Ying Chen is the Global Chief Product Officer at Covetrus, a global animal health technology and services company. She has extensive experience assessing, redefining, and executing go-to-market strategies.
Ying joined Covetrus in 2021, bringing more than 20 years of experience in product management, product marketing, and strategy in the B2B software industry. Previously, she held leadership roles at HubSpot, Luminoso, Pegasystems, and Redline Trading Solutions.
We recently spoke with Ying to learn more about her role at Covetrus and how the company is leveraging technology to drive better business and clinical outcomes for the veterinary industry. Ying shared her approach for customizing frameworks to get a broader view of the competitive ecosystem and discussed the benefits of taking a more holistic approach to customer feedback.
Our conversation has been edited lightly for brevity.
To start off, could you tell me a little bit about what Covetrus does?
Absolutely! Covetrus is a leading global provider of technology solutions and services for animal health professionals. Our all-in-one solution helps animal health professionals globally run their practice, drive efficiency and patient outcomes, improve customer engagement, reduce business operating costs, and lean into the areas of their business that drive revenue.
Covetrus’ primary customers are veterinarians, or anybody who helps deliver care, for what we call “companion animals” — most people refer to these as pets or “fur babies.”
In industry jargon, companion animals have pet parents; large animals, like horses, have owners. We also support equine veterinary customers and horse owners, but the majority of our focus is on veterinarians for companion animals.
As Global Chief Product Officer, how does your role support the company’s initiatives?
I would definitely say that my job is the best role in the company! I focus on leveraging technology to help overworked, understaffed veterinary practices drive efficiency and build really strong relationships with pet parents.
Most veterinarians enter their profession not because they want to run a business, but because they care about animals and want to deliver really great care.
One of the biggest ways that Covetrus shows up for animal health practices is through our all-in-one practice management software, often referred to as PIMS, which includes medical records, a CRM, a billing and payment system, and inventory management.
Without a functional practice management solution, a clinic can’t operate — staff can’t access patient records and pet parents can’t book or pay for services. I’m very excited that my team and I have the pleasure of focusing on veterinarians and delivering software solutions to help enhance customer engagement and drive efficiency.
Often, users don’t adopt technology solutions the way we expect they would. Has there been an instance where this happened with any of the solutions your team rolled out? If so, how did you address it?
When I joined Covetrus, one of my team’s first initiatives was to launch our new cloud-based operating system called Pulse. Pulse offers the business and clinical applications providers need in a single, connected ecosystem.
It’s fair to say that, overall, veterinarians are not early adopters of new technology. After the initial Pulse rollout, many animal health practices continued to use on-prem software, meaning they had servers located at the practice, instead of adopting the new cloud-based solution. Because of this, we faced a challenge when trying to introduce an important offering, namely single sign-on (SSO).
Animal health practices routinely prescribe many pet medications that are considered controlled substances. So, from a security and legal standpoint, SSO is incredibly important. SSO is also a great value proposition for other aspects of the veterinary practice, such as inventory ordering.
At first, we thought implementing SSO would be fairly straightforward and easy: just pop the user in, validate their identity, and ensure they have the right level of access. Logins would be unified with one email and one password and would provide access to all of the systems.
Well, unfortunately, that’s just not how animal health practices operate. In reality, practice management software is sort of like a library terminal or, leaning on my background in FinTech, like a Bloomberg terminal — no one actually signs in!
How did you address this? If there were practices that couldn’t utilize the new required feature, did you just pull the whole thing back, or did you have another solution that they could use?
Well, we have many customers who are part of a larger corporate group, meaning the practice or clinic is owned by a private equity firm. These customers do need to enforce SSO and appreciated the new feature.
However, many of our customers are sole-proprietor veterinarians; they don’t have an email server and they don’t provide email addresses for their staff. For these sole-proprietor practices, we created an internal unique system email until the user had a chance to create their own. We wanted to be sure that the SSO implementation was inclusive of each clinic’s workflow and provided the added value of self-service and control by the practice manager or owner.
This story is a perfect example of why I value betas; they help you learn a ton. In this scenario, there was a mismatch between the value proposition and the reality of the customer’s workflow. We may have a valid reason for introducing a new feature, but we always need to consider the customer’s workflow when designing how we’re going to actually roll it out.
Since we’re talking about introducing new technologies, what about AI? In a previous role, you launched several AI-related initiatives. How are you using AI internally at Covetrus to improve operations and efficiency?
It’s important to understand that artificial intelligence can take on multiple forms. For example, there’s business rules-driven AI for automating decision making. There’s also a probabilistic model vs. a more generative model.
Covetrus is already using AI. One way AI is helpful is in the area of pet parent compliance, especially with prescription management. Like humans, it’s important that we keep to a schedule when our pets need medication. So, we’ve been working to understand what’s happening when people order pet medication online and how to encourage pet parents to opt for ongoing subscriptions when needed. We do this by performing machine learning on the data side.
