Columns , Communication

Raise your standards

Authentic, personalized client service will differentiate your practice.

Raise your standards
The first step in creating standards is for the leadership team to define the desired client experience.

We can all think of a business where an employee told us to “Have a nice day” as we left. Years ago, I imagine, the phrase “Have a nice day” was meaningful. At its best, the phrase conveys politeness and indicates that an employee has had basic customer service training. At its worst, it can be disingenuous when said with indifference. The phrase “It’s my pleasure” isn’t a lot better because it has become so common and can be said unenthusiastically. Some employees have shortened the phrase to “My pleasure” as if they can’t be bothered to say the whole sentence.

Surely we can do better with our client service, but how do you rise above mediocrity and create memorable service? Here are effective ways to implement service standards in your veterinary practice that will help your business stand out.

Define the Goal

Client service standards are put in place so businesses can achieve a consistent level of service. The quality of service at McDonald’s is different from that at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, but both are consistent. It is the nature of standards and the team’s adherence to the standards that dictates whether the level of service is average or exceptional.

The first step in creating standards is for the leadership team to define the desired client experience. Consider these questions:

  • What is most important to your clients?
  • How do you want clients to feel?
  • What do you want to be known for?
  • How can you best achieve high levels of client engagement?
  • How can your team make pet owners feel special?

Create Service Standards

When establishing standards, be as specific as possible to avoid any ambiguity about the delivery of desired service. A standard that states, “Be nice to all clients,” is too vague and subject to interpretation by individual employees. Standards should be clearly measurable based on observed behavior. For example, we can hear if an employee answers the phone by the third ring and we can see whether they smile when greeting clients.

Be sure to include the team in the process of creating standards as this will help to achieve team buy-in for the standards. Allowing discussion time also affords the team an opportunity to give feedback about whether they feel the standards are reasonable and attainable. What is helpful is to have different teams in the practice brainstorm on the standards and reach consensus. For example, client service representatives can work on standards involving the telephone, client greetings and collecting payment while the technical team can work on standards for exam room interactions. Once the standards are agreed on, they need to be written and distributed to the entire team.

Deliver Authentic, Tailored Service

Every time I rent a car from Enterprise, the counter representative asks me, “Are you here for business or pleasure?” Enterprise has good service and I don’t mind the question. But the query doesn’t engage me, and I know it’s asked of everyone.

To raise the level of service, standards need to be created that encourage authenticity and can be tailored to the client. The goal is to be memorable and convey genuine caring to every pet owner.

Here’s how your team can change the basic standard goodbye phrase of “Have a nice day” into one that is authentic and sophisticated. It might sound like this:

“Mrs. Jones, it was so great to see you and Sadie today. Enjoy date night with your husband. And be sure to let us know if you have any questions at all about Sadie’s medication or care after you get home. I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks.”

To get to this higher level of service, the team would be trained to know that the standard of saying goodbye should include the client’s name, the pet’s name, a personal comment, if possible, and a reassuring phrase.

Focus on Points of Contact

Strive to develop standards for specific client interactions, or what I call “points of contact.” This way the team can focus on actions that have the greatest impact on pet owners, because these are repeatable client communications. Examples of points of contact include answering the telephone, greeting clients, admitting and discharging patients, checking out clients, exam room appointments, and medical progress calls.

Generally speaking, standards are either operational or involve a specific communication skill. Here are examples of client service standards that go beyond the basics to establish a higher level of service:

OPERATIONAL STANDARDS FOR ALL TEAM MEMBERS

  • All employees arrive five minutes before their scheduled start time to ensure that they are on the floor and ready to work at the beginning of each shift.
  • All surgery and hospitalized patients are taken to the car by a team member after discharge to ensure that clients receive assistance and a high level of care.
  • Make at least one positive comment or compliment about the pet during every visit.

COMMUNICATION STANDARDS

  • Validate client complaints with an empathy phrase such as “I’m so sorry for the miscommunication” or with a reassuring phrase such as “I really appreciate you letting us know this.”
  • If an apology is appropriate, make it sincere and make eye contact. You can say, “I’m so sorry this happened, Mrs. Jones.”

STANDARDS FOR PHONE COMMUNICATIONS

  • Apologize for putting clients on hold and thank them for their patience when you return to the line.
  • Respond to client inquiries about fees with an enthusiastic “I’d be happy to tell you about our services.”
  • Engage callers with at least one comment or question such as “I love Yorkies; they’re so adorable” or “What kind of puppy did you get?”

STANDARDS FOR GREETING CLIENTS

  • Always make eye contact when you say hello and when you say goodbye. Note the eye color to make sure you made a connection.
  • Greet clients enthusiastically and with a smile. Greetings such as “Welcome to [Your Hospital’s Name]. Is this Jake?” are appropriate.
  • Use the client’s name and pet’s name when speaking to owners. For example, use phrases such as “Mrs. Smith, we’re ready to see Chloe now. Can you follow me to the exam room?”

STANDARDS FOR EXAM ROOM INTERACTIONS

  • Explain every action to clients so they know what is being done.
  • Always ask clients open-ended questions during their appointment, such as “What questions do you have about what I’ve explained so far?” or “Tell me what questions you have.”
  • Thank clients. You can say, “Thank you for bringing Sophie in. And thank you for trusting us to provide care for her. We know how important she is to you.”

Start Slowly

When implementing client service standards, start with just three to five covering the interactions above. This is because remembering a longer list and changing behavior patterns are difficult. Have team members focus on practicing a few standards for a period of time, and then assess everyone’s progress every few weeks or monthly during staff meetings. Discuss what’s working well and any challenges the team is facing. Once the team is trained and shows consistency in adhering to a few standards, you can incorporate more if you desire.

Creating service standards can differentiate your practice if the standards help the team create an exceptional experience that pet owners remember. The benefits to your practice will be greater client loyalty and acquisition, and more pets ultimately will get the care they deserve.

Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She is the author of “101 Practice Management Questions Answered” and serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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