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6 heated situations: Say this, not that
Is conflict leaving you hot under the collar when you need to be cool as a cucumber? Put those feelings on ice to extinguish the flames.
How can you calm the volcano in your stomach when there's a lava of hot words burning its way up your throat? When conflict happens at your veterinary practice, you may struggle to find the right words to cool the angry flow before you erupt. But before you blow your stack, refocus on your target, says Debbie Allaben Gair, CVPM, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a management recruiter and coach with Bridging the Gap in Sparta, Mich. "It goes back to your goal," Gair says. "What's the primary reason your practice is in business?" Most will say that their goal is to take good care of pets and people.
When you make pets and clients your first priority, you hone in on how to offer the services they need, Gair says. This makes it easier to shift your attention from your communication woes to getting things done so you can help pets.
Julie Mullins, a veterinary assistant and staff training coordinator at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C., agrees. "It's positioning yourself in the mindset that they're not out to get you," she says. "Don't allow bad feelings to escalate because you're upset."
Let's take a look at a few of the most common scenarios that make your temper spike and examine the right—and wrong—thing to say during these situations.
Case 1: Hot diggity discount
Mrs. Spendalot strolls in on her Prada-shod feet waving her Kate Spade clutch and complains your veterinary services are way too spendy—and she wants freebies or discounts for Ginger the Wonderdog.
Heat it up: "Who are you kidding? You can easily afford it."
Cool it down: "I'm sorry, Mrs. Spendalot, we don't offer discounts. To give you a discount we'd have to cut corners on patient care, which no one wants."
"A client who hears the second answer says, 'OK, I'm asking for something that cuts care, and I don't want that,'" says Paul Camilo, CVPM, practice administrator at All Pets Dental in Weston, Fla., and managing partner of Veterinary Consultation Services. "So the discount all of the sudden isn't that important."
Sometimes you may find clients are more aggressive with their requests. In these cases, Mullins tries to keep her response positive and explain what she can do for them.
"If they're combative, I try to point out the things we offer that are free or discounted," Mullins says. For example, if any companies offer a free parasite prevention product with a qualifying purchase, she'll explain those offers as a way to save money. She'll also mention senior wellness programs and other practice offers that apply. You can also explain the payment options your practice offers (for more on this topic).
Finally, our experts agree that it's critical to be confident when you speak to clients about cost. Projecting an air of confidence demonstrates your competence. "We can't be ashamed of what we charge," Mullins says. "Don't be apologetic. What you're doing is worth what you're charging."
Case 2: The 4:59 "emergency"
It's one minute before you're all set to walk out the door for a fun Friday night, but just before you shut off the phones, Mrs. Jones calls because her baby, Fraidy Cat, has not been herself for the last three weeks. Suddenly, it's imperative that Fraidy sees the doctor immediately.
Heat it up: "Great job waiting three weeks so this can turn into a so-called emergency. Can't you wait it out a few more days?"
Cool it down: "The doctor will be glad to take a look at Fraidy Cat, or if you'd prefer, you can take her to our chosen emergency facility."
Remember, clients don't have medical training—you do. So asking them to determine how life-threatening, or even just uncomfortable, Fraidy Cat's illness is isn't fair to the client or the patient. "I just heard a story recently about a staff member who offered the client the choice to come in that day or tomorrow," Gair says. "The client chose tomorrow, and the pet died overnight."
Again, the best approach, Gair says, is to focus on your target: to help pets and potentially save their lives. This includes answering the phone at the end of the day without judging your clients.
"Take the attitude that we're so grateful that they were able to get to us and we were able to take good care of their pets," Gair says. "Clients keep us in business. And what kind of client wants to feel you're annoyed by them or judgmental that they waited three weeks?"
To avoid situations where Fraidy—and furry friends like her—ruin every Friday, Gair suggests you consider these tips to improve your closing process:
1. Turn off the phones five minutes after you close. This way if someone thinks they're calling just in time, they can get through to you.
2. Assign closers each night. Your manager may assign a veterinarian, technician, receptionist, and assistant to stay later if an end-of-day call comes through. "As long as you understand that on Mondays and Fridays your family may eat dinner without you, but on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays they can count on you leaving at a certain time unless an emergency comes up, then maybe we can be more at peace with encouraging those last-minute callers to come in," Gair says.
Case 3: Emergency exit only
The sign says "Employees Only," but obvilvious clients stroll through your treatment area like they're touring an exhibit at the local zoo—and you're on display. How do you get them to stop monkeying around and take your directions seriously?
Heat it up: "Can't you read? You're not supposed to be here."
