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Columns , Communication

Improve the client experience

Do you need to change your hospital’s systems or the people you employ? Evaluating standards, protocols and training programs will get you started.

Improve the client experience
Brainstorm ways to improve your protocols.

I’ve noticed more people talking about the client experience, and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what I’ve observed:

  • Conversations between colleagues about the need for a more personalized client experience.
  • Commentary from practice leaders about how customer service seems to have declined in recent years and how team members aren’t bending over backward for clients. Some lament that the culture of customer service seems to be lost on the new generation of employees.
  • Remarks from managers and teams about their struggles with angry pet owners.
  • A family member as well as a good friend expressing frustration about drugs bought at the veterinary hospital being vastly more expensive than those purchased online.
  • A good friend, who is a model pet owner, feeling like she gets a sales pitch for services every time she takes her dog to the veterinarian.

What do these observations have in common? First, they reveal the diverse perspectives of practice leaders, employees and clients. Second, they show how veterinary practices often struggle to deliver excellent client service.

Of course, the pandemic magnified the challenge of dealing with stressed, angry clients. But what got my attention is that all the conversations above exposed an underlying issue for veterinary practices: the need to identify factors that affect the client experience.

Practice leaders often struggle to identify ways to improve client engagement and service. But before the client experience can be enhanced, you need to define the experiences you think your clients want and your team delivers. Then, you need to decide whether any problems rest with your hospital’s systems or the people on your team.

To begin the process, consider three questions.

1. What Makes the Client Experience Exceptional?

The first step is to think about the lens you are you looking through. Is it yours or the pet owner’s? Clients, staff members and the leadership team all have different views of what makes the client experience exceptional. If you don’t study it through the lens of a pet owner, you’re unlikely to deliver what clients want. Like it or not, successfully creating an exceptional client experience hinges on knowing what pet owners want.

Next, contemplate whether everyone on your team knows what outstanding service and high levels of client engagement look like. Simply defined, client service is the collective activity taken to meet the needs and wants of pet owners. Client engagement is the emotional connection that pet owners have with your practice because of how the team makes them feel. This is an important distinction. For example, it’s great if you have extended hours and desirable prescription-refill protocols, but if your team doesn’t make pet owners feel cared for, clients won’t be happy.

You might be losing the battle if some team members never experienced exceptional service personally. Ritz-Carlton and Nordstrom are known for great customer service because they achieve high levels of customer engagement. People feel special when they shop at Nordstrom or stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel because of how they are treated by employees. Have your employees ever experienced such service?

You don’t have to send your employees to Nordstrom to encounter exceptional service. Instead, schedule outings to businesses that cater to customers. For example, if you’re in the Southeast, have team members report on what they observed at Publix, a grocery chain known for excellent service. I found it interesting that the Publix employees’ COVID masks read “Ask me” in bold letters. How clever and representative of the company’s efforts to build customer connections.

2. What Systems Are Needed?

The creation and implementation of systems is a must when delivering a great client experience. Think about the scenarios I referenced at the beginning. What systems would help you provide convenient, efficient service? What systems are needed so that team members can best respond to angry clients? What systems can be implemented to ensure that clients don’t think your recommendations are all about selling services and products? Could a better system lower the price of veterinary drugs you sell? What systems are needed to deliver personalized client care?

To answer these questions, evaluate these three aspects of your operations.

STANDARDS

How can team members be expected to provide high levels of client engagement and service if standards are absent? There’s a reason the service experience is better at Morton’s steakhouse than McDonald’s. The chains have different standards.

To create an exceptional experience, you can implement communication standards that make people feel special. For example, when a client thanks you, rather than saying, “No problem,” personalize the response like this: “Mrs. Jones, I’m happy to help and appreciate the opportunity to care for Sophie.”

Think about points of contact when setting communication standards. Points of contact refer to repeatable client connections such as phone calls, greetings, exam room conversations and checkouts.

You also can improve the client experience by implementing operational standards that cater to what clients find valuable. An example is to always check out clients in the exam room at the end of their pet’s appointment.

PROTOCOLS

Unfortunately, too many of our service protocols were developed from the team and leadership perspective rather than the client’s. Consider who benefits from your protocols. For example, does the 24-hour requirement for clients to pick up prescriptions help the team or the pet owner? Brainstorm ways to improve your protocols. Because of the pandemic, practices that resisted exam room checkouts found that doing them increased efficiency and created a better experience.

TRAINING PROGRAMS

Yes, training programs are a system. What program is used to train your team to handle angry clients? What system is in place to help team members better communicate the value of your services? Client communication advice can be found in books and articles and delivered through webinars, workshops and lunch-and-learns.

3. Do You Have the Right People on Your Team?

When evaluating client complaints or service lapses, think about whether the problem was related to a system (a lack of standards, protocols or training), an honest mistake or disinterest. If a team member lacks empathy, no training or system will fix the problem. Employees who don’t genuinely care about clients or pets should be in another profession.

Meaningful change that results in a better client experience is unlikely to happen if you tackle too many plans at once.

Instead, focus on one of these three areas:

  • Defining the client experience.
  • Identifying systems that need improvement.
  • Planning communication skills training for the team.

Then, pick one action step and remind the team why improving the client experience is invaluable.

When pet owners trust the team and are bonded to the practice, compliance goes up and more 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” and serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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