Fearless columnist Natalie L. Marks is an educator, consultant and practicing Chicago veterinarian. Dr. Marks is a leader within the Fear Free movement, was a member of the original Fear Free advisory board and is Fear Free Certified Elite. She passionately believes that all veterinarians should be committed to the physical and emotional health of their patients.Read Articles Written by Natalie Marks
I loved almost everything about veterinary practice ownership, but one constant work in progress was how to improve the client experience of calling our hospital. Despite our having many phone lines, on-hold times could be long because of unpredictable staff shortages and not enough training of team members on the soft skills needed during difficult conversations. What I failed to truly explore was how the calls stressed pet owners and our employees.
As our industry hits a critical point with mental health concerns, worker shortages and colleagues leaving the profession, let’s open our minds to disrupting our traditional mode of client communication and instantly lift the stress and the corners of our mouths again.
Millennials and Gen Zers, who make up today’s largest pet-owning population, are nicknamed the “post-phone call generation.” In fact, a 2022 study by BankMyCell found that 81% of millennials get anxious before making a call, and 75% will avoid phone calls entirely because they are seen as time-consuming, disruptive and even rude. So, if we want a veterinary practice where patients and team members are more relaxed, we can’t start the relationship by phone. While I don’t advocate accommodating every client ask, I always support technology and strategies that make communication more effective and efficient.
The technology I highly encourage is text messaging, which one survey showed the average consumer does 13 times a day. Besides sending text messages, Americans were reported in 2019 to check their phone 96 times a day, or once every 10 minutes. I strongly suspect the number escalated during the pandemic. While all our clients don’t fit into the millennial/Gen Z category, 95% of people own mobile phones.
Who’s Answering Your Phones?
As the veterinary employee turnover rate hovers around 23%, according to one report, a consistent exit message, especially from customer service members, is the barrage of difficult client conversations they have, which leads to compassion fatigue and burnout. These dissatisfied team members were often onboarded quickly and given little to no communication training.
The perpetual cycle I described might seem to have no easy solution, but let me instantly change the conversation. Practices can contract with virtual staffing companies to answer client calls and reduce the burden on the practice team. These veterinary professionals can triage calls after hours and even during the workday, leaving on-site team members less hassled, calmer and mentally recharged. Equally important, your team members become more productive, can focus on immediate patient and client needs, and feel more engaged in the practice.
Another great option for hospitals that aren’t ready for the investment in virtual staffing is Google Voice, a free internet service that establishes a second phone number for client calls, texts and voicemails. I made a mistake many years ago of giving clients my personal cellphone number.
Today, a more sensible option is Google Voice, which allows users to set a window of availability, send transcribed voicemails to email, and receive text messages on a primary phone and in an email inbox. It also provides a more reliable route of contact between referring veterinarians and specialists, avoiding the annoying game of phone tag.
The Phone Fix
Whether in a team meeting or at dinner with colleagues, we often mention the particular class of client that monopolizes and manipulates phone lines and team members’ time. When the client rambles on about a pet concern (usually minor), we get anxious and frustrated. Our default response is to offer a phone fix — try a treat for inappetence, fast a patient with diarrhea, monitor a pet’s vomiting, or administer an antihistamine or other over-the-counter choice to reduce itching. The call doesn’t convert into an appointment. It instead can leave the client unsatisfied, worried and in search of another solution, perhaps a visit to another practice.
I suggest saving the phone calls for specific situations:
- Medical emergencies.
- Clients who outwardly prefer phone communication (or vehemently oppose texting).
- Delivering bad news to clients who aren’t present.
- Discussing in-hospital diagnostics and treatment plans with associate veterinarians.
Text messaging works well when confirming appointments, giving patient updates, responding to prescription refill requests, receiving photo updates and relaying unusual circumstances at the hospital, such as a power outage or the need to close early.
We Can Do Better
Finally, consider what fills the happiness bucket of veterinarians, veterinary technicians and clients: healthy pets. A human medical study found that chronically ill patients took their medications more consistently at home when they received text message reminders. Why can’t we do the same in our industry? Many widely used practice management software companies offer customizable texting services. When we need to convey something important, timely and easily referenced, the text message triumphs in all categories.
According to a 2022 SMS Comparison study, 95% of all text messages are read and responded to within three minutes. That beats the tremendously inefficient communication string that goes like this:
- Leave a voicemail for a client.
- The client calls back without listening to the voicemail, but the associate veterinarian is busy with another exam.
- The associate sends an email that is read after hours.
- The client emails back after hours and complains when there’s no overnight response.
A more efficient mode of communication like texting, virtual staffing or Google Voice will help you take control of your day, free up wasted time, and provide critical information that can be reviewed and shared by clients and their family members.
Working in an industry where stress reduction is desperately desired, I encourage everyone to break old habits and celebrate small wins. There’s never been a better time than now.
DIGITAL DOES IT
Documenting a client’s preferred mode of communication is essential for efficiency in the practice and customization of the pet owner experience. For example, text messaging or email might permit a client to:
- Fill out a new-patient form before the first appointment.
- Access the client portal.
- Check in before an appointment.
- Answer a pre-visit questionnaire about a patient’s emotional health.
- Check out after a visit if the practice software accommodates the service.