Cool it down: "Mrs. Jones, I know you're concerned about Spot. Right now she's under anesthesia and the doctor is performing an extraction. I'll let you know as soon as we're finished and Spot begins to wake up. In the meantime, what questions can I answer for you about Spot's procedure?"
"You have to redirect them to where they're supposed to be," Camilo says. "We can have four anesthetic patients down in the middle of oral surgery or whatever and a client will walk back. And you just politely have someone walk them to where they're supposed to be and let them know that you'll take care of their issue."
It's also important to remember these clients are motivated by their love for their pets. They may be anxious or fearful—especially if they've been waiting a while—or just excited to see their pet that's been boarded all day.
You know clients will walk into the treatment area, so be ready for them. "When this happens, we have a technician who'll break off from the procedure and walk clients back up front, explain what's going on, and hold their hands," Camilo says. "The best approach is to designate a staff member to watch for clients. You have their beloved pet's life in your hands, and they're as concerned as can be."
Case 4: Cut the loafing
You're moving so fast you're dizzy, and your colleague is leaning against the reception counter, texting her BFF about how bored she is at work today.
Heat it up: "Hey, lazy, get your butt in gear. This work isn't going to do itself!"
Cool it down: "We're really swamped right now. Can you help us?"
So what's the deal with the royal "we"? Don't worry, it's not pretentious. Camilo says using "we" instead of "I" turns the situation into a team problem that requires a team solution. You're not asking the person for help; the team needs her moving to help offer pets and clients the care they deserve (always remember that focus).
Also keep in mind this isn't about you. While you might feel personally affronted that another team member is slacking off while you're busting your hump, it could be that the employee is simply intimidated by your expertise or doesn't know how to do the work you're performing.
Or perhaps, Mullins says, she needs to be directed. Mullins empowers her senior team members to guide others, almost like a traffic cop directs cars. To extend the metaphor, if you think of the team member as a car that just needs a jumpstart (Now, picture a nice car rather than a scuzzy rust bucket), you can give her a gentle nudge. And she may even continue to propel herself once her gears are moving.
Finally, it's important to remember that other team members don't know what you need if you don't communicate with them. "If you need help, you need to ask for it," Mullins says. "And if you're able, you have to be willing to help. Just remember, if the other team member is doing something, they can say no, and you can't be offended."
Case 5: Cleanup on aisle 3
Bucky the serial urinator has just soiled his cage again, but instead of cleaning it up, your colleague Marcy is telling you about it.
Heat it up: "I'm obviously busy. And if it's so important, why don't you handle it?"
Cool it down: "Do you want me to give him a bath while you clean the cage?"
You'll enjoy a more congenial day if you try to enlist your co-worker's help. Just remember, depending on her role and her other responsibilities, Marcy may not be able to help you. Perhaps she was only in the back to pick up some dog food for an impatient client and noticed Bucky's wet state. In that case, you may need to simply thank Marcy and deal with the mess yourself.
If you and Marcy are both assigned to attend kennels, Gair says you could set up a schedule to handle these messes. Perhaps you can agree that you'll clean up cage messes from noon until 2 p.m. and Marcy will cover the cages from 2 to 4 p.m. Just make sure you're both willing to pitch in when an extra-busy day scrambles your schedules.
Case 6: The doubter
Your colleague seems more interested in checking up on your job than doing her own. In fact, the last time you checked a patient's vitals, you saw her go into the cage behind you to make sure you did it right.
Heat it up: "If I'm so bad at this, why don't you just do it yourself?"
Cool it down: "I notice you checking up on my work. Can you offer any constructive feedback so I can make improvements?"
When you notice someone watching you, yes, you're going to ask her to watch more closely, Gair says. Why? Because it's possible you can do better, and if you have room to improve your patient care skills, you probably want to know. (Right?)
At All Pets Dental, Camilo says a designated team member is sometimes assigned to spot check work for quality assurance. So it's important to keep in mind this isn't about you—it's about offering the highest quality medical care as a team.
On the other hand, if your doubting colleague's actions threaten your ability to work, it's time to bring the problem to your manager. Camilo says he'll meet with team members privately to discuss a problem such as this before bringing them together for a conversation to resolve the issue.
While it's true that you may not be best friends with every co-worker or client, it's important to keep pinpointing your common goal: protecting and preserving the health of your patients.
"You're at your practice to do a job, but you're working with people so it's going to be messy," Mullins says. "But if you keep refocusing on doing a good job, then the other stuff won't matter."
Portia Stewart is a freelance writer and former Firstline editor in Lenexa, Kan. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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