Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She combines her practice experience and business expertise to help veterinarians communicate better with their teams and clients. She is the author of “Leading and Managing Veterinary Teams: The Definitive Guide to Veterinary Practice Management.” Learn more at amandadonnellydvm.comRead Articles Written by Amanda Donnelly
I recently took my long-haired dachshund, Gidget, to a veterinary hospital because she needed treatment for atopy. Because I had moved a short time before, I didn’t have an established relationship with a local veterinarian. My first thought when I scheduled the appointment was, “Are they going to let me be with her?” My next thoughts were:
- “Am I going to trust the doctor?”
- “Am I going to like the veterinary team and the hospital?”
- “What is the visit going to cost?”
For the first time in a long while, I experienced the client’s perspective of a veterinary visit, something that is easy to lose sight of.
Now more than ever, teams need to remember that the stress typically associated with a trip to the veterinarian is exacerbated by the anxiety people feel because of the pandemic and other social issues. One dilemma facing practices is how to maintain a positive client connection while dealing with operational changes and caseload increases.
The New Normal
The downside for clients when practices are busy is that getting an appointment can take days or weeks. In many instances, clients face longer wait times during the appointment, and even more frustratingly, they might be separated from their pets. Because of curbside protocols, clients might talk to the doctor by phone rather than in the exam room. Hospitals that are busy or running behind schedule might reduce client education.
Understandably, those clients might think they’re receiving less value for their money. And unfortunately, some take out their frustrations on the veterinary team.
High Call Volumes
Experienced client service representatives know the challenge of juggling phone calls and other responsibilities. Phones ringing off the hook put increased stress on the front-office team. Newly hired CSRs, in particular, struggle to learn their jobs and keep up with the call volume.
High call volumes often translate to less favorable client experiences. Some practices have gone to automated answering systems, which can make reaching a team member more difficult. Pet owners might hear rushed greetings and experience long hold times. They might wait longer for a return phone call or to pick up a prescription. To clients, the phone can seem like a barrier.
One danger of an increased caseload is that veterinary teams can become complacent about client service and lose focus on enhancing client loyalty and compliance, two common long-term goals. Bear in mind that some new clients might have come from another clinic, which means they aren’t bonded to yours. Moreover, pet owners who have a negative experience might not return.
All these changes to operations will undoubtedly persist well into 2021. Therefore, veterinary teams must be mindful of their clients’ perspectives and use communication skills to connect with pet owners. Clients need to receive as much value now as they did before the pandemic.
Here are five communication skills that all team members can use on the phone and during in-person encounters.
1. Validate the pet owner’s perspective.
One of the most difficult aspects of client service is the need to respond positively even when you’re tired, busy or feeling out of sorts. Remember that what you do every day isn’t routine for pet owners. They inherently are stressed because of the anxiety of not knowing what’s wrong with their pet, the fear of the outcome, the sadness that their pet is sick or scared, and the frustration associated with the cost of care.
What’s also helpful to remember is that anger is often a secondary emotion. Communicate that you understand the client’s perspective by using phrases such as “I know this is a difficult time for you,” “I understand you’re frustrated by our safety protocols” and “I understand you weren’t expecting these expenses for Hannah today.”
2. Reassure the pet owner.
Supportive statements are valuable during times of crisis and whenever pet owners show concern. At hospitals that still use curbside protocols, team members can say, “I understand it’s difficult to be separated from Sophie. Rest assured we will give her lots of hugs and take great care of her.”
Reassure clients who have financial concerns with a statement such as “We know these are difficult times for everyone, and we’re here to help you. Dr. Taylor will review Jake’s treatment plan with you, and we’ll go over your payment options as well.”
3. Convey interest.
Saying something positive helps make a connection with a pet owner. One way to do this is to praise the client. A team member can say: “You are a wonderful pet parent. Your commitment to Sophie’s care will help her live a longer, more comfortable life.”
Compliments are another way to engage pet owners and show that you’re paying attention. Examples include “Gidget is such a cute name” and “I love your scarf; it’s so pretty.”
4. Ask questions.
Being inquisitive is one of the most effective ways to build strong connections with pet owners. During busy times, ask questions that don’t take much time to answer but are engaging. Examples include:
- “Has it been awhile since you’ve had a kitten?”
- “What fun activities do you have planned for this weekend?”
- “How did you decide to adopt this puppy?”
Questions also are critically important when non-verbal body language is absent or diminished. Since we can’t see people during phone calls or see their entire face because of masks, team members need to make sure that clients understand their pets’ medical condition and treatment plan. Veterinarians can ask, “Tell me what you know about allergies in dogs” or “What questions do you have about Chloe’s treatment plan?”
5. Request cooperation.
Just because pet owners are understandably stressed doesn’t mean that teams should ignore bad behavior. To address ugly scenes, kindly tell clients how their actions affected you, remind them that you’re trying to help and then request cooperation. You can say: “Mrs. Jones, I feel uncomfortable with you yelling at me. I want to help you. My request is that you lower your voice and give me a chance to check with the doctor about Charlie.”
You also can request cooperation if you are seeing a high number of no-show appointments. You can say, “Mr. Smith, I have you scheduled for 2 p.m. on Tuesday with Dr. Taylor. We have a high demand for appointments right now. Should you end up not needing to bring Sadie in for any reason, please be sure to call us so that we may schedule other patients during that time.”
I’m happy to report that Gidget’s pruritis subsided after treatment. While the outcome was positive, I still reflect on my client experience. As a pet owner, I think about how I was treated by the team, whether I received value for my money and whether I trusted the doctor.
The short- and long-term success of your business is tied to your team’s ability to remember the client’s perspective, even during busy, stressful and difficult times. Building strong connections and combining them with exceptional patient care will help more pets get the care they deserve.
Have each member of the veterinary team choose one communication skill to practice each week. Post everyone’s commitment on a poster board or dry-erase board as a visual reminder. At the end of the week, hold a 10-minute standing meeting to share success stories about making great client connections.