Are you sure your veterinary clients can hear you?


You can scream and shout, but until you work your communication muscles, you'll never get through to your pet-owning clients.

Irecently paid a visit to a healthcare practitioner—let's call him "Dr. Fred"—to get some advice on how to improve my health through diet. He's young but knowledgeable, and I've been going seeing him for about a year to treat an old back injury that flares up from time to time. He does an excellent job reducing the pain and getting me back to my normally active life.

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My first step was completing a questionnaire on my nutritional needs and goals. The follow-up with Dr. Fred showed me that he'd done a thorough job evaluating the questionnaire and knew plenty about nutrition. But I walked out of his office without taking any action.

Why? Because like many health practitioners, Dr. Fred has never learned how to communicate with his clients in a way that invites compliance. I recognized this problem because I spent several years in my own veterinary practice being at least as ineffective as Dr. Fred.

When it came to straight talk that prompted action and compliance, instead of being a strong communicator, I was a 97-pound weakling. Like Dr. Fred, I knew my stuff. I could conduct a thorough history and physical examination, and I was a competent diagnostician, but when it came to making recommendations that would serve both my patients and clients, I often fell flat. It sounded something like this:

"Well, Ms. Kapp, I've noticed a few things on Tobie's physical exam that you might want to know about, like his teeth."

"What about his teeth?"

"Well, uh, they could stand to be cleaned."

"Really? Is that where that awful smell is coming from?"

"Yes, it could be. So, sometime you might want to, you know, drop him by so we can take care of them."

"Sure thing, doctor."

Of course, Ms. Kapp—being as busy as everyone else—never did get around to dropping Tobie off.

Luckily, when I finally hired a business coach, we worked extensively on my communication skills. Learning to be a more effective communicator was a major factor in the 40 percent growth we experienced in that first year after I started working with the coach. It took work, but over time I went from a 97-pound weakling to a powerful heavyweight communicator. So can you. Ready to get to work?

Let's start with the foundation of relationship-building.


You have a relationship with every client who comes through your door, whether it's someone who's been coming to you for 10 years or a pet owner who just heard about you from her next-door neighbor. While the relationship starts with the fact that you both love animals, it's important to build on the relationship during every visit.

My tendency in the early days of practice was to focus all of my attention on the pet and pretty much ignore the client. That doesn't work. Our clients appreciate being recognized and acknowledged—as we all do.

To start building these relationships, ask yourself what interests, values, and commitments you share with clients. These become the links that forge the veterinarian-client bond. Remember this each time you talk to a client. (This works equally well during conversations with your team members.)

Building a strong relationship doesn't have to take a long time, either. With a well-established client, it may take no more than this:

"Good morning, Ms. Walker, it's good to see you again. Do you realize you've been bringing Maxwell to me for almost 10 years—ever since he was 8 weeks old? You've been an outstanding pet owner."

Building this bond with a new client might take a bit longer, but consider the time spent as a wise investment for the future. Try saying something like this:

"Ms. Booker, welcome to our clinic. I understand from Donna that Ms. Ellis, one of our most loyal clients, recommended us. I appreciate your giving us the opportunity to care for your new kitten. I hope this is the start of a long and happy relationship like we've had with Ms. Ellis."

These exact words may sound unnatural to you because they aren't your words. So adapt the concept of relationship-building to your own speaking style and vocabulary. Just don't neglect it. It's the foundation on which we build good communication.


Have you ever stood face-to-face with a client discussing some complicated issue, like repairing a torn cruciate ligament, and suddenly noticed a blank stare? You may have continued with your discussion only to later find out the client didn't understand a word of what you said.

It's not that he wasn't listening. He just wasn't listening to you. He may have been having a conversation with himself. It's easy for people to become so involved in their own inner dialogue that the message you're trying to communicate doesn't get through. This is especially true if what you're saying is confusing. Ignore this tendency, and you'll remain a communication weakling. Stay aware of it, and you'll take a big step forward in becoming a communication commando. Here's why.

When you realize that everyone you talk to is already engaged in a conversation with himself or herself, you can begin to influence the internal conversation as well as the external one. You can try to understand what other people are saying to themselves that blocks the effectiveness of your conversation, and you can be more aware of body language that signals a communication misfire.

For example, let's say you're in the middle of a conversation with a loyal client who's had some issues in the past paying her bill on time. You're discussing an involved procedure that could be costly but is necessary. As you begin to estimate the cost, you notice her eyes start to glaze over or that she begins to study the posters on the wall.

What do you imagine her internal conversation is like at that point? If you guessed that she's distracted by worry about paying the bill, you're probably right. So you might say something like this:

"Now, Mrs. Poisey, I know how much Sophie means to you. At the same time, I also realize you have to manage your finances like the rest of us. I want you to know that I'd be happy to have you talk with Donna about setting up a payment schedule. Would that be helpful?"

Don't be surprised to hear a sigh of relief from a client who hears that. It's yet another effective communication skill that can help you become a better practitioner. It's the simple yet underused trick of "checking in," which I discuss next.


Have you ever been forced to listen to one of those long drawn-out jokes and eventually realized you missed one of the key points at the beginning of the story? Maybe you were listening to your own internal dialogue at the time. For the rest of the joke, you're trying to figure out the story only to find at the end that you've completely missed the punch line.

We do this to our clients all the time—and it's usually not funny at all. For example, imagine that you walk into the exam room after getting the results of the heartworm and fecal exam:

"Mr. Webster, I have some bad news. Butch has heartworms and hookworms. Now, what we need to do is have him come in for some blood work and X-rays to see if we can treat him for the heartworms. While he's here, we'll go ahead and treat him for the hookworms too."

You might wonder at the end of the discussion why Mr. Webster seems so confused. He's never seemed that dense before. The reason might be that you left him at the starting gate when you said "bad news." Or if he was quick enough to get beyond that, you lost him as he tried to figure out why you needed to do X-rays to treat Butch for hookworms. Ever think about how much "hookworms" and "heartworms" might sound alike when someone is talking fast and you're already worried about bad news?

Checking in with clients—asking them questions and waiting for answers—during a conversation can help alleviate this problem. Checking in gives your clients time to catch up with what you've said by allowing them to participate in the conversation. It also helps them stay out of internal conversations and stay in your conversation by letting them clarify any confusing points so the rest of the discussion will make more sense.

The good news is that the more we practice these communication skills, the stronger we become. It's never too late to quit being a 97-pound communication weakling and start working out to become a powerful communication powerhouse. So start sweating—figuratively speaking, of course. Clients don't want to see you sweat.

Dr. Brad Swift is founder of the Life on Purpose Institute and helps professionals through writing, speaking, and coaching. Send comments to or visit

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