Come-from-behind communication


Are your conversational skills lagging in the stretch? Use these tips to pull ahead by overcoming problems and winning clients' respect.

We all know horse owners are a different breed from dog and cat owners. Understanding those differences helps you respond to their unique needs better.

Karen E. Felsted

For example, horse owners usually make a bigger financial investment in their animals than dog and cat owners do, paying more for basics like shelter, food, training, and veterinary care. Many equine owners also expect more from their animals. Mild lameness in a dog may not be an issue, but an injury like that could be the end of a horse's performance or working career—and it could dash the owner's hopes and dreams.

Most equine clients fall into one of two categories. The first is the longtime horse owner, who's very involved with his or her animal and may be very knowledgeable about equine injuries and illnesses.

The second group isn't as familiar with the horse world; they may be first-time owners who aren't as savvy about their animal's medical needs. Working with these clients is sometimes similar to working with small animal owners.

Tired of "know-it-all" clients?

While it can be a pleasure to work with a client who's knowledgeable and concerned, it's also sometimes difficult and frustrating. Why? Horse owners often seek opinions about their medical problems from many sources.

James E. Guenther

For example, if it's a lameness issue they may seek treatment advice from farriers, trainers, saddlery consultant, and barn acquaintances. And horse owners sometimes trust these opinions more than their veterinarian's advice because these individuals have a high level of expertise in areas veterinarians may know little about. The good news: More effective communication can tip the balance in your favor, helping you win clients' trust and compliance. Try these communication strategies to improve your relationships with clients:

  • Acknowledge the client's expertise and involvement. Horse owners will flinch and run if they sense you're being condescending.

  • Show your respect for the other caretakers of the horse. Understand the benefits that the farrier, the trainer, and the saddlery consultant can offer your clients and join forces with them to treat the horse's problem effectively.

  • Be patient with clients. Answer that extra question or spend a little extra time during the exam to provide education about the horse's illness and explain your diagnostic and treatment recommendations. Keep in mind that every client communicates differently, so you'll need to adapt to the individual, providing more information for some clients and less for others.

When the cat's away

Often, communication between equine veterinarians and clients breaks down before the appointment, when clients are worried and have questions about their horses' health. If you aren't readily available—which isn't unusual when you spend your days out on calls and in surgery—clients naturally seek easy-to-reach nonveterinarian colleagues with whom they can discuss their horses' medical problems. To stay in the loop, it's a good idea to use a cell phone or pager and return calls promptly. If they can reach you easily, clients will be more likely to involve you early in the disease process.

You also need to make an effort to see clients' horses at the appointment time scheduled, or give a compelling reason for the delay. And if you refuse to see a horse for any reason, even a legitimate scheduling conflict, clients may think you're callous, particularly if there's not a local equine emergency clinic nearby. When you must refuse, explain that you're tied up with a case or expected at another farm and refer the client to a colleague to help soften the refusal and maintain a good relationship. Also try these strategies to build clients' trust:

  • Schedule enough time for the appointment. Gather as much information as possible about the horse's problem on the phone so you know how much time you'll need. If staff members schedule appointments, train them to ask the right questions.

  • Know where you're going. Ask for detailed directions to the stable or farm so you know how long the trip will take—and arrive on time.

  • Don't change appointments to squeeze in a last-minute call that's "on the way." Your client's time is just as valuable as yours, and he or she may resent waiting just because it's more convenient for you.

  • Call clients when you're running late. Offer to reschedule routine appointments, and try to estimate when you'll arrive.

  • If an emergency holds you up, say so. Most clients will understand, particularly if you've been respectful of their time in the past.

Say what?

So far, we've focused on what you can do or say to improve client communication, but sometimes it's best to just listen to clients. Listening is key to good communication. Most of us can process the words we hear much faster than we speak, so we sometimes get distracted and use the rest of our brain to think about other things or plan what we're going to say next. This means we're tuning out part of what the speaker is saying and losing some of the meaning. Other times we forget to listen for feelings and unspoken words; ignore body language; tune out confusing or distasteful information; or interrupt the speaker's train of thought.

During the initial part of the veterinary consultation, the client should speak 80 percent of the time and you should speak only 20 percent. Clients appreciate the chance to talk, and if you listen effectively you encourage them to disclose more. Next, use these techniques to make sure you understand and to show the client you're really tuned in:

  • Comment on something the client said. For example, "I'm glad the prescription calmed Monty."

  • Compliment the client. "I'm glad you called me today instead of waiting until Monday. I think I need to radiograph this leg."

  • Ask questions. They help you clarify a statement or elicit more information. "So you don't think Monty could have broken into the feed room?"

  • Briefly sum up the client's points and ask if you offered an accurate version of what he or she said. Once you understand the client's concerns, you can discuss findings, diagnostics, and potential treatment options with the client.

When it's your turn to talk, don't assume that the client understands everything you say. Clients have as much trouble listening as veterinarians do. Ask questions to learn whether the client agrees with your assessment, understands the alternatives, and is willing to proceed with your recommendations.

How's your lope-over?

Horse owners expect you to talk the talk. So if they say, "When I'm doing a half-pass to the left, he's heavy on the right rein and not engaged behind" or "When I'm working the lope-overs, he's above the bridle," you'd better know what they mean. Understanding what the client expects of the horse and learning the jargon shows your knowledge and helps you earn clients' respect.

And remember, horse owners expect empathy and compassion from their veterinarians, just like dog and cat owners do. They want their veterinarians to understand and share their devotion to their horses. So your clients will appreciate a call the day after you treat their animal or a sympathy card after you euthanize their horse.

When money's the problem

Money is a big factor in communication breakdowns, particularly in equine medicine, because the value of the horse and the cost of the medical services can be very high. The critical issue: Don't surprise clients with the bill.

To make sure you and the client are on the same page, start by explaining the estimated cost of the services you recommend and obtain approval from the client before you proceed. Provide written estimates for high-dollar procedures, and discuss insurance coverage questions and payment options in advance. Depending on the practice, your technician may help write estimates and describe the diagnostic and treatment methods with the client to encourage compliance.

Developing good communication skills takes practice, but it makes difficult situations easier. Take the time to learn these methods and earn clients' trust and loyalty.

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Karen E. Felsted, CPA, MS, CVPM, is a consultant with Gatto McFerson in Santa Monica, Calif. Dr. James E. Guenther, MBA, CVPM, is a consultant with Brakke Consulting in Asheville, N.C. Send questions or comments to

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