Fearless columnist Natalie L. Marks is an educator, consultant and practicing Chicago veterinarian. Dr. Marks is a leader within the Fear Free movement, was a member of the original Fear Free advisory board and is Fear Free Certified Elite. She passionately believes that all veterinarians should be committed to the physical and emotional health of their patients.Read Articles Written by Natalie Marks
I’m working with an industry partner on a project focusing on and celebrating customer service representatives. I mention that because in my interactions with CSRs, I often bring up an extreme example of a negative client interaction at checkout and ask, somewhat hypothetically, if they had similar experiences. Sadly, almost every CSR can relate, and some share examples even more intense or emotionally draining.
While some client conversations ultimately are out of our control, we can use several strategies to calm situations and streamline the checkout process.
Who made the rule that all clients must end their veterinary experience at the checkout counter, a bottleneck that can irritate pet owners and our team members? Unfortunately, clients who feel financially burdened, emotionally overwhelmed (or both) take out their frustrations on the customer service team. In addition, the patients might have social anxieties, the cats are now close to the dogs, and the patience of the humans is worn thin.
Instead of assuming that ending the veterinary experience must happen at the lobby counter, consider alternatives. When it comes to surgeries,
dental procedures and drop-offs, for example, I recommend composing treatment plans and estimates before admission. That’s not just for transparency and client authorization but also because the step easily becomes an active invoice in most practice information management systems. After adjusting the invoice to reflect postoperative drugs or therapies and any changes during patient care, the CSR team can offer the convenience of early checkout and a phone release to speed the discharge process.
Such checkouts can be managed easily using anything from a whiteboard associated with your PIMS to a shared desktop Google Sheet. Once the team feels comfortable with it, the workflow can expand to prescriptions, boarding, grooming and even exam room checkouts.
Pet Health Insurance
Insured patients give their owners more financial freedom to choose the type of care they desire. Pet health insurance is also an opportunity for veterinary practices to improve their workflow and the team’s mental health by reducing client anxiety at checkout.
I’ve watched CSRs shift from feeling very comfortable with their hospitals’ prices to becoming hesitant and almost apologetic about the cost of care because of client responses. When that happens, the checkout conversation becomes inauthentic, forced and riddled with hesitancy. Trust in the hospital wanes, and clients are suddenly more suspicious about previous interactions and question those authorized treatments and recommendations. Anxiety breeds anxiety, which clients and other team members feel.
The more we take the invoice out of the final discussion, the easier for everyone. Pet health insurance is one of the solutions. While insurance companies have different procedures involving premiums and claims processing, I support anything that helps clients feel less stressed about their financial responsibilities at checkout.
A common reason for client frustration is a lack of perceived value during the veterinary visit. The classic scenario is this: An emotional and naïve pet owner wants the gold standard of care and authorizes all the recommendations without any awareness of the general costs. At the end of the visit, the client, initially happy with the decisions, walks to the checkout counter and hears an invoice total far exceeding expectations. Suddenly, the client feels anger, annoyance and distrust.
That situation has happened to me and probably every colleague of mine at some point. While we can assume that the costs associated with veterinary medicine are widely known and accepted, many first-time pet owners are unaware of what they’ll pay for everything from an annual exam with vaccines to emergency care to managing a chronic disease.
I recommend that the first few minutes of every client interaction include asking about the pet owner’s goals. Such an approach often leads to the client mentioning a preferred or firm budget, and it eliminates the client’s fear of having to raise the subject first. When clients talk about a budget, I always thank them for their transparency, communicate my respect and say I will do my best to stay within their comfort range. Clients with limited budgets might feel embarrassed, ashamed or even judged, but when we open the lines of communication, validate their feelings, show respect and ask about their goals for veterinary care, we generate a warmer and more relaxed hospital environment.
Finally, I’m not speaking out of turn when I say many veterinary professionals resist technology. But guess what? Many CSR team members aren’t like that. So, ask them about ways to implement a variety of efficient payment options that will help the client and the hospital.
The solutions might include web- or app-based payment platforms, in-room checkouts using portable processing systems such as Square, or third-party financing options like CareCredit.
While they’re more of a unicorn, I still come across veterinary practices that use paper records and handwritten bookkeeping and accept only cash, checks and perhaps one brand of credit card. Although such a management strategy might have been successful historically, it can be incredibly frustrating for younger CSRs as they endure daily checkout inefficiencies. Likewise, the client waiting at the counter becomes anxious and annoyed.
Checking in and out are often a client’s first and last impressions of your hospital. The experience can strongly support or negate the exam room interaction and the pet owner’s thoughts about the value of your hospital and the quality of its veterinary care.
Arm your CSR team members with workflow efficiencies and the ability to be creative at checkout. Help them streamline the process, especially when it involves technology.