Verdes Foundation's Relationship-Based Approach to Patient Care in New Mexico

Verdes Foundation's Relationship-Based Approach to Patient Care in New Mexico

Features - Cover Story

Being at the bottom of New Mexico’s alphabetical provider list hasn’t stopped the Verdes Foundation from rising to the top.

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October 18, 2018

Shawna Brown (left) and Rachael Speegle sit outside the Verdes Foundation’s Albuquerque dispensary.
All photos: © Kim Jackson

School children possessing last names beginning with letters near the alphabet’s end will tell you life can sometimes be tough: They are the last ones called during attendance, the last ones through the lunch line, the last ones to conference with the teacher. And let’s be honest, no one likes being last. But, probably only a handful of companies consider how the first letter of its legal name might affect their businesses.

Husband and wife Eric and Rachael Speegle certainly didn’t when they named their vertically integrated, New Mexico-based, cannabis company “Verdes Foundation.” In fact, they didn’t think much about the name until the state’s Department of Health published its list of state-licensed nonprofit dispensaries (there are 81) in alphabetical order and by county, meaning Verdes Foundation appeared last on the Bernalillo and Sandoval counties’ lists.

“Ending the alphabet is definitely a deterrent and puts us at a disadvantage,” says Rachael, who serves as chief operating officer. “Patients just didn’t go down the list.”

This presented the Speegles with one of their first challenges as dispensary owners: If patients didn’t know Verdes existed, how could they get them through the door? “We needed something unique,” Rachael recalls.

Their solution: provide all new patients with one free gram of flower. The goal was to attract patients, but the Speegles also saw an opportunity to promote Verdes’ product. “We wanted people to have a sample of the quality of the medicine that we grow, and we wanted them to be able to access that sample without having to pay for it,” Rachael says.

Verdes Foundation started the giveaways in 2012, when it opened its first dispensary in Albuquerque (which has since closed and relocated) and has continued with them, despite some challenges. “It’s really hard for us to keep up with that free gram, and the cost to us is very expensive,” Rachael says, “but we continue to do it as a service to the community.” (According to Verdes, the program costs the company almost $93,000 annually.)

This is a common theme with Verdes Foundation; it regularly goes above and beyond to ensure patient and employee satisfaction, and they have reaped the rewards.

Today, Verdes Foundation operates two medical dispensaries, one in Rio Rancho and one in Albuquerque, along with its 22,000-square-foot Albuquerque production and cultivation facility. The two dispensaries process a combined 15,000 transactions a month, register 30 new patients a day, and have bolstered Verdes’ patient database to 5,700 active customers, according to Eric.

CLEVER STRATEGY

Today, there is no doubt Rio Rancho and Albuquerque residents are aware Verdes Foundation exists, and not simply because it provides free product. When the company opened its Rio Rancho location in 2016 and relocated its Albuquerque location in 2017, “we really had to finesse … relationships in the community,” says Verdes’ Community Relations and Marketing Manager Shawna Brown. (Eric and his dad opened Verdes’ first dispensary in 2012 inside Verdes’ production facility. They closed it in 2017 and moved it two blocks down the street to its current location.)

In Rio Rancho, instead of attempting to reach new patients individually, Brown looked to engage groups. For example, she says, “We were able to really utilize the neighborhood association meetings They have ways to access [residents] that I didn’t.”

It was important for the company to build relationships with its neighbors because many harbored fears about a dispensary entering the neighborhood. “[Neighbors] knew that if anything were to happen, that they could contact me directly, and I could ease any concerns that they had,” Brown says, adding that it showed residents that Verdes was not just entering their community, but there to support it.

“[Engaging staff is] one of our biggest retention values and tools to keep people because ... they believe in our mission and they're a part of that mission,” says Rachael Speegle, COO, Verdes Foundation

EARNING TRUST

At Verdes, accommodating patients also means providing access to knowledgeable people. New Mexico does not require dispensaries to staff registered nurses (RNs), but Verdes hired some anyway. According to Rachael, who is also an RN, registered nurses are among the most trusted professionals in the United States. (A 2017 Gallup poll ranked nursing as the most ethical profession in the U.S. for the 16th consecutive year.) Having nurses on staff “buys us a lot of credibility, but it also comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility,” Rachael says, “because people are going to believe what comes out of our mouths.”

