Eliminate fear in pets — and in your clients
Simple solutions start with the initial phone call and extend to the products offered at checkout.
The writer Malcolm Gladwell once said, “We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.”
As practice owners, we know that our first opportunity to interact with and acquire a client may not occur in person or in an exam room. It may start with the pet owner reading an online review, surfing the hospital website, networking at a community event or, most commonly, from that initial phone call to the practice. Your receptionist or client service employees have a tremendous opportunity to not only create a significantly positive first impression, but to also promote ways to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in the patient, leading to increased profitability of the practice.
Every member of the veterinary team is responsible for creating the right atmosphere. Educate your customer service employees and empower them with strategies to teach owners how to keep their dog or cat comfortable from the moment they leave their home to the moment they return. Studies show that clients today are looking for an “experience,” and our goal should be for that encounter to be as free of fear and stress as possible, both for the patient and the client.
Set the Tone
Let’s refocus on that initial phone call. Every practice consultant will recommend taping these calls to assess the pace of the conversation, gauge whether active listening is present and determine the accuracy of the information being delivered.
As owners, we rely heavily on the customer service team to create a welcoming and knowledgeable first impression, setting the tone for an experience that is new and free of fear and anxiety from start to finish. Provide your team with the proper tools in the form of scripts, client feedback and the review of taped calls to brand your practice from the first interaction. Coachable moments may be shared not just with the team but with the whole staff, too.
Another important touch point with clients is first impressions at checkout. The customer service team should reinforce the veterinarian’s recommendations and encourage forward-booking, which helps with compliance. This could range from scheduling an oral health procedure or further diagnostic testing to completing the purchase of a therapeutic diet, supplement or treat that supports the exam’s findings.
While we know that shelf space is incredibly valuable and needs to be earned by products that are profitable, I’ve put together a list of inventory items that are not only easy talking points but take up little space and, most importantly, demonstrate that the team believes in fearless veterinary medicine.
- For cats, the NoBowl Feeding System was created as the first indoor hunting system based on theories of feline enrichment and behavior. Behaviorists have shown that cats who hunt for food display fewer signs of stress-induced behaviors — inappropriate urination outside the litterbox, destructive actions in the home, predator-prey conduct against owners and excessive vocalization.
- For reducing stress involving the cat carrier, travel and hospital visit, Feliway should always be discussed. Mimicking the cat’s natural facial pheromone, Feliway comes in a spray, wipe and diffuser. All are designed to relax and calm cats, reducing scratching, spraying and inappropriate urination. This is a must within the lobby, exam room, recovery and surgery wards, and boarding facility.
- Another common client concern is the act of placing a cat into a carrier. A wonderful option is SleepyPod, a mobile pet bed that supports safe and comfortable travel. It is three products in one: a carrier, a pet bed and a car seat. SleepyPod may be paired with Feliway or a Thunder Shirt for additional reduction of anxiety.
- Zylkene is a bovine hydrolyzed milk protein supplement that has natural calming properties. Many behaviorists are encouraged by its efficacy and palatability. As with pheromone therapy, Zylkene helps with situations such as travel, adoption and noise phobia, and it may make a pet more receptive to behavior-modification training. It also may be used in dogs.
- A common complaint of dog owners is the discomfort and anxiety of postsurgical and dermatology patients placed in a restrictive e-collar. Empower your team to discuss newer options like the Calmer Collar. The patented Easy Feed feature allows a collar-wearing patient to eat and drink comfortably, and the inner lining is designed to provide a calming effect.
- Pheromone therapy isn’t just for cats. Adaptil collars are a great addition to any lobby and an excellent discussion point with clients who have a new puppy or a newly rescued or adopted dog. These collars are activated by body heat and release the calming pheromone continuously, even when a dog is outside. I also use these collars on patients who have chronic noise phobias or boarding or separation anxiety.
- Similar to Zylkene, Axitane is a chewable tablet that contains L-Theatine, an amino acid normally found in tea leaves. Paired with behavioral modification training, it is a natural alternative formulated to help dogs relieve anxiety associated with fireworks, thunderstorms, car travel, noise phobia and social stressors. Axitane helps cats relieve anxiety associated with unfamiliar people, sights, sounds and smells.
- The Smart Pet Snuggle Puppy behavioral aid toy is a stuffed animal that re-creates the intimacy of physical warmth and has a life-like heartbeat. It is used with rescued pets, with animals going through a life stressor such as a move, new baby or construction, and with pets suffering from generalized anxiety. The toy helps create a calmer, more peaceful pet, one that feels back in the pack. This, in turn, helps to reduce negative behaviors like whining and barking.
- The Gentle Leader is a safe and comfortable alternative to prong collars and other previously recommended dog-training devices. When a dog pulls on its leash, the Gentle Leader gently moves the head and body toward the owner. Unlike with a muzzle, the dog can still pant and bark, and the Gentle Leader sits high on a dog’s neck, so it doesn’t put pressure on the throat.
- ThunderShirt is a garment that swaddles a dog or cat by applying gentle, constant pressure to the body, helping to reduce fear and anxiety associated with car travel, noise, veterinary visits, boarding, crate containment and, of course, thunderstorms.
It’s essential that your team be knowledgeable enough to promote these and similar products verbally and demonstrate their use. I would encourage staff members to test products that reduce fear and anxiety, because personal testimonials bear so much weight with clients.
Staff buy-in around a program or product creates added value, trust and compliance among clients and ultimately improves a practice’s profitability.
Fearless columnist Dr. Natalie Marks is co-owner of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago. She is Fear Free certified.