Calm front-desk chaos


Regardless of whether you're the owner or the receptionist, these 5 tips will help you turn turmoil into tranquility-and foster loyal clients.

The phone board blinks with held and incoming calls. Impatient clients mill around the waiting room. And you wish you'd stayed in bed. Welcome to Monday morning.

Sheila Grosdidier

With veterinary care becoming more complex each day—more services, more decisions, and higher expectations—you may feel stretched pretty thin trying to survive the hectic days. Repeat these words: It doesn't have to be this way.

With some planning, you can manage clients' visits and maximize their experiences at your practice. Here are five simple strategies to tame the wait time, revolutionize the reception area, and manage all the craziness.

Track times

If clients bring books or packed lunches to their appointments, you have a problem. Don't kid yourself—your clients aren't addicted to multitasking. They're buried in their books because your team's buried in backlog. To solve this setback, you need to pinpoint your gridlock.

Start by recording how long each segment of a visit takes, rather than just the time that elapses from when clients arrive to when they leave. Jot down the time check-in is complete. Then note when a team member greets and escorts the client and pet to the exam room, and so on. Do this for every patient for at least a week to determine the various wait times on various days.

This may sound challenging, but with a team effort, it will be worth the extra time because you'll know where you need to improve. (Have you figured out that you need to streamline your wellness visits? Click on efficiency study under related readings for detailed instructions and free related forms.)

Schedule effectively

Quite often, long wait times and front-desk chaos are the end products of misaligned schedules. And with four schedules to juggle—appointments, surgeries, doctors, and team members—it's easy to see why. So how do you get the right alignment? By adjusting your staffing patterns to better handle peak times, especially the morning rush.

If mornings are a whirlwind at your practice, consider adding another team member to the early shift to facilitate the check-in process. When you staff to adequately support the client load, you'll no longer begin your day facing frenzied clients eager to drop off their pets and scurry to work. Instead, you'll be able to warmly welcome clients with, "We'll have you checked in and out the door in 15 minutes." Imagine having the time to talk to clients about the procedures their pets will be undergoing, review pain management protocols, and explain the value of your services.

Worried that doubling up on schedules will be too expensive? Many clinics say adding a team member during busy times increased the number of services sold, which offset the cost of extra wages. Seal the scheduling deal with this quick tip: Make a list of all the benefits an additional team member would bring to the practice, such as ensuring team members get breaks, improving productivity, providing time to better prepare for appointments, and increasing training opportunities. Odds are, your pros will outweigh your cons.

Emergencies can also wreck your practice's Zen. Meditate on this: Schedule emergency slots. Reserve one 20- or 30-minute emergency appointment for each block of appointments a veterinarian sees in a day. For example, if two doctors see appointments Monday morning from 9 to noon, you might mark out emergency slots at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.

It's unlikely that emergency patients will arrive at these exact times, but that's OK. By setting aside the extra minutes, you'll be able to catch up regardless of when emergencies happen. And if none happen, use the flex time to recover from appointments that ran too long.

Cut out clutter

If you steam at the sight of stacks of paper and sticky notes covering the front desk, you're not the only one. More than 30 percent of people say they associate stress with clutter. And, yes, scattered knickknacks, water bottles, and a blaring radio count as clutter. So remove the mess. Put office supplies in drawers and throw away trash. Eliminate all those paper piles by using e-mail or an instant-message system to communicate with your team members.

One of the biggest causes of disorganization and wasted time: Fumbling with hard-copy medical files. The solution is to switch to paperless records, or at least paper light. Some practices are afraid of computer problems. The odds are becoming less all the time that you'll experience any technical glitches. And if your practice is like many others, the time you'll save will make up for any potential computer problems associated with paperless records. To fully understand your computerized records potential, go to CVC East in Baltimore this April and talk to company representatives and other team members about going paperless.

Transcend with technology

More clients are showing a preference for e-mail over other means of communication. Take advantage of their partiality—and your practice's online presence—by allowing them to schedule appointments through your Web site. You can set the criteria. Maybe you're fine with clients sending a quick e-mail via your site, or perhaps you'd like them to submit a form with the day, time, and reason for visit. Do what works best for you. Check with your veterinary software company for more electronic possibilities.

And what about texting? Many clients prefer receiving a simple text message over a phone call. All you have to do is ask pet owners about the communication they favor. By switching some clients to text messaging, you'll save yourself the time and distraction involved with making a phone call.

Speaking of phones, move them from the front desk to a separate station. You'll be amazed at how efficiently the reception team works when everyone can focus on the clients coming in the front door and out of exam rooms. And employees that have tried a phone operator station find they don't need a designated person to man it—although that's an option. They say they just need to organize how they'll cover the station. You can rotate shifts in two hour blocks or assign someone on a daily basis.

Another technology savior: E-mail clients helpful information a few days before their appointments. You can go over all the care their pets will receive, encourage them to fill out a patient questionnaire, and link them to your Web site so they can print off and fill out any check-in documents. This gets clients thinking about their pets' needs before they even walk into your clinic.

Keep your composure

When bedlam breaks out—and it will from time to time—remain calm and focus on communicating. Explain the situation and what you're doing to fix it by telling clients what you can do for them, rather than what you can't do. For instance, if you're running behind on appointments, offer clients the option of leaving their pets with you or running an errand and coming back later. Let them know you'll call them—or better yet, text them—when their appointments are ready to continue.

If clients or team members get angry when things get chaotic, try not to loose your cool. This only spreads pandemonium throughout the practice. Work to find a solution to whatever problem you're facing. Remember, the sooner you come up with a plan, the sooner the problem can be resolved and the easier it will be to keep the front desk—and the rest of the clinic—moving.

Mayhem is no fun. Clients and pets sense it, and team members don't want to live with it. To prevent everyone from being pulled in different directions, start by choosing just one of the strategies presented here. See what a difference it makes. Then embark on implementing another problem-solver. Soon the front-desk chaos will be totally calm.

Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a partner with VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. Please send questions or comments to

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