A cool reception
Clients are turned off by waiting room delays, so keep pet owners informed, sometimes before they arrive.
The ability to set and manage client expectations can turn a visit to your veterinary practice from mediocre to outstanding. Establishing those expectations early, often and in detail can prevent misunderstandings and keep small issues from compounding into a less-than-stellar time for the pet owner.
Most times, the first person a pet owner sees is your receptionist, the person who will communicate expectations. Here are four things a receptionist — and all staff members — need to keep in mind to effectively manage expectations:
Be Clear and Detailed
I took my rescue basset hound, Thurston Howl III, to his veterinarian’s office. The receptionist knew who we were and greeted us immediately. The waiting room was clean and quiet, and it conveyed a feeling of quality and competence.
I was invited to take a seat and was told that someone would be with me shortly. I did so. And I waited. After five minutes, I thought to myself, “I wonder what ‘shortly’ means to the receptionist.”
Contrast that experience with this phone call I received from my physician’s receptionist: “Ms. Klein? Dr. Frank is running about 20 minutes behind due to an emergency. We respect your time and wanted to offer you the opportunity to reschedule if you needed to.”
Wow! I knew exactly how late my physician would be and I had the opportunity to decide whether to reschedule.
During my visit to the veterinarian, the simple act of adding a time frame to the wait would have alleviated any concerns that my schedule was about to be thrown off. If I knew the wait was going to be less than five minutes, I was fine. If I had been told upfront that Thurston would be seen in 10 minutes, I may have chosen to walk him outside or contemplated whether I would still have time to meet my client immediately afterward.
We all perceive and interpret vague terms differently — “shortly,” “quickly,” “in a while,” “expensive,” “cheap.” Our point of reference may change daily or hourly, but we avoid any unintended misunderstandings if we can define those terms.
Check for Alignment
Communicating expectations frequently and in a detailed way is a good start, but if the client has something else in mind and your receptionist doesn’t uncover it, a disconnect may occur between the experience you are striving for and the one that becomes reality.
Very simply, asking the client whether she is fine with what was just communicated is a great way to ensure that everyone is in harmony.
What I would have liked to hear from my veterinarian’s receptionist is this: “Ms. Klein, I expect the technician to be out in about five minutes to bring you into an exam room. Will that work for you and Thurston?”
That statement would have given me time to take him for a quick walk or send a quick work email. There is nothing worse than starting a draft email and not being able to finish the thought.
When checking for alignment, be ready for verbal affirmations or indications of concern. Also watch for positive nonverbal cues that the client agrees with you (eye contact, an affirmative nod, a smile) or doesn’t (a glance downward, a weight shift, fidgeting with car keys).
Modify as Needed
Most clients understand that emergencies happen, and they appreciate that your practice would do whatever is needed if their pet needed supplemental or sudden medical care. Giving clients the opportunity to respond and to be part of a solution upfront can lead to increased loyalty.
It’s not uncommon for clients to become more loyal when the veterinary team helps a pet owner successfully move through a challenging customer experience. Don’t look at delays, cost concerns or small mistakes as dissatisfiers but as ways to solve problems together and improve the client relationship.
One theoretical solution in my case could have been this:
“Ms. Klein, we are running about 15 minutes behind due to a surgery that took longer than anticipated this morning. I apologize for the delay. If the new timing doesn’t work for you, I can reschedule you for tomorrow, or you can leave Thurston here for a few hours, we’ll look at his ears and you can pick him up and meet with the doctor at 4 o’clock. What works for you?”
The client has been offered a choice, the decision is back in her hands and your receptionist and practice are viewed as helpful and flexible. A common annoyance — waiting room delays — has turned into a loyalty-driving experience for the client.
Setting expectations clearly, checking for comprehension and being willing to modify the circumstances will promote positive outcomes in all kinds of situations. Your practice likely does this when communicating the cost of more expensive services and medications. Why not do this with general services as well?
Consider calling or texting pet owners before they arrive to communicate schedule delays or changes and to offer flexible solutions, even if you are only a few minutes behind and anticipate catching up later in the day. Overdelivering and exceeding expectations is never a bad thing.
The veterinary team can take the same approach when setting expectations with each other. For example: “I’m heading back soon to clean out the supply closet and do inventory. I’ll be gone for about 45 minutes. I have about five minutes now if anybody needs something before I get started.”
Being conscientious and deliberate about communicating expectations with clients will create a more positive experience and generate more loyalty and referrals. You’ll experience fewer misunderstandings and develop a smoother-running practice.
Veterinary industry veteran Jennifer Klein owns the Portland, Maine, consulting firm Imbolc LLC.