Columns , Communication

Choose your words carefully

Clients don’t respond well to lectures. Strive to partner with them for the good of the patient, and remember to ask open-ended questions to jump-start conversations.

Choose your words carefully
A commonly missed opportunity to improve compliance is to check in with clients about any questions they have about preventive care recommendations.

Last summer a friend and I had a conversation about nutrition for her dogs. Well, at the time I thought it was a conversation. She was feeding a boutique brand of food because of the supposed benefits, which to me sounded like nifty marketing rather than real science. Of course, I jumped on the opportunity to educate her about the value of premium nutrition. I passionately told her all the reasons she needed to switch diets.

While reviewing client communications studies recently, I had an aha! moment. I realized I made the mistake of so many veterinarians by focusing on my goal of educating without considering the pet owner’s goals.

Let’s contrast the goals and perspectives of the veterinary team and pet owner.

Veterinarians and team members tend to meet their goal of providing excellent client education by lecturing pet owners. Unfortunately, this paternalistic approach doesn’t work well to increase client compliance because it can be perceived as “I know best,” which might sound disconcerting to pet owners. Moreover, one-way communication can seem like a sales pitch because the business is selling recommended products and services.

Now let’s look at the clients’ goals during preventive care visits. Today’s pet owners want to learn about all their options for health care and the benefits of services and products. Most importantly, they want to feel heard throughout their time with the veterinary team and receive validation that they are good pet owners. Did you notice that clients don’t have a goal during routine preventive care exams that includes spending money on additional services and products for their seemingly healthy pet?

If our profession wants to increase compliance, we must change our objective to one of understanding the goals of pet owners and what’s important to them.

Here are four ways that veterinarians and team members can change client communications to improve compliance. I’ll focus on a hypothetical nutrition discussion I might have about my long-haired dachshund, Gidget, to show how to use specific communication skills.

1. Pose the Right Questions

Asking good questions at the beginning of appointments is critical to understanding the needs, goals and desires of pet owners. The problem is that most veterinary teams ask only a few closed-ended questions when gathering a history. Typical questions include “What food do you give Gidget?” or “What does Gidget eat?” As with most clients, my answer would be to state the brand of food I’m providing, and I might add that the diet is formulated for young adult dogs.

To better attend to the goals of pet owners, team members need to create a conversation by asking open-ended questions. These not only help clients feel heard, but they lead to more information about the pet and client. An example is, “Tell me everything Gidget eats from first thing in the morning until the end of the day.” My response would include telling you about the treats Gidget gets when she goes into her crate and how she gets about 15 kibbles of food every night when we play fetch.

Open-ended questions help the veterinary team assess clients’ knowledge and what’s important to them for their pets’ preventive health care. You could ask me, “How did you decide to feed this diet?” and “What’s important to you for Gidget’s nutrition?” The answer would help veterinarians better understand what clients value in a pet’s diet and how open they might be to changing foods. Avoid asking, “Why are you feeding that diet?” because the question can sound judgmental and put the client on the defensive.

2. Partner With Clients

To avoid the outdated lecture method when educating clients, signal that you’d like to have a conversation and form a partnership in the interest of doing what’s best for the pet. One way to do this is to praise the pet owner before launching into client education. This helps to validate upfront most clients’ primary goal of being a good pet owner. You can say, “I can see how much you care about Gidget and how committed you are to her well-being. I appreciate that you researched information about pet nutrition.”

Another communication skill that signals a desire to partner with clients is to ask permission to educate them about their options. You can say, “May I give you some information on your diet options for Gidget?” or “Would you be open to discussing a few diet options and how we can best meet Gidget’s nutritional needs?” Asking permission works well because it is respectful and tends to make people more open to listening to recommendations.

3. Focus on the Benefits of Recommendations

In the marketing world, smart companies know the difference between features and benefits. While people might like particular features, they buy based on benefits they value. Think of features as a description of what a service or product does and the benefit as the why it is important. For example, I bought Gidget a plush squeaky toy. The feature is three squirrels that can be pulled out of holes in the tree trunk. I was drawn to the cuteness of the toy but purchased it because of the stated benefit that it would entertain a dog for hours.

All too often, veterinary teams focus only on features when making recommendations. Going back to our nutrition conversation, a diet recommendation based on features educates the client about the ingredients of a diet and what it does. The team might say, “I recommend we put Gidget on our high-quality, lower calorie, veterinary-exclusive diet so she can lose a few pounds.” There’s nothing wrong with this recommendation, but it doesn’t state the benefits that are valuable to the pet owner. A better recommendation would be, “I recommend [insert brand name] diet because it has the ingredients and nutrients important to you for Gidget. This diet has been proven to help dogs feel full and lose weight effectively. Most importantly, it will help Gidget maintain her ideal weight so that we can minimize her risk of back problems. As you know, extra weight puts strain on her spine. We want her to be healthy and happy so that she is your beloved companion for a long time.”

4. Check for Understanding

A commonly missed opportunity to improve compliance is to check in with clients about any questions they have about preventive care recommendations. Clients often respond to education with an “OK” or an expression of deferred acceptance such as “I’ll think about it.”

To effectively check a client’s understanding of the value and benefits of preventive care, always ask an open-ended question after making a recommendation. You can say, “Tell me what questions you have about Gidget’s care and my diet recommendation” or

“What are your thoughts about this food as an option for Gidget?” Notice that these open-ended questions prompt feedback from the pet owner.

I can’t imagine that my friend ran home and switched diets after my lecture. I don’t know for certain what diet is best for her dogs because I didn’t ask the right questions. What I do know is that if veterinary teams change their communication to meet the goals of pet owners rather than focus only on the team’s goals, more pets will 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” and serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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