Dr. Wendy Hauser is the founder of Peak Veterinary Consulting. She writes extensively and speaks frequently about hospital culture, communications, leadership, client relations and operations. She is a member of the AVMA Veterinary Economic Strategy Committee.Read Articles Written by Wendy Hauser
What is the value of a solid client-veterinary team bond? Dr. Melanie Marsden, the owner of Pikes Peak Veterinary Clinic in Colorado, believes that it’s essential for several reasons. “Bonded clients have a higher level of trust for our care recommendations, which means our patients receive better care and live longer, happier lives,” she said. “By building these relationships, we are living our core value of honoring the human-animal bond.”
Dr. Marsden also noted that making healthy connections with clients “is good for our well-being [because] knowing that you are part of a larger community is comforting and grounding.”
This article is the first in a three-part series on cultivating client trust, promoting the human-animal bond and alleviating client concerns. This issue’s Clinic Consult article is brought to you by Zoetis.
Studies have found that when veterinarians educate clients about pet care and how the recommendations enhance the animal’s health and well-being, the owners report:
- A stronger veterinarian-client bond.
- Greater loyalty to the veterinary hospital.
- Increased acceptance of care recommendations.
Strong bonds form when veterinary teams effectively partner with clients. The partnership is driven by the pet owners’ experiences in the clinic. Dr. Gary Marshall, the owner of Island Cats Veterinary Hospital on Mercer Island, Washington, said the more robust the bond, the harder it is to break.
“Hospitals have been going through a lot of turmoil recently,” Dr. Marshall said. “Clients without an established bond find it easier to search for a different hospital when the wait gets a little longer, the face or voice that greets them isn’t the same, and they can’t spend as much time discussing the visit with the team.”
Here are three ways to create positive client experiences.
Understanding why your clinic exists and communicating its purpose is foundational to building a healthy hospital culture. A hospital true to its purpose attracts and bonds clients who share the same values. For example, my hospital’s purpose was to practice excellent preventive care. Everything we did supported our primary goal of “keeping beloved pets healthy.” We attracted clients who shared the philosophy and adhered to our recommendations. By proactively identifying diseases, we could manage chronic conditions, resulting in fewer pets presenting in crisis and with end-stage diseases. My team experienced less moral distress and fewer client economic limitations.
When asked which factors are important to forming strong client bonds, Dr. Marsden responded, “It’s most important to be vulnerable and be real. My clients know that my ‘why’ is helping people by assisting the animals in their lives. By knowing that we share common values, my clients are highly bonded to my practice.
“We have to take the time to slow down and do some internal work at our hospitals to define our why and set our core values.”
Studies have found that some veterinary clients decline medical care because they don’t understand how the recommendation would help them and their pets. The most vital driver of the veterinarian-client bond is communication. In Dr. Marsden’s clinic, that starts with taking the time to talk with clients so that they feel seen and heard.
“We have to be on the journey of caring for the animal together,” he said. “This means clients’ feeling they have options that they understand and not feeling judged because of their decisions.”
How we communicate with clients matters. Dr. Adam Hechko, the owner of North Royalton Animal Hospital in Ohio and president of the American Animal Hospital Association, said veterinary teams should use phrases such as “partner in your pet’s health” and “Are you comfortable with the plan?” Doing that before any action is taken helps to build trust and comfort.
“This helps them feel more comfortable with their pet’s therapy and that they are taking an active role in decisions about their pet’s health,” Dr. Hechko said. “These phrases promote open dialogue that helps the owner feel comfortable asking questions.”
Communication is a continuous process that helps build, maintain and enhance client bonding. Therefore, learning to be an effective communicator is an ongoing process.
Confusion around medical recommendations can break team-client bonds. Clients should receive curated education material and advice. Guidelines should be established, and teams should be trained on preventive care education — how, when and who. Protocols should detail how physical exams are performed so that the patient has consistent visits regardless of who provides the service.
Another example of creating consistent experiences focuses on ease of communication.
“Easy can look different for different clients,” Dr. Marshall said. “One client may only want reminders as phone calls. Another may only want to communicate by text and make appointments via an online calendar.
“Asynchronous is important, too. Many clients just can’t communicate about follow-up, current symptoms or confirm future appointments while we are open. They will stop coming to a hospital if they can’t communicate in the way that works for them.”
So, ask clients about their preferred method of communication, and honor their wishes.