Columns , Communication

What’s in a story?

Encouraging clients to talk about their pet or lifestyle will help bond them to your practice and improve compliance.

What’s in a story?
Any client who seeks out medical information should be praised for being dedicated to the pet.

Imagine an older gentleman visits your practice for the first time with his newly adopted gray kitten, Gunny, who is due for a second set of vaccines. The veterinary team asks about the cat’s age, which vaccines were given previously and whether he was neutered. The veterinarian examines Gunny and brings up preventive care. She asks the pet owner if he has any questions and he responds, “No, everything is great with Gunny.”

What happened in this scenario? The team members were cordial and efficient. They provided excellent medical care and client education. That’s great, you might say. But wait, let’s look at the missed opportunity to connect with this gentleman.

The visit described is made up, but the pet owner is real. The gentleman is my father, Dr. E.J. Donnelly, who goes by the name Gene. Before retiring as a veterinarian, he had a military career, first as a Marine navigator and later as a Navy pilot.

If the fictional team had invited Gene to share a story, he would have said his 14-year-old cocker spaniel recently died and his wife is in memory care. This made for a lonely household, so Gene is happy to spend time with his new affectionate companion. The team members also would discover that Gene knew he needed to adopt this shelter kitten because of its name. The cat’s foster family called him Gunny at the suggestion of their son, who was going into the Marine Corps. The name Gunny is short for gunnery sergeant. When Gene’s friend, the shelter director, suggested changing the kitten’s name, Gene replied, “Heavens no, that’s one of the reasons I got him!”

You might have heard about the value of storytelling as a marketing strategy. Businesses can attract customers and create brand loyalty through good storytelling — why they should buy a service or product. Likewise, encouraging a client’s storytelling can increase loyalty, too. Let’s explore why.

Listen to Their Story

Unfortunately, veterinary practices that fail to engage pet owners in storytelling can miss out on opportunities to build trust and gain relevant information. Practice teams demonstrate compassion and learn more about a pet when they invite people to share a story. Clients might not volunteer a story when they are distracted or trying to be respectful of your time.

Using the story of Gunny and Gene as an example, here are questions that help to elicit pet owner stories:

  • How did you decide to name him Gunny?
  • Tell us what you know about Gunny’s history?
  • What are his best qualities?
  • Tell us how he is adjusting to your home?
  • Has it been awhile since you’ve had a kitten?
  • So, you’re retired. What did you do for a living?
  • How familiar are you with the ways to enrich an indoor cat’s environment?

Listening Boosts Compliance

Asking questions that lead to stories about a pet and client not only signals you care but also helps to position the team as trusted advisers. Teams that form trusted partnerships with clients can increase compliance. Here are three ways that listening to a client’s story help pets get veterinary care.

1. Stories uncover possible barriers to care.

Clients are bonded to their pets but don’t always say “yes” to health care recommendations. Learning why is critical. Sometimes the barriers involve misinformation or flawed beliefs. One example is a client who reads false information on the internet or hears erroneous facts from a friend. Unfortunately, the client now has misconceptions about the value of certain veterinary services or products.

Once team members understand the client, they can approach the conversation in a manner that hopefully avoids putting the pet owner on the defensive. In fact, any client who seeks out medical information should be praised for being dedicated to the pet.

Client stories also might reveal feelings or personal situations that affect the willingness to accept treatment recommendations. Perhaps a client tells you about a bad anesthesia experience the pet had 10 years ago. You now know the fear needs to be addressed. Another example is a client concerned about how to take care of a cat newly diagnosed with kidney disease. In this instance, the team knows to provide educational resources and assurances that treatment is possible.

2. Stories reveal what’s important to the client.

Teams sometimes fall into the trap of lecturing clients. Have you ever heard or said, “Gosh, I gave the flea talk to all my clients today” or “I gave her the senior care talk”? The problem with this approach is that you miss finding out what’s important to the client. You need to hear stories about the pet’s nutrition, lifestyle and medical history.

If you ask clients how they spend time with a pet, their stories will guide the team to provide focused client education. For example, a pet owner who talks about hikes with her dog Jake likely will be receptive to information about tick protection and joint supplements. On the other hand, a client on a paleo diet who feeds her dog Daisy a boutique food brand won’t be receptive to a lecture about premium senior diets. But she will be open to discussing what’s important to her regarding Daisy’s nutrition. The best way to engage this client is to discuss specific ingredients that will benefit her dog, her options for natural foods and how to choose a diet based on the latest research.

3. Stories help teams provide personalized recommendations.

Here’s an example:

“Mrs. Smith, I love your stories about Daisy. Thanks for letting us know more about how you spend time together. I can see how much she means to you. The information you’ve given me, along with the physical exam, help me make the best recommendations for Daisy so that she can be happy and healthy as long as possible. It could be that the slight weight decrease is because she misses Buddy, who you told me passed away last month. But I’m also concerned that she’s drinking more water. We need to check some laboratory values to assess all her internal organs, including her kidney and liver function. This will give you peace of mind and help me outline the best treatment plan. How does that sound? What questions do you have?”

This type of customized health care plan helps to build trust. Pet owners are more likely to accept a tailored treatment plan as opposed to a general recommendation that the client thinks you provide to everyone to generate revenue.

Next time you talk with a pet owner, consider this: Who doesn’t love a good story? Taking the time to listen to a client’s unique story not only makes for a more interesting day, it helps build loyalty and gets more pets 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. Protection Status