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Advice that pays for itself

Cash-strapped clients want to provide appropriate veterinary care for their pets, and many of them are open to frank discussions about money. Be ready to propose a few financial options.

Advice that pays for itself
Make sure at least a few employees on each shift are experienced at presenting treatment plans and talking about payment options.

Looking at recent economic and unemployment reports, I’m concerned we might see more cash-strapped pet owners in the coming months. Clients might not have the money to pay for their pets’ sick care. Some might not be able to afford routine preventive veterinary services, which means they might not respond to appointment reminders. Here’s how to help pet owners who are dealing with financial constraints.

Be Proactive

When pet owners clearly state that they have limited funds or they cry when presented with the invoice, veterinary teams are likely to bring up payment options. But what about when pet owners say “OK” when a client service representative quotes fees over the phone or a veterinary nurse presents a dentistry treatment plan? When, as a consultant, I place mystery-shopper phone calls to practices and observe exam room client communications, I frequently witness missed opportunities to explore whether pet owners need financial assistance.

Hospital teams that proactively talk with pet owners about money can help more pets get the care they deserve. But to be successful, team members need to understand the practice’s financial care protocols, including the hospital’s payment options. They need to know when to offer a payment plan and which solution to recommend given a client’s personal situation.

Of course, just having protocols isn’t sufficient. Team members need to feel comfortable having candid conversations about the cost of veterinary care. Ideally, everyone should be trained in this skill, but the starting point is to make sure at least a few employees on each shift are experienced at presenting treatment plans and talking about payment options.

Practices tend to discuss finances only when a pet is sick and the treatment plan is expensive. But what about the pet owner who calls to ask about the cost of preventive care? Or the client who is checking out and needs a heartworm, flea or tick preventive for her dog but is hesitant to purchase one? This is when a client service representative should raise the subject of payment options.

During tough times such as the Great Recession and now the pandemic, veterinarians need to be more involved in the money conversation when clients can’t afford the recommended level of care. Doctors must step in to discuss treatment priorities and options. Likewise, doctors can determine whether services and the costs can be spread out over multiple visits.

You may ask, “But what about the risk of offending clients? Will it seem like all we care about is the money?” These things might happen if team members don’t know what to say and don’t communicate the value of services.

It’s always respectful to simply say, “This treatment plan is the best way to determine why Sophie is vomiting and to correct her dehydration. We know veterinary care, just like human health care, can be expensive. We would be happy to review your payment options.”

Most people appreciate having a straightforward conversation about money because it helps allay their fears and uncertainty about how to afford care.

Dealing With Accusatory Clients

The pandemic, economic woes, social unrest and the Nov. 3 elections undoubtedly are causing stress in people. They are experiencing isolation, fear, uncertainty and anger. Veterinary teams are overworked, burned out and tired. Difficult clients are nothing new, but now, more of them are demonstrating ugly behavior. What do you do if a pet owner says, “Why can’t you help me? I lost my job!” or “All you care about is the money!”

Here are four tips for helping your team respond appropriately to clients who lash out emotionally.

  1. Assume the best in people and ignore ugly remarks. Remember that anger is often a secondary emotion expressed by people who are afraid or sad. Reacting defensively, arguing about what was said or becoming sullen doesn’t help the situation. Better to ignore nasty comments and respond with empathy.
  2. Express empathy by saying, “Mrs. Jones, I can see you’re hurting and I know these are tough times.” Often, less is more. A caring look and an open body posture, along with one or two statements, is sufficient. You can’t fix a client’s personal situation or financial problem.
  3. Ask for reasonable behavior and don’t accept abuse. Ignoring untruths said in anger is different than tolerating abusive behavior. Team members should call out any client verbal attacks that are demeaning or threatening. A team member can say, “Mrs. Jones, I’m uncomfortable with your hurtful comments and feel attacked. We’re all in a difficult situation and I’m trying to help you and Jake. My request is that you stop these types of remarks.”
  4. Build a bridge to a solution. Giving clients time to vent is important, but people ultimately seek solutions. Focus on what you can do by talking about payment options. Say, “Let’s explore your payment options” or “I’d like to review some payment solutions. Would that be all right?”

Offer Multiple Options

Only the rare practice doesn’t offer some sort of payment plan, such as third-party financing. If you don’t have many cash-strapped clients, this is likely the only one you need besides credit cards.

However, having multiple options is a better idea, especially if your practice is seeing more pet owners who have financial limitations. Companies such as VetBilling, Scratchpay, CareCredit and VitusVet, as well as all the pet health insurers, offer products designed to help pet owners afford care. Preventive-care plans also help clients by spreading out routine costs.

While extending credit to clients through an in-house payment program usually is a bad idea, it might be a reasonable consideration for clients who are temporarily cash-strapped.

Charitable funds are another option. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation, for example, has the Veterinary Care Charitable Fund, which you can enroll in and ask clients to contribute to.

No one likes to talk to pet owners about the cost of care, but your team members will be less stressed and better prepared to help a client if they’re trained to have proactive, supportive discussions about money.

Remember that better financial care means better patient care and more pets getting what 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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