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Goodbye fear, hello referrals

Educating clients about stress-free approaches and responding properly when pet owners become anxious themselves can lead to a healthier practice.

Goodbye fear, hello referrals
When a cat or dog shows signs of anxiety or fear, the owner might demonstrate myriad emotions herself — from shame, embarrassment or confusion to nervousness, anxiety or even fear.
Our industry has become incredibly competitive. In Chicago, it seems that every major neighborhood has a few veterinary hospitals. Meanwhile, corporate medicine is growing, low-cost conglomerates are diving into the field, and more clients are buying from online merchants like Chewy.com and 1-800-PetMeds. Not only has all this created financial stress for independent practice owners, it has unfortunately added to the ever-declining emotional wellness of colleagues and team members. In these challenging times, what is increasingly important is the need to find ways to better your practice, better your medicine, better your work culture and better yourself. All this can be achieved by acknowledging the emotional health of your patients and empowering your team to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in both the pet and the client. This bonding opportunity will help generate the best kind of business: word-of-mouth referrals. New-client referrals, while invaluable, do not always come easy. One key to success we found is to have clients become part of the team, both in the hospital and at home. This means they are part of the exam process, they are active in the decision-making, and they utilize behavioral and supplemental strategies at home to reinforce what was taught in the hospital. Here are three key points.

1. Clients Need to See, Hear or Read Something Seven Times for It to Stick

This does not mean I sound like a broken record when I educate a client about a pet’s emotional well-being. However, I know that for my clients to trust and embrace strategies for the low-stress handling of a pet, I must find different ways to discuss and reinforce the techniques in our short time together. Here’s what my hospital does:
  • The client service representative sends a pre-visit questionnaire to ask about previous anxious episodes involving a veterinary clinic.
  • If the client reported a stressful past, another team member calls to discuss the issue and might suggest pre-visit pharmaceuticals.
  • The client service rep has an Adaptil bandana or a Feliway-impregnated towel waiting for the patient upon arrival. The client is told why this is important.
  • The client is greeted by a veterinary assistant who introduces the exam, offers high-reward treats and performs low-stress handling.
  • A slideshow about low-stress strategies plays in the exam room while the client waits for the veterinarian.
  • The veterinarian tells the client how to reduce an animal’s fear, anxiety and stress during the exam.
  • The patient is sent home with an additional pheromone or a pre-visit pharmaceutical.
While the client may not remember every aspect, the impression is made, the differences are clear and almost every post-visit survey reveals how much better the experience was for both the pet and owner.

2. They Want Convenience, So Provide It

One thing we know to be true about extremely successful companies like Amazon and Apple is that convenience and one-stop shopping is a key factor in a consumer’s spending choices. While the scale is not comparable in veterinary medicine, the business model can be, and this holds true as we educate clients about reducing fear, anxiety and stress in their pets. We help do this by placing many of our accessories and other tools in the exam room. If, for instance, I’m talking about the benefits of an Adaptil collar during a puppy’s first month at home, I can instantly show the product and apply it in front of the client. This creates value, reinforces the education, allows convenience and keeps product sales in the hospital. If a patient with car ride anxiety could benefit from a ThunderShirt, I fit one in the exam room and ask the client to comment on its success after she gets home. If a cat owner is reluctant to try Feliway, I show the benefits of having a diffuser in the exam room and what an impregnated towel can do during the exam. I send home complimentary wipes for use in the carrier at the next visit. If a cat responded favorably to catnip, many clients will purchase it. There are many other examples of products that can be kept in the exam room, either in or out of sight, and brought out during a discussion. Much of our clientele today consists of working or stay-at-home moms, so giving them the opportunity to select as many solutions as possible in one place is truly life-changing.

3. Don’t Forget That Every Cat Carrier or Leash Is Attached to a Human

If you polled veterinarians about why they entered the field, the majority would point to their love of animals. However, in order to be successful in general private practice, a veterinarian needs to like, respect and build relationships with people. This requires the ability to interpret body language, listen reflectively, demonstrate empathy, and be flexible and creative. When a cat or dog shows signs of anxiety or fear, the owner might demonstrate myriad emotions herself — from shame, embarrassment or confusion to nervousness, anxiety or even fear. If we choose not to acknowledge both the patient and client, we lose the team approach and will not be as successful in creating an outstanding experience. If a pet owner’s body language communicates one or more of the emotions above, take a minute to regroup. Does the client need a break? A drink of water? Would the client prefer to wait in the lobby? Does the client have a pressing question? If a patient’s fear, anxiety or stress starts to escalate, I check to see if the owner’s anxiety is rising, too. An anxious client might have a hard time remembering a recommendation or thinking objectively when making a decision. Now is a good time to pause and discuss the situation. This approach allows the client to ask questions, understand why the exam strategy has changed and learn about the new plan. At this point, I reassure the pet owner that fear, anxiety and stress is multifactorial, common and not the client’s fault. The body language of many clients will instantly change, and they will become more engaged and relaxed. This rebuilds rapport and the team approach. A veterinarian who acknowledges how patient anxiety can affect a client will gain the owner’s trust. This small step can lead to new clients who desire the same type of “family” treatment. Fearless columnist Dr. Natalie Marks is co-owner of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago. She is Fear Free certified.