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Columns, COVID-19, Leadership

Switching gears

COVID-19 forced veterinary practices to forgo clinic walk-ins and instead move to parking lot transfers. You can make such non-traditional interactions even better for the client.

Switching gears
Just because clients aren’t physically in front of you in the exam room does not mean we can’t educate them and enhance the value of the practice in their eyes.

If you had told me a few months ago that I would walk into a grocery store and see bare shelves, or that I would be required to stay home and wear a mask when I go outside, I would have said you were out of your mind. Yet, that is our new reality as I write this.

The situation has been surreal in so many ways and hard to believe, yet it is true. Many people caught the novel coronavirus and way too many succumbed to it.

First and most important, I hope everyone reading this is healthy and safe. The pandemic reminded us of something we all knew but sometimes forgot: The most important thing is our family and loved ones. Above all, I ask you to please stay safe and healthy.

Most veterinary practices suddenly switched to what I call concierge service. Clients provide their credit card number in advance, and when they arrive, they call so that a team member will walk to the car and retrieve the pet. The patient is returned to the client after the exam or service and the client is invoiced.

I experienced this method of service firsthand today. I brought my 96-pound yellow Lab, Oliver, to our veterinarian because of a lick granuloma that he won’t leave alone. I was outside the clinic for about an hour, sitting in my car and thinking about how we could make the concierge service a better experience. Just because we must do things differently doesn’t mean we can’t do them in a professional, quality manner and provide the client and pet with the best possible experience.

Here are five ideas.

1. Preparing the Client

I saw on Facebook a great client handout from VCA Animal Hospitals that reviewed the concierge process and told pet owners exactly what to expect during the visit. The handout would be very effective when sent to clients before an appointment. Many pet owners do not have a clue about what is going to happen when they come to your practice for a drop-off visit. Client service representatives would have an easier time because they could tell clients to look for an emailed handout.

You might consider placing a dry-erase board at the front of your practice and writing a welcome message, such as “All Pet Animal Hospital Welcomes,” and listing the client’s name, pet’s name and time of appointment. If you have a lot of scheduled clients, you could have numbered parking spaces in front of the hospital and assign each client a spot. Upon arrival, the client can either call the practice or a team member can be ready to go out to the car.

This person — let’s call her the greeter — must be friendly, professional and informed. She probably will be in a mask and wearing gloves and possibly in a gown. The appearance might seem a bit scary or off-putting to some clients, so the greeter might wear a photo name badge that shows her smiling face. The greeter needs to be especially friendly, know the names of the owner and pet, and understand why the animal was brought to the practice. We don’t want to gather any patient history at this point as this moment is just a friendly handoff.

2. The History and Exam

When the pet is inside the hospital, the technician or doctor can call the client to obtain any needed history or additional information. What I would like to see become common is practices allowing a client to watch the pet’s physical exam, ask questions and be involved remotely. This could be done by phone or Facetime, or you could set up a camera and microphone. The set-up doesn’t have to be fancy, but I would love for the client to see the comprehensive exam, ask questions and provide more information when asked.

3. The Exam Report Card

I have long been a fan of using an exam report card. This document reviews the comprehensive exam with the client and indicates normal and abnormal findings. Now more than ever, clients need to know that you have checked their pet from nose to tail. If we are going to provide value and education to the client, the doctor needs to complete an exam report card and either send it back with the pet at the end of the visit or email it to the client.

4. Educating and Providing Value

Just because clients aren’t physically in front of you in the exam room does not mean we can’t educate them and enhance the value of the practice in their eyes. Think about this: Clients are waiting in their cars. We all know what that can feel like and how perceived waiting time is exaggerated. Why not use the time wisely?

Most clients have a smartphone, so you might offer to send a link to a video that explains the importance of dental procedures and shows one being done on a patient. If the pet is going to be hospitalized, you could send a video link to a virtual tour of your practice and an explanation of the admission process. At a minimum, you could email handouts that would be relevant to the pet’s care and that hopefully could be read in the car.

5. Following Up

After the exam, the doctor needs to call the client if a live video was not used. The doctor should explain what was found on the exam and what, if anything, is recommend. If additional services are needed, the client should be offered a medical care plan that includes the additional costs. After all services are provided, a written report should be emailed to the client along with the exam report card. If the patient had a medical issue, the doctor or technician needs to call within a few days to ask how the pet is doing.

An Opportunity Awaits

I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of COVID-19. Lives will be lost and life as we know it will forever change, but we need to be prepared for post-COVID-19.

Many practices kept employees on the payroll through the Paycheck Protection Program, and some employees might be working from home. Now might be the perfect time to work on projects that you always wanted to do but for which you never had the time.

I sent my clients an eight-page email listing things to consider having their teams do during downtime or when working from home. Think about updating job descriptions (or creating them), updating or developing training programs, updating medical care plans, working on inventory control, or reviewing your reminder system. I know of some practices that took the opportunity to finally go paperless and convert to an electronic medical record system. You’re hearing everyone talking about telemedicine, which is part of the new normal, so maybe now is the time to get it set up in your practice.

For a copy of my ideas for keeping your team busy, email my office at [email protected].

What We Do Now Will Be Remembered

Exactly what the new normal will be, no one knows, but undoubtedly, how we respond now will affect our future. How we treat clients and employees now will have a lasting impact on our future.

I can attest to the truth of this based on my experience. One example is Ring Central, my company’s VoIP phone service provider, which emailed an offer to credit our April statement if we were experiencing financial difficulty. What amazed me was that I did not request the offer. United Airlines emailed its elite members to announce the extension of their loyalty status into 2021 because of COVID-19’s impact on travel. These are things I will remember once we are on the other side of COVID-19. How will your practice be perceived in the weeks or months ahead? Keep that thought in mind when you are dealing with clients and team members.

Again, be safe and take care of yourself. We will get through this as a community.

Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc.