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Columns, Communication, COVID-19

Be a guiding light

Communicating resilience, hope, compassion and empathy during a crisis builds strong bonds between a veterinary hospital and its employees and clients.

Be a guiding light
Leaders can’t communicate too much during times of crisis.

Ten days after 9/11, I watched “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” a television special featuring many celebrities. Bruce Springsteen gave a moving performance of “My City of Ruins.” The following year, he released his album “The Rising,” which was based in large part on his reflections of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. I like the title track song “The Rising” and listened to it after my mom passed. While the song is about sadness and grief, it also evokes feelings of hope. When I listen to it, I feel like everything is going to be OK and that I have the strength and confidence to get through tough times.

Veterinary practice leaders should be able to confidently guide their teams and clients through difficult periods like the COVID-19 crisis and demonstrate that resilience and hope can exist alongside sadness. That’s why communication is so important.

Team Communication

First and foremost, employee communication needs to be transparent and positive. Open lines of communication are critical due to the fear and anxiety that people experience. Being honest and kind helps build trust with the team. You can tell everyone that you don’t have all the answers but that you will strive to assist them and keep them informed.

Here are four recommendations.

1. Stay connected and show compassion.

One of the best communication strategies during times of crisis is to create a safe environment in which everyone can express feelings. Leaders can be role models by being open about their own feelings and by routinely asking employees how they’re doing. An ideal forum for sharing feelings is during daily standing meetings. A whiteboard or poster board can be used to give team members an outlet to draw pictures or write phrases about how they are feeling during the week.

Now more than ever, practice leaders need to communicate how much they care about their teams. Pay attention to what people need by being fully present.

A few ideas are:

  • Write uplifting notes to team members.
  • Set up virtual town halls and group chats to help everyone feel connected.
  • Hand out gift cards from a takeout restaurant or grocery store.
  • Use Slack or another app to send regular positive feedback.
  • Send a meal to someone who is juggling job and family responsibilities.
  • Remind your team of available resources, such as an employee assistance program (EAP) or community well-being support.
  • Remember the power of laughter and music. Habitually play uplifting or fun music at least once daily. Share the latest song parodies and funny Facebook messages about the COVID-19 crisis.

2. Focus on core values.

Remind everyone how their actions support the hospital’s mission (your “why”) and core values and that veterinary clinics are essential businesses because they take care of patients and support the human-animal bond. Be sure to celebrate the invaluable service the team provides to pet owners and convey how proud you are of their commitment. Think of ending each day with a quick standing meeting where the team shares three to five positive aspects of their day.

3. Communicate your plan, even if it changes daily or weekly.

Leaders can’t communicate too much during times of crisis. Sharing daily or weekly updates about hospital plans is critical to the team. These give employees a greater sense of certainty about their work environment and future. Even though circumstances might change, conveying relevant, factual information and timelines hopefully will dispel speculation and rumors. Regular communication also enhances employee engagement and reduces fear.

4. Consistently remind the team that the crisis is temporary.

Leaders need to stay calm and be optimistic about the future. Let employees know that you have a short-term plan for responding to the crisis but haven’t abandoned long-term plans for the business. For example, hospital goals related to client compliance haven’t changed. Team members still need to make appropriate recommendations regarding preventive care and treatment even if the procedures won’t be scheduled immediately.

Client Communication

Some pet owners might be fearful, anxious, frustrated, fatigued or sad about the crisis. Moreover, depending on how badly your community was affected, pessimism and compassion fatigue might be a problem for the veterinary team. Now is when practice leaders need to focus on being positive role models and help employees with client communication. Specifically, employees need to be trained to use specific skills to convey compassion and reassure clients.

Here are four takeaways.

1. Excellent phone skills are a must.

I had a telemedicine call with a dermatologist I’d never met. All non-urgent appointments had been canceled, but since I had a concern, a “telederm” call was arranged. The doctor was efficient and put my mind at ease. However, I was struck by how rushed I felt during the call, which lasted only a few minutes. To be fair, the call occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, so I understood that she likely had many patients to call and was dealing with the same problems as the rest of us. Still, the experience reminded me of the value of everyone on the team having excellent phone skills.

Phone and video calls are the norms with curbside service and telemedicine, so consider these best practices:

  • Use friendly greetings at the beginning of the call. One example is, “Hi, Mrs. Smith. I’m Dr. Taylor. I wish I was seeing you in the exam room, but I’m happy to talk to you.” Another is, “Hi, Mrs. Smith. I’m Jill and I’ll be taking your payment information now. Did Dr. Taylor answer all your questions?”
  • Engage pet owners with questions. This shows interest and helps clients feel better connected to the team. You could ask, “How does Chloe like having you home all day?” or “How’s the home schooling going?”
  • Use a positive closing statement such as “I’m glad we were able to help Sophie today. Stay safe, and I look forward to seeing you in person in three months.”

2. Show optimism and empathy.

Often during times of crisis, people lose patience and act ugly toward others. One of the biggest reasons is the loss of control. People might have lost jobs and limited their social activities. They might be dealing with restrictions on travel and shopping. Understandably, stress levels are high and clients might take out their frustrations on the veterinary team, especially if they don’t like a new protocol.

One communication skill that team members can use when interacting with clients who are emotional, demanding or unhappy is to convey empathy. Remember that anger is usually a secondary emotion. The team member can respond, “I know this is a frustrating situation, and I’m experiencing similar feelings these days. Our focus and concerns are on the safety of our team, you and all our clients.” One of the secrets to conveying empathy is to be fully present, so be sure to make eye contact during face-to-face interactions and be mindful not to rush the statements.

The second communication skill is to use optimistic, reassuring phrases. The goal is to help clients achieve peace of mind. People might spend more time with their pets during a crisis and be more preoccupied with the animal’s health. Assure them that your team is ready to help and provide all necessary care. Remind clients that the situation is temporary and will get better. Try to shift the focus from the owner’s frustration to the human-animal bond. The team can say, “Mrs. Smith, these protocols are temporary. We’re going to get through this together. We’re here for you and Bella now and in the future.”

3. Focus on value.

Pet owners might be paying the same office call fee for an exam they can’t see and for a phone call instead of an in-person meeting. Communicating details about the physical exam and treatments is critical. Whenever clients aren’t present, doctors need to convey every aspect of the pet’s care during a follow-up call. Team members need to use open-ended questions on phone or video calls just as they would during an in-person appointment. This skill elicits relevant information about the pet, builds trust and makes clients feel part of the process.

4. Forward-book.

Your veterinary practice might have postponed non-urgent procedures, and clients might have canceled appointments. Pets still need recommended care, so be sure to know which appointments can be rebooked when normal operations resume. With delayed surgical and treatment plans, tell clients that you will call to reschedule when the time is right.

The veterinary profession is strong. We always rise to the challenge and support each other, our patients, our clients and our community.

Through our efforts, we will 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.