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Columns, Leadership

Nurture the Bond

The pandemic upset client relationships, but you can still provide good customer service.

Nurture the Bond
Customer service and communication skills are more important now than ever before.

Connecting with clients is a crucial part of the bonding equation. We strive for lasting relationships between the veterinary team and clients and do whatever we can to build and maintain the bond. The goal has always been to dissuade clients from stopping at another practice in town as they drive to ours.

We achieve the bond by providing excellent medical care and exceptional client and patient service. The emergence of curbside care, however, has challenged our ability to maintain and strengthen the relationship. Today’s client experience isn’t like it was in the good old days, when pet owners walked into the practice and the customer service representative acknowledged clients immediately and greeted them and their pets by name. It was personalized.

Now, we ask clients to call when they arrive and tell us where they are parked and in which vehicle. Next, we tell them to hand their pet to us and stay in their car. While curbside care is a great convenience for clients picking up food or medication, it has changed the dynamic of the client-patient visit. We have lost the personal and familiar touch we worked so hard to deliver.

We’ve Come a Long Way

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been historic. Initially, we experienced a sharp decline in business and a fear of the unknown. We made dramatic changes so that we could continue to serve clients and their pets. Virtually all these changes led to fewer in-person interactions. We exercised caution and enacted social-distancing protocols.

Clients who were now home all day with their pets noticed lumps, bumps and limps. Business picked up and the phones started ringing continuously. We ramped up as best we could and quickly realized that curbside care and social distancing take more time than the traditional office call. Most practices were unable to handle the same patient volume as before. To address this, many clinics increased the number of drop-off appointments and further limited client interaction. The result was that patients got the care they needed and many clients did not. Pet owners felt the disconnect.

Unhappiness Sets In

We aren’t in the business of saying “no,” but we found ourselves saying it more often than usual. Clients who hadn’t visited in years and pet owners who called us because they couldn’t be seen by their regular veterinarian made demands that we couldn’t meet. Client loyalty became the determining factor when we scheduled those coveted appointment slots. Priority was given to clients in good standing — those who were clearly bonded to our practice.

Meanwhile, many practices were overwhelmed by the demand for veterinary services and couldn’t handle the workload. Wellness visits were considered secondary to more urgent cases. How many of us had to explain to a pet owner that a nail trim was not urgent? Clients were advised to call around to find a practice where their pets could be seen. The result was an increased number of unhappy clients from our practices and competing clinics who couldn’t get what they wanted when they wanted it. This perfect storm of client angst was directed at the veterinary team. Nothing says “disconnect” like angry clients.

On the bright side, we’ve all gotten very good at de-escalation, but it’s taken a toll on the team, leading to higher levels of burnout and job frustration.

Technicians Are the Stars

With safety precautions and new operating protocols in place, veterinary technicians have an enhanced responsibility for direct client interaction, and more so than ever. They are the ones running out to cars to bring patients into the hospital and in some cases escorting clients directly into exam rooms.

Customer service has always been a team responsibility, but the dynamic has shifted. While CSRs still schedule appointments and handle the initial check-ins and follow-ups, it’s primarily the technicians who deal with the clients face to face.  Customer service and communication skills are more important now than ever before, which adds responsibility and work to an already overwhelmed department. The entire veterinary team must share in this effort. Whether through direct contact, phone calls or other technology platforms, we can’t miss the opportunity to serve clients and address their needs.

Consider a Checklist

While good medical outcomes remain our No. 1 priority, we need to remember that there is more to the goal than that. Clients are looking for good outcomes but typically do not comprehend all the medical information we provide. What they do understand and what leaves a lasting impression is how they were treated before, during and after the visit. Clients understand good customer service.

I recommend that team members ask themselves:

  • Did we listen to the clients’ concerns?
  • Did we address their concerns?
  • Did we answer all their questions?
  • Did we show compassion to the clients and their pets?
  • Were we easy to do business with?

We always have opportunities to provide a good client experience, whether during a visit, phone call or prescription refill request. Even the saddest and most difficult of appointments, like euthanasia, can be a positive experience for the client if it’s handled appropriately and with a focus on the bullet points above.

Given all the changes we have navigated in recent months, one thing hasn’t changed: the bond that clients have with their pets. If we nurture that bond and treat our clients right, they’ll be our biggest advocates. That’s what client bonding and retention is all about.

Getting Technical columnist Sandy Walsh is a veterinary practice management consultant, speaker and adviser. She is an instructor for Patterson Veterinary Management University and continues to work in a small animal practice. She has over 35 years of experience in the veterinary field and brings her in-the-trenches experience directly to readers.


7 SIMPLE TIPS

When interacting with a client, remember to:

  • Greet the client and pet by name.
  • Introduce yourself by name and title or position. Clients want to know with whom they are interacting, especially if most of the communication is by phone. Clients might have difficulty recognizing a familiar face when we wear a mask, so nametags are important as well.
  • Set expectations. Clients should know what will happen when they arrive, especially if they cannot be present during the exam. Give them all the instructions needed for check-ins, payments and procedures. Don’t permit any surprises.
  • Get as much information as possible in advance of the visit. Doing this will save time upon arrival and streamline the visit. This includes contact information, the reason for the visit, the services requested and any prescription refill needs.
  • Communicate throughout the visit. Let the client know what, when and how to expect something. Embrace communication technology.
  • Enhance the callback system. Contact every client the day after a visit to check on the patient, to make sure medications are being given and to answer any questions.
  • Continue to engage in social media. Now more than ever, it’s a great way to keep clients connected to what’s going on within your practice.

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