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Be of service

Do the little things to turn an average client experience into one that pet owners will relish and long remember.

Be of service
Excellent customer service is not rocket science.

We all know that clients determine the quality and value of a veterinary practice based on what they see and experience. Furthermore, this determination is made in the first three minutes that clients come into contact with the practice. This phenomenon is known as perception of value.

During a recent onsite consultation, I noticed a client who had brought in her dog for orthopedic surgery. The client decided to wait while the surgery was performed, and she set herself up in a corner of the waiting room, which was like a small alcove. She was curled up on a few seats and, when I first saw her, I thought she was a homeless person who was taking a nap inside the practice. The client was there when I arrived at 8 a.m., and she didn’t leave until after 2 p.m.

Do you think any of the doctors or team members offered her any assistance? Did anyone think of doing anything for her that might have made her wait a little more enjoyable or at least less uncomfortable? The answer is one big NO! In fact, she was not updated about her pet’s surgery until 2 p.m., when the doctor walked out to the reception area to tell her the dog was recovering from surgery and all had gone fine.

What a lost opportunity. What a terrible experience for the client.

A Touch of Luxury

Now consider Ritz-Carlton, a company widely known for its excellent service. When visiting a Ritz-Carlton hotel, I’ve noticed that staff members are always looking for ways to make their guests’ experience more memorable. We need to take the same approach with our clients.

In the aforementioned instance, what could team members have done to help the client and make her visit a more positive experience? First, they could have offered her the option of waiting in the practice’s comfort room instead of having to curl up in the reception area. They could have offered her a cup of coffee or a bottle of water during the course of the day. They could have given her the television remote control.

At a recent meeting, I asked attendees to come up with other ideas. They suggested:

  • The practice could have provided an iPad or computer so the client could check her email or surf the internet.
  • The practice could have offered to text the client if anything developed with her dog so that, if she wanted, she could leave for a while.
  • Most importantly, the practice needed to keep the client informed throughout the day about the progress of the surgery and how her dog was doing. A team member could have texted photos throughout the surgery or just texted updates.

The point is that, at least at this practice, no one cared enough about the client and the experience she was having. One employee even commented, “That woman is still out in the waiting room.”

Try a Mystery Shopper

Many times, we are really good at treating patients but not as good at providing excellent customer service and thinking about things from the client’s perspective.

I love the idea of using a mystery shopper. This is where you have someone come into your practice and go through the entire outpatient process to evaluate it from the client’s perspective. In fact, a form we have developed specifically for this process may be downloaded at www.todaysveterinarybusiness.com/mystery-shopper.

The best person to do a mystery-shopping visit is a veterinary employee. One idea is to team with another practice, send one of their employees to your practice and you send one of yours to their practice. Team members at both practices would know it’s going to happen, but they won’t know when.

Once the mystery shopping is done, a report is filled out and presented to the team. Not only will you learn what you can do to improve customer service, but you will discover some of the things you do that the other practice does not. The process can be an eye-opener for everyone.

Another idea is to do a customer service scavenger hunt, which can be a lot of fun. Find a business in your area that you know provides excellent customer service. It might be a hotel, a restaurant or a department store like Nordstrom. I know of a car wash in Evergreen, Colorado, that fits the description.

Take team members to one of these businesses and tell them to find at least five examples of exceptional customer service. After the scavenger hunt, get everyone together to discuss their findings and talk about which ideas could be applied in your practice.

Keep customer service in the forefront of everyone’s thoughts by making the topic a part of every team meeting. You can ask team members to provide you with examples of exceptional customer service that either they provided personally or that they witnessed another employee doing. Reward one or several of the employees with a gift certificate or a prize.

Learn From Your Mistakes

I suggest you discuss customer service failures as well. Let’s say a client was angry because your practice was running an hour behind on appointments, or an invoice was much costlier than the client expected. How are these issues addressed in your practice? What could you have done to make sure the problems won’t happen again or, if they do, a plan is in place to favorably resolve them. Use customer failures as learning experiences.

In the United States, unfortunately, we generally do not provide very good customer service. We can be rude to clients or look at them as more of an annoyance. When a veterinary practice does something as simple as greet a client who comes in the door, or use the pet’s name, the act is perceived as good customer service. However, we can be so much better than that.

For example, I know of practices that have a client greeter or concierge. This individual is positioned near the entrance and is charged with greeting the client and pet when they first walk in. The concierge will introduce the client to the receptionist and will make sure the client is offered a beverage and that children get a coloring book — anything to make the visit more positive.

To enhance the client experience, make sure your reception area is clean, odor-free and well-maintained. Offer comfortable seating, current magazines and a television playing educational or cable programming. I suggest free internet access, too. I also have even seen practices that provide a computer station where clients can log on and check emails or surf the web.

Excellent customer service is not rocket science. Consider businesses like Ritz-Carlton, Starbucks, Marriott and Nordstrom. What do they do? They think about their customers’ experience and find ways to create a more positive experience.

As I have long said, “Love your clients so much, care for them and their pets so well, that they do not want to leave your practice for fear of a harsher world outside your door.”

Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc. and co-author of “The Art of Veterinary Practice Management, Second Edition.”