Verdes’ average customer age is 47, so staff is cognizant many patients may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with cannabis, making the information they provide even more important. To ensure all patients’ needs are met, Verdes has implemented a standard new-patient onboarding program.

Once a patient is entered in Verdes’ system, an employee spends roughly 10 minutes with her reviewing purchasing, products, quantities, ordering online and more. After this orientation, the new patient is asked: “If you were to accomplish one symptom relief today, what would that be?” According to Rachael, this question is posed because many patients enter the store exacerbated and frustrated by their conditions. By focusing on one symptom, staff can reduce some of that anxiety and create trust.

Staff ask follow-up questions based on that answer. If a patient wants to sleep, “we [ask], ‘Tell me about your sleep. Are you not falling asleep or not staying asleep?’ That gives us clues [as to what product might work],” Rachael explains.

CANNABIS 101

For patients who need more personalized attention, Verdes offers a free, private consultation with a Verdes nurse. In these sessions, which last about an hour, patients collaborate with nurses to create individualized care plans and learn how to effectively manage their cannabis medications.

During these consultations, Eric and Rachael noticed that their nurses were fielding the same questions repeatedly. “If we had six, one-hour sessions in a day, we answered the same question six times,” Rachael says. In response, the couple created free patient-orientation classes. Rachael says these classes “answer those basic questions and introduce people to the vocabulary.” Classes are offered at both Verdes locations several times monthly and can accommodate up to eight patients (soon to be 20).

ACCESS TO EDUCATION

However, patients—especially seniors—can’t rush to the dispensary with every question. Therefore, the Verdes Foundation website is loaded with proprietary educational and how-to videos, blog posts, terpene profiles, contact numbers and more. It is a major upgrade from the mere store hours and menus many dispensaries list on their websites.

Rachael adds that the website has helped keep the dispensaries running smoothly. “It's really important to us to maintain the expediency [with] which we serve customers, while still providing really thorough education information at the counter. And those two things are in direct competition with each other,” the COO says. Providing answers online to questions that patients usually ask in person has allowed the company to move patients through the store quickly, and therefore serve more each day.

BENEFICIAL BENEFITS

For all the attention Verdes gives its patients, it gives its 56 employees just as much. After all, Brown says, “They’re our No. 1 asset.”

The Speegles have labored to cultivate a supportive work environment. As proof, Verdes Foundation has been recognized in 2017 and 2018 by New Mexico Family Friendly Business and Albuquerque Business First’s ‘Best Places to Work’ in the state.

Albuquerque Business First solicits anonymous employee feedback when selecting winners, and Brown says many employees remarked positively about the access to education Verdes provides. “If any staff wants to attend a local conference or even a national conference to cultivate their skills, that'll be paid for by the company,” Brown says.

Additionally, Verdes’ employee benefits package has helped increase employee loyalty. Verdes Foundation offers paid time off, sick leave, health insurance, maternity leave, paternity leave and a starting wage of $15/hour, all things that Brown says, “at one point in time [were] really unique to this industry. Verdes quickly saw [these as] being an important thing to offer to our staff.”

Eric credits Verdes’ culture as the reason why several employees with college educations and other job offers choose to remain with the company, preventing the high turnover that much of the industry faces. “We really appreciate [them staying] because that's what really helps sustain [and improve] this community. We try to be leaders to our employees who, in turn, are then leaders to their friends and family,” he says.

GIVE A LITTLE BIT

Eric and Rachael also try to engage their employees in the company’s community efforts. The company supports various local nonprofits, such as animal rescues, groups working to increase high school graduation rates and those focused on social justice. Often, the Speegles ask staff for suggestions on which organizations to support. “[Engaging staff is] one of our biggest retention values and tools to keep people because ... they believe in our mission and they're a part of that mission,” Rachael says.

Verdes also lets patients have a vote on which charities to support through its bag credit program. When making a purchase, patients can decline an exit bag. If they do, they either receive 15 cents off their purchase or a 15-cent token. At each dispensary, Verdes promotes three charities, and patients can donate their tokens to one of the three charities. “I think it's helped endear us to our community because patients know: When they choose to get their medicine from Verdes, they are also giving back to the community,” Brown says.

It all circles back to Verdes Foundation’s stated mission of serving the community at large, regardless if they're patients. “We feel a large sense of responsibility to give back to our surrounding community,” Eric says. “I'm from here. Most of our employees are from here. We really care about this place where we live.”