Tweak your communication and practice protocols for big dividends in client compliance and service.
Everyone talks about the "new normal" and the "new economy" these days, but what's really new is today's veterinary client. With less income to spare, today's pet owners are becoming smarter shoppers who are learning to spend money on what really counts. In the veterinary practice, they're scrutinizing treatment estimates, questioning charges, and refusing services if our explanations are lacking.
Veterinary medicine's biggest challenge is explaining exactly what we do for pets and why. We need to start educating clients in the exam room with the same passion we spend treating and preventing disease in pets.
It's time to make sure you're building bonds with clients that help you deliver the best veterinary medical care to patients. You need to show pet owners you know their pets and you're invested in their well-being, not just your bottom line.
Here are the nine ways my practice builds what we hope is the pet owner's perfect appointment-before the veterinarian arrives, in the exam room, and afterwards:
Before the veterinarian arrives
1. Assign veterinary technicians to patients. Clients want to know that you and your staff are familiar with their pets. The best way to guarantee this is to assign particular technicians to patients before they arrive.
Before an appointment, the assigned technician can perform a complete record review of such key areas as vaccinations, diagnostic testing, chronic disease and medications, and dental or weight issues. The technician can include notes in each patient's master problem list or history of non-wellness visits. (You can check out a list from Dr. Robin Downing here.) This pre-appointment review makes it easy to identify recurring issues you may otherwise miss.
2. Ask receptionists to know names. Technicians aren't the only team members who need to brush up on the day's visitors. Your receptionists can huddle up with the technicians before appointments, too. The more educated your entire staff is regarding the patients they'll be seeing that day, the better you'll look to clients.
Ask receptionists to review clients' arrival times and welcome clients and patients by name as they enter the building. If the receptionist knows Mrs. Smith has a black lab named Bruno coming in at 10 a.m., it's a safe bet that the black lab walking in the door at 9:53 a.m. is Bruno. If the receptionist knows why Bruno is there, it makes the arrival even more pleasant.
3. Turn technicians into front-line educators. Have technicians talk to clients before the doctor's arrival to touch on any relevant topics-wellness or illness-that you feel are important to discuss. Don't worry that technicians and doctors will be cover the same territory-that's the point!
In my practice, we find that technicians and doctors get different answers to the same questions. Clients will remember new details in between the technician and doctor discussions.
When the veterinarian arrives
4. Focus on your top three. When our doctors open the exam room door, they've got three crucial tasks on their mind. First, they build the bond by warmly acknowledging the owner and the pet by name. Next, they show their focus by addressing the reason for the visit within the first few minutes. Finally, elevate the team by telling the client that the technician has explained the patient history and that they have a few more questions.
That last step is crucial. When doctors show the importance of the technician, they're demonstrating to clients that the other faces they see during a practice visit are valued, trustworthy members of the veterinary team.
5. Talk during the exam. During any physical examination of a patient, veterinarians should discuss what they're seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching. Clients want to know they were right to spend the money and time to take their pet to your practice. They want to see that the physical examination matters.
6. Talk through the treatment. When it's time for recommendations, discuss them in detail with the client. Let the pet owner know the probability of each differential diagnosis. This way, you can tailor diagnostics and treatments to the individual pet. If you take a cookie cutter approach to all cases, you run the risk of clients feeling like nameless customers paying for unnecessary tests.
7. Recommend the right way-your way. Your recommendations can easily cost a client several hundred dollars in the blink of an eye. Consider breaking treatment up over time or giving more than one treatment option.
If you do offer alternative treatment options, don't undercut your plan A. Consider a good example and a bad example:
> Good: “Our first approach is Plan A. The reason why we want to do this is … An alternative approach is plan B. If we go with Plan B, then we'd need to watch for these serious issues (if the patient is ill) … or we need to be more careful of (if the patient is well) … ”
> Bad: "The best approach is Plan A. Here's why … We could also try Plan B, which is … There's also Plan C … "
Explain honestly and clearly the risks involved with less aggressive treatment options. But remember that clients may need to choose less-than-ideal treatments for good reason. There's no reason to shame or embarrass them for making what may be a difficult financial or lifestyle choice.
Remember that we can't be so good at our jobs that we recommend our clients right out of our practice. Good medicine can cost a lot of money.
8. Estimate in the exam room. After you've recommended care, give an estimate in the exam room, face to face with the client. "Sticker shock" at the front desk is no fun for clients-or receptionists. If the veterinarian doesn't give an estimate and its justification in the exam room, the client may balk at the front desk-and that may be the last time you see him or her.
After the client leaves
9. Follow up, follow up, follow up. Don't make me say it again. Clients should receive callbacks until they and the veterinarian are comfortable with the resolution of the issue. You can add a personal touch and enhance at-home education with snail mail and e-mail as well. For a personal touch on a difficult case, suggest that the owner of the practice call the client.
If the doctor who saw the patient can't call, make sure the receptionist or technician refers to the attending doctor during the conversation: “Dr. Smith wanted me to call you to see how Frankie is doing today.” The client will probably remember the doctor from the visit.
We can be successful, even in the era of the "new client," if we work to fine-tune the relationship between team members, veterinarians, and pet owners. And relationships have never been so important. Sit down with your team. Figure out what you can do better. Do it.
Stephen Tracey is the general manager of Princeton Animal Hospital and Carnegie Cat Clinic in Princeton, N.J.