Bettering veterinarian-client communication

December 3, 2018
Meg Oliver

Meg Oliver is practice manager at Cicero Animal Clinic in Brewerton, New York.

It's happened to all of us. The phone rings and an irate client wants to speak with you. What do you do? And what can you change in your veterinary practice to make sure it doesn't happen again?

Clients get mad for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it's a matter of displaced frustration or sorrow. Sometimes a client has a difficult case, loses a pet or even has severe financial circumstances. And sometimes they displace some of those frustrations onto you. Then there are the clients who you just can't make happy. You did everything right, but they wanted something that you couldn't provide such as discounted services or the fulfillment of unreasonable treatment requests. In my experience, the primary reason clients get upset is because they don't see the inherent value in the service you provide to them. This is a result of poor communication.

When clients don't see the value in what they're paying for, they're prone to turn against you. They may feel that unnecessary procedures were done or that your team is “just in it for the money.” Although many of us have been in the industry for decades and have heard this numerous times, it still stings. It's insulting to be misunderstood on both a professional and personal level, especially when you've earned degrees, licenses and other experience in the pursuit of helping animals. Personally, I handle these situations by introducing myself and explaining to clients that I've been told they're unhappy with their experience, which is concerning to me. I ask them to tell me what happened while I take notes so we can find the cause of the issue. Listen to their entire story without interrupting and then summarize it back to them to make sure you understand correctly. Most of the time, you'll be able to pinpoint what went wrong right away, but sometimes you may need to consult a fellow staff member to figure out what happened. If a part of the experience didn't match your practice's customer service expectations, explain how the situation should have gone and let them know that you'll speak to those involved, figure out what happened and get back to them as soon as possible.

The goal (regardless of the situation) is to validate the client's concerns. Once I figure out what happened, I call the client and tell them what information I found, why I believe it happened and how the practice is going to prevent the situation from occurring again. Acknowledge how the situation made them feel and thank them for bringing the issue to your attention so that it could be resolved. The last thing I usually do is ask whether they would be comfortable with my bringing up the issue at the next staff meeting so that the team and I can discuss the situation and its repercussions, and brainstorm ways to prevent it from happening in the future.

Advice for DVMs and RVTs

It's important as veterinary professionals that we explain our rationale, recommendations and reasons for treatments in ways that the client can understand. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians should always verbalize exam findings to the pet owner so the client is aware of all areas examined. This, along with emphasizing the importance of the physical exam, going over the treatment plan, and detailing your diagnostic and treatment recommendations are critical things that could influence a client's decision regarding a pet's care.

Good communication is necessary to portray value. It's imperative to make sure clients receive follow-up calls from staff or doctors to review results or discuss the continuation of a treatment plan. Follow-ups aren't always necessary for well-pet visits, but there's no harm in reaching out with an automated survey asking clients how they felt the visit went. Doing so might open the door for questions, comments or concerns that pet owners might have kept to themselves had they not been prompted. Communication is key. Whether it's written or verbal, communicate the value of your services through a clear explanation of not only the exam, but also the written treatment plan for their pet. No one should have their pet disappear into the treatment room without seeing a plan and then end up at the front desk with a $300 bill without any idea as to what procedures were done.

Be diligent. Make sure that you're portraying your skill and value as well as your concern and care for the client and their pet by having the best communication game in town.

Meg Oliver is practice manager at Cicero Animal Clinic in Brewerton, New York.