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
While at the VMX conference this year, I attended Dr. Peter Weinstein’s session “Avoid Having to Say You’re Sorry.” I went in thinking he would discuss communications skills that team members could use to avoid having to say, “I’m sorry.” Instead, the presentation focused on having systems to deliver exceptional client care. Dr. Weinstein stressed the importance of training team members, and he offered this formula to help attendees visualize how to create an effective system: People plus process plus practice equals prevention. Put another way, your team needs to follow a defined process to achieve the desired outcome consistently.
Training is always a challenge in veterinary medicine due to the breadth of knowledge and skills that team members need to deliver exceptional patient and client care. In recent years, staff shortages and higher turnover have made overcoming the barrier more difficult. When practices don’t take the time to train their employees, the vicious cycle of inefficiency can harm patient care, client care and the team’s well-being.
Another problem is a haphazard approach to client communications. For example, pet owner complaints about scheduling or the front desk team might trigger a desire for enhanced client service training. Likewise, a decline in compliance might result in a lunch and learn on better communicating the value of services or products. However, those actions don’t lead to positive, long-term change in many instances. Why? Because you need a better system.
Let’s look at how to implement a more efficient client communications training program.
Identify Problem Areas
Since creating a training system can be daunting, start by identifying the gaps and most significant needs. For example, if you have multiple new hires, training them to educate clients about preventive care is likely high on your wish list. Also, think about the greatest pain points for clients and your team? If your client service representatives struggle to respond to angry clients, significant training is needed in that area. And don’t forget the training needs of more experienced team members. After all, development is a proven driver for employee retention. For instance, training a veterinary technician to provide more client education on specific topics can free up the doctors to see more patients.
Next, prioritize the team’s training needs. Start with areas involving the most clients and patients. For example, exam room communications training for new hires would take precedence over teaching a team member to educate clients about pet food labels. An essential part of setting priorities is to be laser-focused on specific topics. If you want to improve CSR communications training, start with the greatest priorities. It’s better to train team members well in several areas than to lack training across the board.
Define a Clear Process
Veterinary practices often don’t have a training system to support a desired goal. For example, say you want to improve compliance with dentistry services. It becomes a wish instead of an attainable goal unless everyone is trained to follow the same scheduling process and communicate the value of dental health care plans the same way.
Let’s look at five steps for improving your training system using a defined, streamlined process.
- Strive for consistency. Choose the desired outcome, and then put a protocol in writing so that everyone is trained to the standard. For example, let’s say you want to train CSRs to effectively schedule appointments for sick patients. The scheduling protocol might cover the number of same-day appointments to be blocked and the questions to ask pet owners to determine how soon the patient should be seen. On the other hand, if you want to train veterinary assistants to be efficient in the exam room, the protocol might include who takes the patient history, which questions a client is asked and the role assignments for each shift.
- Identify team trainers. Decide which experienced team members will provide communications training and answer questions. Try to rotate the responsibility so that it doesn’t fall on one person. Determine which tools and resources, such as webinars, videos, handouts and role-playing exercises, will support the training.
- Conduct short sessions. Block off 15 to 30 minutes at least twice a week to accommodate focused client communications training for specific team members. The blocks can be standing meetings and should become a permanent part of the work schedule because training is always needed.
- Practice the skills. For client communications to be effective, employees must use the skills and track progress. Checklists are a good solution. Practice managers should routinely solicit feedback through questions such as “What’s working well?” and “What do you need to learn more about?”
- Measure the retention of knowledge and use of skills. One way to ensure team members learn communication skills is to use an experienced observer. Role-playing exercises and question-and-answer sessions help determine whether team members’ client communications are consistent with the standards. Lastly, quizzes help assess the retention of knowledge. You can quiz team members using five multiple-choice questions or ask them to write the practice’s defined protocol for a specific type of communication.
A bonus tip: List your top three priorities for client communications training. Pick one and use the system outlined above to improve training over the next month. Remember that getting past the mindset of “I don’t have time to train” helps more pets get the care they deserve.
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To learn more about creating systems in your veterinary practice and moving from chaos to control, read “The E-Myth Veterinarian,” co-authored by Dr. Peter Weinstein and Michael E. Gerber.