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Columns, Leadership

Fix the disconnect

Bad communication will stunt a veterinary practice’s growth. Staff meetings and active listening can ease tensions and create a more productive workplace.

Fix the disconnect
A big part of effective communication comes down to actively listening to what the other person has to say rather than spending time formulating what you’re going to say next.

When you look back at your former teachers, you realize that some people make learning more engaging and communicate concepts better than others. They all might have the same degree of knowledge, but not everyone possesses the communication skills needed to effectively share that knowledge. In the same vein, someone can be incredibly knowledgeable in a workplace setting and have transformative ideas, but the information must be effectively communicated. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

What Poor Communication Does

Communicating clearly to employees is especially important. When mixed messages are given at a veterinary practice, team members feel more stressed, which can affect how they react to one another and how they treat clients. Employees can carry frustrations home with them. If this is happening at your practice, it’s not a good sign for your clinic’s growth and overall success.

Imagine this situation: Veterinary technicians Wendy and Bill have set work schedules during the week. Wendy comes in from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Bill from 1 p.m. until 8 p.m. On Tuesday, Wendy writes on the posted schedule that she will switch hours with Bill that Friday as she has a doctor’s appointment in the morning. She does not communicate this to Bill or anyone else.

When Friday rolls around, the first client has checked in, but there is no technician to prep the room or initiate the exam. The office manager tries to call Wendy to see what is going on, but Wendy doesn’t answer. The day starts in chaos. The doctor isn’t happy, the client isn’t happy, and the receptionist is on the receiving end of the client’s anger.

When someone communicates poorly at work, goals aren’t achieved effectively or in a timely way. At the end of the day, the clients suffer. Additionally, employees might have to pick up the slack, leading to rushed jobs and mistakes. In a business dedicated to the care and well-being of pets, serious consequences can occur.

In this type of environment, employees might feel insecure about their jobs and feel they never have a moment to breathe, which can lead them to seek another job. A lack of communication or poor communication can increase turnover at a practice, which brings with it all the costs associated with recruiting and training new employees. This slows office productivity, which affects the remaining employees and, most importantly, the clients.

Too Many Hard Feelings

In the scenario above, Wendy’s co-workers find themselves in the middle of a situation they did not create, causing tension. Many of them are mad at Wendy for not showing up and for making them have to work twice as hard to get everything done. Some are angry with management because they think a few employees are treated differently and “allowed to get away with it.”

A simple lack of communication has left the practice divided. This, in turn, directly affects how the client sees your practice. A staff full of bad attitudes and running around at 100 mph? This doesn’t ease the mind of clients who are putting their pets into a staff’s hands.

If you find an increasing number of dissatisfied clients, the reason could be poor communication among employees. The reality is that when the level of communication is substandard, simply maintaining the status quo can be challenging and achieving growth can be difficult.

When you think about communication skills, consider everyone who plays a role in the practice — veterinarians, managers, technicians, receptionists and office staff.

Blaming Wendy, who should have spoken with Bill about switching shifts, would be easy. But could the blame also be assigned to the practice for not having a better communication system?

Here are four ways to improve communication within your practice:

1. Hold Staff Meetings

Getting everyone together to determine how to stop the cycle of bad communication is imperative. One employee might not see the issues the same way as another. Similarly, employees might not communicate in the same way. Holding an open discussion to agree on effective communication within a practice is the first step.

2. Use an Open-Floor Format

During team meetings, make the environment as welcoming as possible. Start with an open-ended question like “How can we communicate more effectively” or “What can we do differently?” Give examples of how you, as a practice manager, can communicate better. This will break the ice and show vulnerability, helping employees to feel they are in a safe place where concerns can be raised freely. Try to prevent employees from blaming one another, as listening shuts down as soon as tension rises.

3. Listen, Listen, Listen

A big part of effective communication comes down to actively listening to what the other person has to say rather than spending time formulating what you’re going to say next. Even worse is when you interrupt the speaker. In today’s world, when people are rewarded for taking action, spending time listening might feel like a passive activity, but it’s necessary for quality communication.

4. Implement Changes

After each meeting, determine what you’ve learned about your practice’s communication strengths and weaknesses, and figure out the opportunities. Then, plan for more effective communication. What can be fixed relatively easily? What improvements will create the most positive momentum? What can have financial benefits? Make the changes steadily, and review the progress regularly.

Let’s say the practice employing Wendy and Bill decides that all shift change requests are subject to the approval of the practice manager. Is the communication done through text, email or in person? Does a request form needs to be signed by all parties, including the manager?

The next step is to hold all employees to the same standard. There should be no exceptions to the rule so that other employees do not feel slighted or think “so-and-so” is being favorited and doesn’t have to follow protocol.

Whether a doctor, technician or receptionist is involved, everyone would have to fill out the shift change request. This will eliminate any tension caused by schedule changes and keep the practice running smoothly.

Good communication is necessary for running a successful practice. Although looking inward at a problem can be difficult, identifying the key issues is the first step. Then, decide as a team what can be done to modify any issues and follow through. Changes might take a while to be implemented, but that’s OK. As has been said many times, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

H.R. Huddle columnist Dr. Charlotte Lacroix is founder and CEO of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. She serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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