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Columns, Communication, Leadership

Words Matter

Learn to use better phrases so that your client communication is more positive and meaningful. 

Words Matter
Changing communication habits takes dedication, but team members who put in time and effort will be rewarded.

Rather than making a New Year’s resolution at the beginning of 2020, I chose a word for the year: communication. As I reflect on my actions and the communication skills I practiced, I’m reminded of how much words matter. The right words spoken at the right time can build connections with people and positively affect our feelings and those of others.

Veterinary teams can use the power of words to create an exceptional client experience, deepen connections with pet owners and achieve the best outcomes during times of stress. Choosing the right words helps teams demonstrate their interest in and compassion toward pet owners and ensure that they feel heard. Changing how you speak requires concentration and practice, but it is well worth the effort.

Let’s look at how team members can make their communications more positive and meaningful to pet owners.

Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Much has been written about how employees of Ritz-Carlton and Chick-fil-A say, “It’s my pleasure,” in response to a customer’s “Thank you.” I rarely hear that phrase at veterinary hospitals. Does it mean veterinary employees need to adopt “It’s my pleasure” to be more positive and welcoming? I don’t think so. While I’m a fan of sophisticated customer service, phrases like that are often shortened to “My pleasure” and over time can begin to lack authenticity. Additionally, some employees think the phrase sounds too formal. Team members have plenty of other ways to sound professional and friendly.

One small change that can make a difference in how pet owners feel is to use complete sentences rather than short, rushed phrases that can leave clients thinking they’re just a number. Instead of saying, “No problem” or “Sure,” team members can say, “I’m happy to help you, Mrs. Jones, and it was so great to see Chloe today.” Notice the personalized response. Another example is to replace “Sorry ’bout that” with “I apologize for the wait time. Thank you for your patience.”

Clipped phrases should be avoided on the phone, too. No one wants to hear “Hold please” or “Your name?” The appropriate questions are “May I place you on a brief hold?” and “May I get your name?”

First and Last Impressions

How team members greet pet owners on the phone and in person sets the tone for the client experience. Using positive phrases makes people feel welcome. A team member who doesn’t know a pet owner approaching the front desk might ask, “Can I help you?” While there’s nothing wrong with that phrase, it’s ordinary and lacks warmth. A stronger, more positive greeting is, “Hi, is this Sophie?” or “Welcome! Who is this handsome boy?”

I’m also not a fan of “Have a seat and we’ll be with you soon,” which can sound dismissive. Instead, team members can use a friendlier phrase that also signposts the next action by saying, “Dr. Taylor’s assistant will be out in a few minutes to take you to an exam room.” Most people will sit down or walk away from the desk without being told to do so.

When checking out pet owners, client service representatives tend to say, “Your bill is …” or “You owe ….” To change this communication to focus on patient advocacy rather than money, team members can say, “I see that Hannah had an exam today and a negative heartworm test and will be going home with six months of heartworm, flea and tick prevention. Her preventive care total today is ….”

Once clients pay their bill, practice employees often say, “Have a nice day” or “Have a good one.” Again, such closing remarks are mediocre and lack meaning for a client. To positively influence the pet owner’s feelings, better options are:

  • “I’m so glad I got to see you and Sophie today. Have a great evening.”
  • “Thank you for coming in, Mrs. Smith. We love seeing you and Lola.”
  • “It was great to see you and Daisy. Be sure to call us before your next appointment if you have questions.”

Lead with “Yes” Instead of “No”

One of the best communication techniques to teach team members who speak with pet owners is to eliminate “no” and negative statements from their vocabulary. Clients don’t want to hear, “We can’t do that,” “No, our policy is …” or any sentence that starts with “unfortunately.” When team members can’t honor a client request, the key is to use positive words that convey a desire to assist the pet owner and focus on what can be done. If, for example, a client requests an immediate appointment for routine care and the practice doesn’t have an open time slot, a CSR could say, “Dr. Taylor can see you at 9 a.m. tomorrow or we can have you leave Bella with us for the day.” This response is better than saying, “We can’t see you today.”

Here are other lines that work well:

  • “Here’s what we can do.”
  • “I can have your prescription ready by 5 p.m. today, which is earlier than our normal policy of requiring a 24-hour notice.”
  • “Although we were unable to … we did ….”
  • “Let me check to see what options are available.”

Changing communication habits takes dedication, but team members who put in time and effort will be rewarded. Positive, friendly client communications can help pet owners feel better, lower stress levels and help more pets get the care they deserve.

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 “101 Practice Management Questions Answered.” Learn more at amandadonnellydvm.com.


Here’s what your practice can do to improve the veterinary team’s client communication skills.

1. Create a Training Booklet

This resource can be used when onboarding new hires and as a reference for all employees. The guide should list specific words and phrases that make communication more positive. Start with the basics and then add content over time to raise the level of service based on challenging situations encountered by the team.

A scenario:

A pet owner is reluctant to bring in a sick pet.

Don’t say:

“You need to bring him in. We can’t diagnose or tell you anything over the phone.”

Do say:

  • “I’m so sorry Jake isn’t feeling well. To provide the best care, let’s have Dr. Taylor examine him.”
  • “I understand your concern. I’d be worried. too. To determine what might be causing his discomfort, it’s best to have one of our doctors examine Jake. This will give you peace of mind.”
  • “I’m glad you called. To find out what’s going on, it’s best to bring in Jake. The exam and consultation are $XX. After examining him, the doctor will review with you a treatment plan and the associated cost.”

2. Focus on One Skill at a Time

Changing habits takes time. When team members are laser-focused on making one change to communications, they’re more likely to be successful and develop a new habit. Since everyone has different strengths and areas of opportunity, practicing different skills makes sense.

The development plan for a new employee might be to practice how to say goodbye, while an experienced employee might practice saying “yes” instead of “no” to pet owners.

Most people need to practice a new communication skill for a minimum of two or three weeks for a habit to last.