients what’s possible and be transparent with staff. 
    • We tell clients we can’t fill meds the same day, wellness and vaccine appointments are scheduling two weeks out, surgery is booked for several months, and plan in advance to travel with your pet.  
    • We now review job expectations and team agreements in the interview process. We also constantly provide structured support, consistent feedback, and the ‘why’ to tasks.
  2. Don’t Take Things Personally: Stress and emotions are running high for everyone during this time. So don’t forget that some reactions aren’t a reflection of personal efforts.
  3. Adapt and Change: Prepare for new challenges and understand how they affect your team and pet owners. Also, don’t be afraid to try new things.  

For questions about this approach or more details, please email me at

Dayna Willems, DVM


Centennial, Colorado

Dr. Willems has loved animals from a very young age, helping her mother with wildlife rehabilitation and caring for the many pets she had as a child. From there it grew into a lifelong passion for helping all animals, from the common to the most unusual. Dr. Willems earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree from the prestigious Texas A&M University after completing her Biomedical Science degree. Dedicated and compassionate, Dr. Willems has special interests in preventative care, emergency medicine, surgery, and especially exotic animal medicine. She is a well-known reptile enthusiast active in the local reptile community. Outside of work, Dr. Willems loves spending time exploring the Colorado outdoors, doing various art projects, and spending time with her husband and two boys.

A Texas native, Dr. Willems has a BIG animal family: dogs Parker and Hogarth, kitties Izzy & Pangur Ban; box turtles Callie, Hallie, Emmy, Oona, Matilda, Dash, Ava, Abigail, Olive, Fig, Dill, Sage, Spot, Bonnie, Betty, Bebop, Lola, Pirate; redfoot tortoise Rudy, sulcata tortoises Scarlet and Rhett; axolotl Ariel; leopard geckos Mesa, Tuscon, and Sedona; Kingsnake Noodle; Crested Gecko Taco, and a fancy pigeon named Juniper. Almost all of her pets are rescues.

One Response

  1. Sabrina Childs says:

    Great work, sounds like a great team looking to create an empowering environment.

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