Columns , Communication

Communicate value

Confident financial conversations are a team effort and serve to prioritize the pet.

Communicate value
The role of veterinary care providers is to focus first and foremost on the value of care.

Ten years ago, I gave a conference presentation on the still-relevant topic “Talking to Clients About Treatment Plans and Fees.” The catalyst for this article is what I’ve witnessed recently while working with several excellent practice teams: a focus on giving options to clients and saving money rather than concentrating on patient advocacy and the value of services or products.

Let’s look at what team members said and four examples of how to improve financial conversations.

1. On a mystery-shopper call, I asked whether my dog needed to be on heartworm preventive. The client service representative responded, “Yes, but it’s only a recommendation. You don’t have to. It’s up to you.”

Rather than making assumptions about what the pet owner can afford, simply answer their question by communicating value. Here’s a better response: “Yes, we do recommend year-round heartworm prevention. Heartworm disease is transmitted by mosquitoes and can be quite serious. When you come in, our doctors will recommend which preventive product is best for Bella.”

2. A veterinary nurse presented a treatment plan that she referred to as an “estimate.” When the pet owner asked whether all the tests needed to be done, the nurse responded, “Doctor wouldn’t have put it on there if he didn’t think it was important. But I can go find out your options.”

Avoid using the word “estimate,” which focuses on money. Instead, say “treatment plan” or “preventive care plan,” which focus on medical care. While it might be true that doctors recommend lab work and radiographs because they’re both important, the specific value of the services might fail to be conveyed to the client.

Here’s a more confident response: “That’s a good question, Mrs. Smith. The laboratory testing is to assess Bailey’s internal organ function. Dr. Taylor wants to evaluate his liver, kidney and pancreas function as well as his blood cell counts. The X-rays are to look for evidence of an obstruction or other abnormalities in his abdomen. These tests give Dr. Taylor different information. Together they will help determine what is causing Bailey’s vomiting and the best course of treatment.”

3. A veterinarian examined a kitten that was weeks overdue for a second set of vaccines. The final set was now due. She told the owner, “We could do just one vaccination, or to be on the safe side do a vaccine today and boost it again in three weeks. It’s up to you.”

In this scenario, the veterinarian needed to focus on patient advocacy and make a clear recommendation. Here’s an example: “Since Lily missed her second set of vaccinations, we still need to do another booster three weeks from today. We want to ensure she is adequately protected against serious infectious diseases that kittens are susceptible to.”

4. A retired couple brought in their beloved Bichon Frise for a preventive care exam. The clients expressed some concern about finances. The veterinarian and nurse gave multiple options for heartworm and flea prevention. The couple were clearly confused by all the recommendations and product names. They left without purchasing any products.

When clients are given too many options, they can easily become confused and assume they should just shop for the cheapest product online.

Here’s a better approach: “Keeping Sophie on monthly heartworm prevention is extremely important. Heartworm disease can be costly to treat but more importantly can cause serious organ impairment and be life-threatening. We also recommend flea and tick protection for Sophie since these external parasites can cause skin allergies and other diseases. We recommend [state the brand names] because these products are safe and effective. Let’s review the cost and make sure this preventive plan works for you. How does that sound?”

The reason teams fail to have confident conversations about money and the value of services usually is due to a lack of training. Using an organized training program, practices can help team members become proficient in client communications so that they have better financial conversations like the examples above. Here are components of an effective training program.

Focus on Patient Advocacy, Not Price

The role of veterinary care providers is to focus first and foremost on the value of care. Team members sometimes are unwittingly their worst enemy when making recommendations because the staff is concerned about whether the client will say “yes.” As a result, client conversations end up focused on money rather than on patient care. To avoid this pitfall, educate the team to follow these guidelines:

  • Make clear recommendations based on patient advocacy, not the cost of care. Clients appreciate options but depend on the veterinarian to advise them on the level of care that is best for the pet.
  • Don’t make assumptions about pet owners’ ability or willingness to pay. Don’t assume they need cheaper options. Instead, ask open-ended questions after making recommendations and presenting treatment plans. You can say, “Tell me what questions you have about Scooter’s illness” or “What questions do you have about Jake’s treatment plan?”

Establish Clear Policies

All team members need to understand the hospital’s financial policies and payment plans. They should know specific features of payment options, including how to set up the plans.

In addition, make sure team members know when to present payment options. I believe in the “early and often” philosophy, which is based on the idea of ensuring clients know they have payment solutions beyond cash and credit cards. It’s appropriate to say, “Mrs. Jones, we accept all major credit cards and we have several other payment plans. Would you like me to review those with you?”

Get the Words Right

For team members to speak with confidence and authenticity, it’s imperative to give them an opportunity to practice what they would say to a client. Yes, this is role-playing, which most people don’t like, so call it “skills training.”

Effective training sessions include putting people in pairs or small groups to practice asking open-ended questions and what to say to communicate the value of services. Many practices have employees read sample scripts as a reference point. Then, during training, they practice using their own words.

Set Up a Shadow and Mentor Program

Everyone on the team needs to accurately educate clients about the value of services and speak with confidence when presenting treatment plans. To achieve this goal, follow a three-step process:

  • Inexperienced or new employees shadow a trained employee several times when they present treatment plans. Then, briefly discuss the communication. Ask the trainee what went well, whether they noticed any challenges and whether they have questions.
  • Next, the trainee on multiple occasions presents a treatment plan as a trained co-worker is present to provide guidance and coaching. (Yes, doing this in front of clients is fine.) Additional coaching might be appropriate outside the exam room.
  • Then, empower the team member to present treatment plans on her own, but continue to have short standing meetings for a period to review successes and discuss any challenges. Another way to provide ongoing coaching is to periodically videotape client interactions and incorporate the review of these conversations into the training program.

Take action now so that everyone on your team can have confident financial conversations. Remember that words matter. Team members who use the right words build client trust and help 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. Protection Status