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Ask the right questions at the right time

Getting to know a pet owner on a more personal level can build trust.

Ask the right questions at the right time

Imagine a 12-year-old pet diagnosed with an operable brain tumor. Most clients would struggle to decide whether to proceed with surgery. Now imagine having to make this decision twice.

I know how hard these decisions are because I was that client in 2013. My beloved Papillon, Chloe, came through her first craniotomy with no complications. But 19 months later, the seizures recurred despite the use of anticonvulsant medication. I was facing another difficult choice when a family member asked, “What will help you make the decision?” It was the right question at the right time. I immediately responded that I needed to consult with Chloe’s neurologist. I trusted she would help me make the best decision — and she did.

For veterinary teams, asking questions is a valuable communication skill. It increases trust with pet owners and in turn builds stronger client relationships.

The secret is to train team members to ask questions and know which ones to ask during different client interactions. Initial training should include teaching the difference between a closed-ended question and an open-ended question. Closed-ended questions can be answered with a “no” or “yes” or a single word. Open-ended questions invite an expanded response and tend to be a more effective way to build rapport and trust.

Everyone on the team can help build trust if they ask the right questions at the right time. Here are four scenarios in which questions can improve client engagement, education, compliance and decision-making.


Client engagement refers to the relationship between the veterinary practice and its clients. If the level of client engagement is high, pet owners feel emotionally bonded to the practice. They are more likely to visit often, accept treatment recommendations and refer others to the business. One of the best ways to enhance client engagement is by using questions to make authentic connections.

Questions demonstrate an interest in another person and tend to make the person a better listener. In veterinary medicine, teams pose many questions to gather relevant information but sometimes fail to build rapport, especially with new clients. While some team members have a natural ability to engage clients through questions, others need to be more mindful about developing this habit.

Here are examples of questions designed to build relationships:

  • “How do you like living in Tampa?”
  • “Why did you name your cat Peppermint?”
  • “What fun plans do you have for the summer?”

The following statements help build trust by showing that you care about the client and her pet:

  • “What kinds of toys does Hannah like to play with?”
  • “How did you decide to get a Papillon?”
  • “Tell me about the time you spend with Gidget.”
  • “Tell me how Bucky has been doing since his last visit.”

It’s human nature for busy team members to avoid questions. They think, “I don’t have time to listen and chat.” The trick to using questions in these circumstances is to ask closed-ended questions or ones that can be answered quickly. Here are examples:

  • “Did you see the game last night?”
  • “How old are you?” (Ask of young children only!)
  • “Have you had a long-haired dachshund before?”
  • “I love your shoes. Where did you get them?”
  • “So, you’re a New England Patriots fan?”


Traditional models of client education call for lecturing pet owners on why the patient needs a particular service or product. This type of communication tends to be one-sided and paternalistic. Newer models of veterinary-client communications promote a more collaborative approach.

Studies have shown multiple positive outcomes when veterinarians use a relationship-centered care approach focused on developing a partnership with clients. One study, published in the Feb. 15, 2012, issue of JAVMA, found that pet owners exposed to this approach were more likely to adhere to treatment recommendations and have a greater level of satisfaction. Another JAVMA study, published Aug. 15, 2016, showed that when veterinary teams were trained to use specific communication skills, such as open-ended questions and reflective listening, clients felt more involved in appointments and thought their veterinarian was more interested in their opinion.

To avoid talking “at” clients, here are examples of statements that create dialog and promote collaboration:

  • “Tell me what’s important to you for Jake’s diet.”
  • “What do you know about (a particular product, disease or treatment)?”
  • “Tell me about your experience with managing allergies?”

Asking questions throughout the client-education process helps pet owners feel heard and allows the team to provide information that is relevant and tailored to each client.


Clients don’t always articulate their thoughts regarding a pet’s medical care. Often, the underlying emotions and motivations behind a client’s comments or nonverbal communication are not clear. Asking the right questions helps teams avoid making false assumptions and can lead to greater compliance.

These statements can help uncover a client’s feelings about care and treatment recommendations:

  • “What are your thoughts about how Tigger is responding to treatment?”
  • “What do you know about living with a blind cat?”
  • “Tell me how you feel about what we’ve discussed so far.”


The veterinary team plays an invaluable role in helping clients choose a preventive product to buy or make decisions in life-threatening situations. Certain statements can help clients achieve peace of mind and make decisions that are right for their family. For example:

  • “What concerns do you have about Sophie’s treatment plan?”
  • “What questions do you have about the procedure?”
  • “I sense you’re frustrated by Tigger’s response to treatment.”
  • “How can I help you make this decision?”

Because I highly trusted my veterinarian, I decided to proceed with a second craniotomy for Chloe. Once again, she came through with flying colors. Though she lived another four months before the seizures returned and I had to say goodbye, I will always treasure the time I had with her.

To enhance the team’s ability to attract and retain clients, hospital

administrators should establish training sessions to review questions and statements appropriate for different client interactions. Putting employees into small groups may help with practicing this communication skill.

Pet owners who trust the veterinary team are more likely to agree to treatment recommendations and stay bonded to the practice. What questions do you need to ask at the right time to build trust and ultimately help pets get the care they deserve?

Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She is the author of “101 Practice Management Questions Answered.”