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Happy visit, happy business

Client-led, no-charge tours familiarize anxious pets with the hospital environment. Don’t forget the treats.

Happy visit, happy business
Happy Visits should happen at slower times of the day to avoid crowding in the lobby and exam room or near the weight scale.
Most consumers express increased satisfaction when they hear the magic word “free,” whether it’s a complimentary upgrade on an airplane flight or a no-cost vanilla latte at Starbucks. Business owners, however, often struggle to find value in giving away a product or service. Allow me to introduce you to the Happy Visit, a free service for pet owners that generates long-term relationships and revenue. This complimentary experience, albeit not technically with a team member, garners tremendous goodwill. By creating positive associations for the patient, it can bond a client to the hospital. As each visit desensitizes the patient to the sights, sounds and smells of the hospital, the client becomes more willing to make appointments. How do you implement Happy Visits? First, the hospital team must prepare the client for success. Clients should understand that the most successful visit happens when their pet is hungry, which makes high-reward treats given at the clinic even more desirable. If the pet is a picky eater or prefers something from home, encourage the client to bring a large supply of favorite treats. If the pet isn’t food responsive, recommend that the owner bring a favorite toy or bed. These visits should happen at slower times of the day to avoid crowding in the lobby and exam room or near the weight scale. Explain to clients that much of this Happy Visit is self-guided and designed to create a positive emotional experience for both themselves and the pet. While a team member might be available for questions, the entire visit, from the initial phone call to the in-hospital experience, should be positive and without judgment. The team should not use trigger words that label a patient negatively, like “fractious,” “mean” or “unruly.”

Step by Step

Here’s one example of how it works:
  • The client arrives in the parking lot and immediately starts to give high-reward treats the size of a pinky fingernail as the pet is brought into the hospital.
  • The client continues treating and vocally praising as they enter the lobby and sit down.
  • The client and pet walk around the lobby, down the hallway, and past the scale and other communal spaces, stopping for treats and praise. I call these treat parties.
  • The client weighs the pet using the same treating system.
  • If time allows, the process can be repeated with a team member giving treats and praise, building a positive association.
While I would love to say a Happy Visit relaxes every anxious or fearful patient, we know some patients require more intervention and structure for a visit. These patients include those who struggle to come to the hospital, who needed significant restraint during a past exam or diagnostic test, and who had traumatic experiences at another clinic. Patients showing such high levels of fear or anxiety should be scheduled for the level above Happy Visit — the Victory Visit.

The Next Stage

While the goal of a Happy Visit is to make the association of the veterinary team and hospital routine and calm, a Victory Visit is intended to prepare patients for more specific interactions, like physical exams and procedures such as blood draws and nail trims. Victory Visits are much more focused and always led by a trained team member. This type of visit is perfect for the client who desires minimal restraint and is committed to having the pet play a greater role in medical care. In contrast to the Happy Visit, the Victory Visit is a charged visit to account for the scheduled appointment and team member contribution. Here’s an example of a Victory Visit agenda for a patient that struggled with ear infections and now won’t allow otoscopy during an exam:
  • Encouragement and treats entice the patient to enter the exam room.
  • The patient is shown the otoscope while receiving high-reward treats.
  • After several visual associations, and if the patient is not showing any body language associated with anxiety or fear, the team member picks up the otoscope and touches a non-stressed part of the animal’s body, such as the shoulder. This is done using high-reward treats.
  • If at any point the patient shows anxiety or stress, the team member steps back and stays there for the remainder of the appointment.
Victory Visits are typically scheduled weekly, and as in the example, work toward allowing the otoscope to be used appropriately by a team member in the ear canal as positive praise and high-reward treats are given. This strategy might take several visits or even several months, but very committed pet owners find tremendous value in the service. The same principles can be applied to any aspect of the physical exam or general diagnostics that the patient finds stressful. Don’t hesitate to incorporate previsit medications that help reduce anxiety and stress. Not only does this relax the patient and allow the learning of new behaviors, but it also relaxes the pet owner. Happy Visits and Victory Visits require training team members, reassessing appointment scheduling and helping clients to prepare for success. Once implemented, the visits can be standout services in your community and a tremendous value to clients, creating patients who are more cooperative and relaxed during appointments. With these visits, we move one step closer to our ultimate goal of practicing best medicine and having happy patients and clients. Fearless columnist Dr. Natalie Marks is co-owner of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago. She is Fear Free certified.