Can your veterinary clients hear you now?


In our high-tech world of e-mail, Facebook, and smartphones, it's getting harder every day to grab the attention of the people you work with-and people you serve. Consider these tips to make sure veterinary clients and co-workers hear your message every time.

Beep. Buzz. Ring. Tweet! Text, e-mail, and cell phones have created a whole new world of competition as you struggle to make yourself heard among the spam, junk mail, and telemarketers fighting for attention. If you feel that clients and co-workers are tuning you out, it's time to take the static out of your words and create targeted messages that grab attention and offer results.

Tailoring your message is a good place to start, says Brenda Tassava, CVPM, CVJ, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and hospital administrator at Broad Ripple Animal Clinic in Indianapolis. People have different communication styles—some need just the facts, while others prefer the details, including all of the possible outcomes, Tassava says. That's why her team uses the True Colors profiling program to learn about each team member's communication preferences. In fact, Tassava wrote a veterinary-specific version of the personality identification system called Canine Colors and serves as a master certification coach. (Click here to learn more about Canine Colors.)

"Whenever we need to express ourselves or communicate with another person, it's our personal responsibility to adapt to that person's communication style," Tassava says. "So everyone should become a bit more diverse and versatile."

Communication tends to shut down when people get frustrated because others don't communicate the same way, she says. That's why it's important to get outside of your own comfort zone and help make that communication happen.

"If you can be aware and open yourself up to speak and express yourself more in line with the way other people receive and process information, you can become a much better communicator," she says.

Check yourself

If you're not feeling heard, it's time for a quick gut check. Have you developed any bad communication habits that encourage others to tune you out? Consider these characters and make sure you steer clear of their bad behaviors:

  • Glenda Gossip knows all the up-to-the-second juiciest tales, and she'll spill everything the second the boss's back is turned. But don't turn your back on Glenda, or before you know it you'll play a starring role in her next lineup of stories. "When you talk about co-workers and say things you wouldn't say face-to-face to a person, that's a real problem," Tassava says. "And the people who hear you start to wonder, 'What are you saying about me when I'm not in the room?'"

A good guideline: If you feel you need to stop talking when someone enters the room, you're gossiping.

  • Ira Interruption interjects his opinion into every conversation—often before you're done speaking. He likes to think he's one step ahead when he finishes your sentences, but you just can't wait to leave him behind. "Interrupting others is a bad habit," Tassava says. "It really shuts people down if you don't let others express themselves thoroughly."

  • Cora Chronic-Complainer has a long list of gripes, and you're not going to scoot out of any conversation until she's told you every one. "If you're chronically complaining but you never take your problems to the person who can help fix them, you become a very ineffective person," Tassava says. "And eventually, people don't want to hear it anymore. They don't want to be around it."

Fix broken lines

Now that you know your communication style and you've chucked any bad communication habits you've developed, it's time to talk about time and place. Clearly you don't want to plan important conversations to happen in the kennel when all the dogs are barking or when your practice owner is in the middle of a critical surgery and a pet's life is at risk. But planning the right time and place for your conversation takes a little more finesse than simply watching for a time when your boss or co-worker doesn't look busy. And the easiest way to pick the best time is to simply ask.

"You get more respect if you say, 'I need to talk to you. When would be a good time?'" Tassava says. "It also sets the tone for a serious conversation."

Timing is also very important when you're tackling tough talks with clients. Pet owners who've been waiting or have already been at your practice for a while may be impatient and less-than-receptive when you're trying to discuss topics like their pet's next appointment or follow-up care. That's why it's so important to demonstrate that you respect clients' time, says Brian Conrad, CVPM, the practice manager at Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash.

For example, if Conrad knows a client feels frustrated during a visit, he might say something like, "Mrs. Jones, it doesn't sound like you had the ideal visit today, and that bothers me. If you have five minutes to spend with me, I'd love to talk with you a little bit more." Then, if Mrs. Jones declines, Conrad says he might follow up by offering to call the client later that evening to talk at a time that's more convenient for her. If she still declines, he offers his business card with his private line—a touch he says clients usually appreciate.

"Then I say, 'If you ever have any questions or concerns, you give me a call. You're really important to me,'" Conrad says. This personal touch shows you value clients' time and increases the chance that clients will tune into conversations with you, because you've started by respecting them.

Timing is also critical when tempers are high, Conrad says. He suggests a cool-down period, but he cautions about waiting too long to talk. Don't wait longer than 24 hours, he says. You don't want people to go home and suffer a series of sleepless nights while they wait to have a serious conversation.

Neutral ground can also be important to create a calm environment for tackling tough talks. Conrad says he encourages team members who need to work through an issue to make a run for the coffee shop for a conversation away from prying eyes at the practice.

Don't phone it in

Once you've found the right time and place for your conversation, you're ready to practice some personal communication skills that help others tune into you. Jennifer Graham, a client services team member at Bradford Hills Veterinary Hospital in Wexford, Pa., offers these four steps to get your message heard:

1. Be clear. Speak simply, don't ramble on, and make sure your message has a point.

2. Be confident. "If you don't have confidence in yourself, neither will the other person," Graham says. "Use positive body language. This means standing up straight, facing the person you're speaking to, and maintaining eye contact."

3. Have a plan. For example, if you're speaking with a co-worker or supervisor, Graham says it's important to do more than complain. Instead, offer a solution using concrete examples, facts, or figures. And if you're speaking with clients, focus on what you can do for them, not what you can't.

4. Have a backup plan. "Anticipate resistance, and don't get too attached to your first idea," she says. "Sometimes the best solutions are not your first ideas."

When wires are crossed

E-mail, text, and social media offer a whole new range of ways for your message to be heard—or to get lost, ignored, or deleted. To elevate your message above the level of spam or junk mail in your reader's eyes, it's important to follow a few guidelines.

"Write what you want to say, but take the time to stop and read through it," Tassava says. "Make sure your message is clear, and edit yourself to make sure you've phrased everything properly."

With electronic communication you're working without a crucial tool: body language. To help smooth your message, Tassava encourages emoticons, such as smiley faces. This might feel like fluff, but it keeps the message less formal and allows you to insert a little personality into your missive. Tassava also encourages a bit of personalization and small talk to make the message feel friendlier for the reader.

While electronic media can be an effective tool, some conversations must happen face-to-face to make sure your message gets through. For example, Tassava says many clients will indicate they prefer e-mail or text communication, but when you're delivering bad news, an e-mail or text isn't the most sensitive approach. Instead, she says, it's more appropriate to speak in person or by phone. And if you must communicate by message, you might say, "I have Fluffy's test results back, and I'd like to talk to you about them, because I think you're going to have some questions."

And sometimes it's media that's distracting your co-worker or client from hearing your message. Issues with cell phones and texting are common problems in practice. In these cases, Graham says she will stop speaking and wait for the person who's texting to catch on and turn the attention back to her. Conrad says it's also appropriate to tell the other person you're feeling ignored. For example, you might say, "This is really important to me. I know you're very busy. Can I have just three minutes of your time?" Remember that confidence is key when you want to garner attention and make an impact. Don't be afraid to ask for someone's time and focus when you have an important message others need to hear. It might feel a little scary to approach senior staff members or managers and ask for their time, but Tassava says your respectful approach will pay dividends when you find your listener is prepared to hear you.

"As busy as managers, veterinarians, and supervisors seem, they still want to be there for you," Tassava says. "So don't think that because they appear very, very busy, they don't have time for you. They do."

Portia Stewart is a freelance writer in Lenexa, Kan. To share your thoughts, visit

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