Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” Learn more at drernieward.com
If you have a question about practice life, personal well-being, leadership or veterinary careers, email firstname.lastname@example.orgRead Articles Written by Ernie Ward
Q: We’re down a veterinarian and have closed some afternoons to give our associate doctor a break. When we closed, some staff members complained about their reduced pay. How should I handle the situation?
A: I faced a similar dilemma as a solo veterinarian in the early 1990s. Sometimes, I needed to leave the practice, and we struggled to find a solution that suited everyone. I wanted the practice to remain open for clients needing to pick up meds or food, and for my team to answer phone calls, care for pets, and perform cleaning and maintenance. Over the years, we found that the following tactics worked best.
Start by determining how many employees you can let off, and then ask for volunteers. They can use PTO or unpaid leave. It’s their choice.
Anyone choosing to remain at work needed to understand the expectations. We left written instructions on what and how to deep-clean, the projects requiring attention, the overdue client calls, and other duties that needed to be done. The more detailed our expectations, the more success we achieved.
We also ensured that staying at work didn’t feel like punishment. We asked team members for suggestions on tasks or projects they’d like to do. We allowed them to organize their time, and we often provided lunch or special snacks.
When I returned, I checked in privately with everyone to see how the day went. Often, someone discovered additional work that needed attention or protocols that required updating.
Of course, we left instructions on handling walk-ins or emergencies. We typically notified surrounding clinics that I would be out on a specific day or during a given period.
Over the years, the benefits of remaining open in my absence far outweighed the potential downsides.
See if my strategy helps you maintain client service and revenue while offering your team an occasional break.
Q: My veterinarians and technicians spend hours a day calling clients to check up on patients, but no one calls back! I’m thinking of stopping follow-up calls unless you can help.
A: Once upon a time, when phones had dials and answering machines had tapes, the first thing most folks did when returning home was “check the machine.” They listened to any messages, jotted numbers and called back. Those days are gone.
Keeping up with phone norms is essential to stay in touch with clients, monitor patients and save time.
First, don’t leave a voicemail; younger pet owners rarely listen to them. However, some clients enjoy the sound of a voice, so ask for follow-up contact preferences when you register a patient or before you need to check on one.
Texting before calling is a good idea. Try a simple, “Hi, this is Dr. Ward checking on Ginny. Can you talk now? If not, text us a time that works. I’m available until 2 p.m. today.” That act can save time, effort and money.
Before you call, ask yourself whether a text or email would suffice. Writing works well with minor medical and routine follow-ups. The bonus is you can put the chat in the medical record, and then you’re done.
Most adults prefer typing on their phone over speaking on it. If the text chain becomes long or complicated, or an unexpected outcome emerges, ask to talk in person.
Video calls are another option. A recent survey found that 54% of Americans preferred video calls, with younger respondents reporting even higher usage. Video is the next best thing to an in-person conversation. If you find yourself videoconferencing often:
- Don’t jiggle the phone. I use a phone stand or laptop camera to remain stationary.
- Ensure quality lighting and sound. Earbuds and computer monitor lighting work great.
- Avoid background distractions. For example, don’t conduct a video call from a treatment area or bustling coffee shop.
Phone calls aren’t extinct, but how and when we use them has evolved. Remember that talking to clients live, especially when a severe condition or anxious pet owner is involved, can help bond them to your clinic and reassure them. It also allows you to obtain more accurate information.
Q: We hired a recent veterinary school graduate who needs help with clients. She’s friendly and everyone seems to like her, but she drags on too long, especially when presenting cost estimates or discussing additional tests or services. Our technicians complain that they must “herd her out” to avoid falling behind. How long should it take for a young doctor to get up to speed?
A: Ah, the inexperience of youth. We’ve all been there. My first response is that friendliness can’t be taught, but competency can. In your case, you might have a diamond in the rough that needs a little polishing.
How long someone takes to become competent and timely depends on the person’s training, mentoring and environment. A new veterinarian might need considerable time, but with your help, you can accelerate the process to around six months.
Start by gathering the situational details from the team. Document examples, then meet with the doctor privately to discuss her slow pace and efficiency. Listen carefully to her responses to understand how she views her performance. Chances are she realizes she is taking too long but doesn’t know how to work faster.
Next, I suggest that she study and attend CE on medical communication. I often recommend veterinarian Dr. Mark Walters’ book, “Communication Skills for Medical Professionals.” I recently finished reading an exceptional human medicine textbook, “The Art of Medical Communication.”
In addition, role-play problem scenarios with your new doctor. When I started my practice, I wrote countless scripts detailing everyday conversations involving everything from annual exams, spays and neuters, and senior pet workups to chronic disease assessments and expensive procedures. The scripts outlined what I wanted my team members to say in response to common questions or concerns.
As for role-playing, record the sessions on the veterinarian’s phone and allow her to review them privately or with you, whichever she prefers. Be sure to note the duration of her responses and the verbal and nonverbal communication cues.
Also, have your new grad set a vibration alert that goes off every five to 10 minutes on her phone during an appointment. Physical reminders can help her “feel” how long the sessions take.
Finally, give immediate feedback whenever possible. As soon as an appointment ends, debrief her:
- “How did it go?”
- “How long do you think it took?”
- “Did you cover everything you wanted, and did the client feel comfortable with the information?”
- “Did you have any trouble making an appropriate exit?”
Such an evaluation is best when the interaction is fresh. Instant reviews and immediate insights can make all the difference in the world.
We’re all responsible for developing future veterinary professionals. Take time to polish these diamonds by creating systems and processes to train your team, and always remember the importance of teaching communication.