Don’t be bitter, be better.  A friend of mine told me this many years ago.  I don’t remember the exact context; it was probably a throwaway line, but the phrase has always stuck with me.  Over the many intervening years, I’ve made it one of my personal mantras.  I remind myself to be better and work harder when something doesn’t go my way.  If I have a bad interaction with a patient, I look in the mirror and evaluate what I could have done differently instead of automatically blaming them.  It is a reminder to take responsibility for the things that I can control – my attitude, effort, and response.  

     This mantra has been on my mind recently as we’ve faced some challenges in our urgent care business.  That sounds trite, as new issues are constantly popping up in a small business.  In this case, the specific challenge is more significant; we have increased competition.  And not someone else starting an urgent care competition, but serious competition.  Spending tens of millions of dollars type competition.  Luring the CMO of the local hospital system to resign and work for them type of competition.  In short, it is just the type of situation that can make you bitter and tempt you to look externally for blame.  

The Challenge 

          For many years, another urgent care chain has been operating in our geographic area.  They have always been our competition, but we were on a relatively level playing field.  Approximately two years ago, their owner was unfortunately diagnosed with cancer.  We approached him about buying his business as it was reported that the cancer was terminal.  He politely rejected our offer, saying he was uninterested in selling.  However, a few months later, he sold out to a locally-owned business conglomerate.  We have several Fortune 500 companies headquartered in our energy-rich geographic area, so a big business here is not a typical small town “big” business.  This company owns and operates dozens of gas stations in multiple cities and several oil-field service-related businesses.  In other words, they have seriously deep pockets.      

     Why on earth, you might ask, would a company like this purchase a small chain of urgent care clinics?  Apparently, the owner of the urgent care company was friends with the conglomerate’s owner.  I’m not sure what the synergies are between the two businesses, but this is what happened.  So now our main competitor is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  As we knew would happen over the last 18 months, they have spent an unmatchable amount of money. 

bitter and money

They have built four brand new urgent care locations right next to their gas stations.  As you may know, gas stations are usually on prime real estate.  Because they’re using their in-house construction company, these new buildings went up quickly.  They have just started building a 5th.  There was a feature in the newspaper about one of the new locations, pegging the cost for that center at $2 million.  Additionally, they have purchased an established family practice site and poached the CMO from the area’s largest hospital system, making him their CEO.

    My management team is understandably unhappy with these recent developments.  They feel competing with brand-new buildings and seemingly endless advertising dollars is unfair.  They are worried the new company will expand into our other markets.  The team is concerned we will lose employees.  In fact, the rival urgent care has already poached one of our providers, who had been working for us for more than a year.  The provider had done an excellent job, and we were happy to have him on our staff.  They have also started sending letters to our other employees to lure them away to their new clinics.   

     I know the urgent care business, and besides the $12+ million they have already spent, this competitor will almost certainly lose millions in operational costs over the next two years, given their rapid expansion.  It seems they are waging a war of attrition, willing to lose money in order to gain market share and put us out of business.  Our management knows we can’t compete with them financially.  

The Response 

     Our management team’s first instinct was to be defensive.  Once we lost a provider, we discussed putting non-compete clauses in our contracts to prevent further defections.  However, we quickly abandoned the idea because it wouldn’t fix the underlying problem.  You can’t force behaviors under the threat of contractual obligation.  After some soul-searching, we turned to my old motto.  We could sit around and complain about these new developments or consider it a challenge to improve.  “Don’t be bitter, be better” became our rallying cry.  Instead of non-competes, we needed to ensure that our company was a place where people wanted to work.  Our company can’t outspend them, but we can compete by simply being better.  

     How do you respond when the unexpected happens?  Our urgent care responded to the global pandemic in 2020 by opening the first drive-through testing site in our area, turning lemons into profitable lemonade.  We didn’t become bitter about the circumstances; we focused and got better.  We decided to do the same and confront this new challenge head-on.  As a team, we knew we already did many things well, or we wouldn’t have been in business for nearly ten years.  But with this latest threat, we were forced to re-examine every facet of our business.  There could be no sacred cows, no stones left unturned.  

     After looking at ourselves in the mirror, the first step was to go back to basics by focusing on our core values.  We sought fresh ideas and opinions, hiring two experienced providers to lead our educational and culture-strengthening efforts.  They have brought verve and enthusiasm back to our management team.  We refreshed our oldest clinic and built out new rooms in another.  We are considering an acquisition to broaden our geographic reach and have additional expansion plans.  Yet, the efforts must continue.  Our customer service can and will improve.  Our employees must be continually empowered to do the right thing for the patients.  The registration process, wait times, and employee training process must be the best.  Everyone involved in our business, including me, must continue to get better.

 Conclusion

     We’re all bitter sometimes, frustrated with life’s circumstances and surprises.  We are tempted to look outside ourselves when things don’t go our way.  It’s often easier to do that than to look critically at yourself and find areas for improvement.  It’s even harder to actually make those necessary changes.  However, taking that long, hard look at yourself in the mirror is the crucial first step we all need when facing life’s inevitable challenges.   

     In business and life, we should strive never to become complacent.  We must listen to critiques and complaints objectively.  We must seek honest feedback from patients, staff, and management. And we should consider competition a welcome challenge and a chance to improve ourselves.  After ten years in business, perhaps we were becoming complacent.  This competitor was exactly what we needed to refocus our energy toward our patients, our staff, and our company’s future.  I am grateful for the opportunity to shun bitterness and work to be better.

     When faced with challenges, how do you respond?  Do you have any mantras that inspire you?  Leave a comment below to discuss.   Subscribe here to see more content like this.