Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She combines her practice experience and business expertise to help veterinarians communicate better with their teams and clients. She is the author of “Leading and Managing Veterinary Teams: The Definitive Guide to Veterinary Practice Management.” Learn more at amandadonnellydvm.comRead Articles Written by Amanda Donnelly
When pet owners visit a veterinary practice, their first and last interactions are typically with the front office team. Consequently, client service representatives (CSRs) need to be well-trained to create positive impressions. A pet owner’s service experience is a major factor in determining how bonded she is to the practice and how likely she is to refer others.
Although most CSRs inherently know or have been told to be friendly, they often aren’t trained on how to use specific communication skills to enhance client engagement. Client engagement is about making an authentic connection with people. It’s about showing you care about the client and the bond they share with their pet. When high levels of engagement are present, client loyalty increases because pet owners can’t imagine going somewhere else — a hospital where the service might not be as exceptional.
Here are three important interactions in which CSRs can connect with pet owners and build client loyalty:
1. Saying Hello
You have only one chance to make a positive first impression. In a veterinary practice, a good first impression should convey professionalism and compassion. Engage clients in these four ways:
Use a Friendly, Tailored Greeting
When clients walk in, the practice atmosphere needs to convey, “We’re glad you’re here.” For this to happen, team members need to make eye contact, smile and use a tailored greeting. Here are examples of what to say:
- “Hi, Mrs. Smith. It’s so great to see you and Violet again.”
- “Hello. Is this Jake here for his annual preventive care exam?”
- “Good morning, Mr. Jones. I’m sorry to hear that Sophie isn’t feeling well.”
Make Engaging Comments
This skill works well even when team members are extremely busy. Examples of engaging comments include “Congratulations on your new family member” or “It’s so great to meet you and Jake. I just love black Labs.”
Compliments are another excellent way to connect with clients. CSRs might say, “Chloe is so beautiful. I love her markings” or “Mrs. Smith, that is a lovely scarf. The color looks great on you.” For this skill to be most effective, team members need to remember two essential elements. First, the comment must be genuine. People can spot flattery that is insincere. The second is to make eye contact. Engaging comments lose their power if a CSR is looking at the computer while speaking or is otherwise distracted.
Ask Engaging Questions
Engagement increases if the questions are inquisitive and demonstrate a genuine desire to find out more about the client or pet. This skill may come naturally to a CSR who knows a particular client. The CSR might ask pet owners about their families or jobs.
The skill is more difficult when a CSR encounters a new client or a pet owner who visits only once or twice a year. In these situations, a prepared team might use the following questions to connect with clients:
- “Why did you name your cat Peppermint?”
- “Tell me how you found out about our practice.”
- “Are you ready for Santa to visit?” (Don’t forget to acknowledge children and adults.)
Convey Empathy and Understanding
Clients may experience anxiety, sadness or frustration while at the practice. Their emotions may not be related to the reason for the visit.
Unfortunately, one of the most common responses of a CSR when faced with an upset client is silence because the team member is unsure what to say. CSRs trained to respond with kind and reassuring words can create lasting impressions.
The best way to develop this skill is to facilitate a team meeting and discuss common scenarios. For example, a client comes in who is clearly exhausted after being up all night with a sick pet. A trained CSR might say, “Wow, so Charlie kept you up all night. I can see how tired you are. That must have been so frustrating.” Remember that making eye contact is an essential component of this skill.
2. Being Client-Focused
Conveying a desire to help tells the client that the team wants to do whatever it can to make the visit easy, efficient and enjoyable. Talk with your team about being client-focused rather than task-oriented. CSRs who focus on building relationships, rather than just completing transactions, will enhance client engagement and build loyalty.
Helping should go beyond just saying, “We’ll get you in an exam room as soon as possible.” Because clients expect such cordial statements, the comments don’t bond a pet owner to a practice. On the other hand, CSRs who say or do something unexpected will impress clients. For example, rather than asking, “Do you need help carrying everything?” — or worse yet, not offering to help — a client-focused CSR will come from behind the desk while carrying the client’s products and say, “Let me help you out to your car.”
One of the most critical times for conveying a desire to help occurs during service recovery — the process of trying to return customers to a state of satisfaction when a service hasn’t met their expectations. CSRs need to be trained to use specific communication skills to let a client know they’re eager to help. Ideally, the process involves these:
An apology or expression of empathy such as “I’m sorry to hear this happened.”
Validating the client’s position with a response such as “I understand you’re upset. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
Informing the client of the specific action that will be taken to assist. Following through and keeping the client informed is paramount.
3. Saying Goodbye
While nothing is wrong with the goodbye phrase “Have a nice day,” it doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Saying goodbye to clients in a more meaningful way can build loyalty. Here is what you can do:
Use a Tailored Closing Statement
When saying goodbye, use the client’s name and the pet’s name. In addition, offer reassuring phrases or engaging comments when appropriate. Here are examples:
- “Mr. Jones, thank you so much for bringing Sophie in today. We love seeing you and having the opportunity to care for your beloved little girl.”
- “Mrs. Smith, it was wonderful to see you and Violet today. Tell your husband we said hello, and have fun at the movies.”
- “Mrs. Taylor, I know Chloe is going to feel much better now after getting her teeth cleaned. Please call us immediately if you have any concerns about how she is doing. Chloe’s nurse, Jill, will call tomorrow to check on her.”
Reinforce the Team’s Trusted Adviser Role
Pet owners have many choices for veterinary care and products. It’s important to remind them that your veterinary team is their No. 1 trusted adviser. You can reinforce the value of veterinary visits by forward-booking the next appointment. In addition, convey to the client that the team is always available to answer questions and provide education on all health care topics.