Another area that my team is exploring is how to leverage conversational AI to help veterinary practices better manage their schedules for both appointments and surgeries. We think this is an opportunity to lean into AI to drive efficiencies, produce better workflows, and create delight.
Throughout your career, many of your product management and product marketing roles have focused on assessing market opportunities and defining GTM strategies. What methodologies do you use to understand the market landscape, target audience, and competitive dynamics?
There are a couple best practices or models that I’m continuously exploring and that I really appreciate. One of them is Jobs-to-be-Done, which aligns teams from a business standpoint.
I think this framework is so important because it has to do with product-market fit. It brings to life who you’re trying to serve and the importance of the jobs to them. Although, when we talk about who we’re trying to serve, I prefer to think of it as a use case instead of a traditional persona or profile.
One of the reasons why I love this framework goes back to the classic Clay Christensen example about “hiring” a milkshake for breakfast. In this example, it doesn’t matter who you are — anyone can hire a milkshake for breakfast.
The PM’s job is to figure out: well, who are all the people who would like to hire a milkshake for breakfast? It forces us to ask, what are the important problems or opportunities or jobs that we want to take care of from a software perspective?
Another methodology that I really appreciate is the Lean Canvas model, which, to me, pushes you to think beyond the product itself and really consider how an organization shows up to serve a particular segment. All organizations are different, so for one it may be customer success; for another, it may involve selling to a particular profile or customer segment.
By combining Jobs-to-be-Done with Lean Canvas, you essentially connect your ability to go after markets that are truly addressable with your goal to pursue markets that may be more aspirational.
What models or frameworks do you like to use to consider the competitive landscape?
I use an approach that is somewhat of a hybrid of Porter’s Five Forces, which I began pivoting away from early in my software career, and Jobs-to-be-Done. It involves taking a broad view of the ecosystem, considering how the organization is completing all the Jobs-to-be-Done, identifying the known players, and then looking at adjacent players who have the potential to move into your market if you stop paying attention.
I do an exercise with my team where we think about the whole ecosystem, grounded in Jobs-to-be-Done and in what’s happening within our target customer space. I ask my team to stop focusing all their energy on competitors and instead consider adjacent players who are not yet in the market.
Here’s a hypothetical example. Let’s say your target customers are contact center professionals. Start by asking yourself, what’s happening right now within the contact center market? There’s high customer churn, high employee turnover, and little to no customer appreciation.
For the most part, people are calling because they’re upset. The combination of high churn and high turnover is a big deal because to lower churn, you’ll need to be able to ramp up and make staff operational quickly.
Based on this, you might consider which companies within the marketplace are focusing on solving issues associated with churn and training. Providers within the market who are already offering solutions to this problem are the incumbents.
Now, step back and consider companies in other industries that offer an interesting value proposition but have nothing to do with contact centers. Let’s say there’s a company that focuses on customer surveys. What if they started doing more customer survey analytics? Could they move into doing customer survey analytics for contact centers and eventually become a player in the contact center market?
This type of analysis is not one and done. My recommendation is to go through the exercise once to get a baseline view and then continue to monitor it, either monthly or quarterly.
This approach can also present an interesting opportunity to identify potential emerging value propositions in your space. It could even be a way to spot interesting potential acquisition targets.
It’s so true that it’s far too easy to remain focused on immediate competitors and risk missing the greater picture. Where did the inspiration for your hybrid model come from?
I’m a big believer in continuous learning. I’m always looking to see what my counterparts at other organizations are doing. I network with a lot of chief product officers and ask a lot of questions. What are you trying out? How is that going? Are you enjoying OKRs? You just tried Jobs-to-be-Done — how did that go? A lot of these conversations spark ideas for me.
Also, I believe things can be accomplished in more than one way. I prefer to be more agile, mixing and matching ideas. There’s no need to be overly rigid about using different frameworks. We all have the ability to design our own product-market fit frameworks and our own ecosystem views.
You were talking earlier about creating customer delight. Going back to that — it sounds like some initiatives you’ve rolled out were brainstormed internally, but what about customer feedback? How do you stay close to that in this role?
Feedback is certainly important, but it’s equally important to differentiate how we think about it. At Covetrus, we offer the opportunity to submit feedback directly through our product platforms, but we also rely heavily on “embedding.” We spend a lot of time just being present inside animal health practices so that we can see firsthand how veterinarians, vet technicians, and other staff are using our software products.
Seeing firsthand how someone is using your product can give you insights that you may not otherwise get. Imagine a technician who is holding a tablet while trying to coax a reluctant 150-pound dog onto the scale. Maybe the intake process could be smoother if the technician had access to some kind of hands-free dictation instead. There’s a lot of valuable feedback we can glean from embedding.
At Covetrus, we also have customer advisory boards, which help us better understand how our customers’ world is changing so we can consider how we can better show up for them.
The best customer feedback is continuous observations with different points of input from the customer. Our job is to absorb that feedback and be able to quickly translate it in a way that creates value for the customer. But it’s also important to have a higher-level conversation to evaluate places where the value proposition may miss given how the customer’s world is changing.
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