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Communication, part I: The key to happy clients (Proceedings)
Did you ever stop to think why clients come to your hospital?
Did you ever stop to think why clients come to your hospital? Though we would all love to think that they come to us, sometimes passing a number of other hospitals along the way, because we are such great care providers, the truth is they are traveling to us because of the overall SERVICE and QUALITY MEDICAL CARE we provide. There are a lot of great veterinarians around, but just being a competent clinician does not guarantee success in today's very competitive marketplace. Success will come when, in addition to excellent patient care, we start treating our clients as gold by providing excellent service!
Treating your clients (and, of course, your patients) well should be the mission of the entire "practice team." This means that it is equally as important for your receptionists, technicians, and kennel help as it is for the veterinarians on your staff. It is imperative that common practice goals are established and shared amongst the entire staff and that everyone is aware of his or her responsibilities. It helps to have a clear mission statement which the staff knows, understands, and agrees with. If your hospital does not currently have a mission statement, I encourage you to sit down with your staff veterinarians and write one, then share it with the entire staff and with your clients. The truly successful team is properly trained, educated, communicates well with each other as well as the clients, and shows respect for clients and the entire staff.
Proper training is so important to the success of any hospital team. Though in most hospitals everyone has fairly clear job descriptions, I always recommend that employees become cross trained and spend time in other areas of the hospital. Technicians should go up front on a busy morning and see what the receptionists have to work through to check patients and clients in, answer the phones, and check clients out. Likewise, receptionists should spend time in the treatment or surgery areas during the hours when most of the surgeries and procedures are being done. By doing this, everyone develops a better understanding of what their co-workers go through in a day, which will hopefully increase everyone's level of patience when things start to get a little hectic. To further promote good training and cross training, continuing education is a must--and needs to be on-going. It is critical that continuing education programs be as specific as possible for any given position. A final ingredient to develop and promote mutual respect and admiration among staff members, and to resolve any potential negative issues, is regular mandatory staff meetings.
One of the most important aspects to a successful team and to treating clients as special as they really are, is communication. This involves communication via both character or personality traits, as well as physical traits. Essential personality traits for successful communication are: displaying compassion and care, patience, humility, having good listening skills, flexibility, and tolerance and respect for others. I can't stress enough the positive feedback I get from clients when my staff members comfort a clients who's pet is very ill or has just been euthanatized. You or a team member spending a little extra time with a client in an examination room to explain all the medication they will be using on their pet, or to show them the tricks about giving pills or brushing a pet's teeth, is an invaluable service tool. When clients become a little upset about something and sometimes need to "vent," there is nothing more effective than to listen to them, humble yourself, be flexible, and try to resolve the issue at hand calmly. I have found that most clients are pretty reasonable, so when they do get upset about something, they are usually right. Arguing with a client is so counterproductive because even if you "win" (the argument), you still "lose" (the client). Don't forget one of the more basic rules of a service business--the client is (almost) always right! After listening to a client's complaint, I use some basic "active listening" techniques to acknowledge their disappointment or dissatisfaction, and, if appropriate, I will try to at least explain why or how the error occurred. Then, whether or not I agree with the client, I will apologize (either for the incident or for the way they feel about it) and ask the client what we can do to make them happy. You'd be surprised that most clients actually want less to satisfy them than what you were willing to give!
When trying to resolve a conflict or help a client through a difficult time or when you simply want to impress a new client, communication's physical traits are of utmost importance. Make sure to maintain eye contact, stay relaxed, and speak slowly and clearly. It is wise to express interest and concern and make sure that any facial expressions or gestures are appropriate for the situation. Verbally, always be polite and address people by their appropriate name or title.
Though technicians and doctors should always practice these communication skills and try to keep clients' needs, feelings, and expectations in mind, the hospital team members who are under the most pressure to "perform" are your personnel working the reception area. Whereas a patient's needs are best met by veterinarians and the technical staff, the client's needs are usually in the hands of the receptionists. There is nothing more frustrating than doing a great job on a case, feeling great about it and impressing the client, only to have the client move on to "elsewhere animal hospital" because of a problem with your front staff. Of course, having a fantastic front staff with substandard medical/surgical patient care is not any better! Once your team truly realizes and believes that your clients, and not you, are the ones who actually sign your paycheck (because in essence, they do!), then you will begin to put as much emphasis on client care as you do patient care. I always tell my staff to try to treat our clients as if they are doing us a major favor by coming to us--because they are! And we can return the favor by servicing them well and taking great care of their precious pets.
Have you ever wondered why you have the clients that you do? Do your clients choose your hospital, or does your hospital choose your clients? My theory is that the clients we have are not there by accident, but rather come to us, or stay, because of the hospital and team which we've established. Think about where you clients come from and what it is about your facility which keeps them coming back. This especially holds true once your hospital has a solid mature client base, where many of your new clients are being referred by your more established ones. Most people tend to socialize and "hang" with others who are in the same social class and circles. It is unlikely that your more affluent clients are hobnobbing with those who are collecting food stamps or are living in government supplemented housing. So, once you establish a style in how the hospital is run, how your fellow employees function together as a team, and how you treat your clients, the clients who you appeal to will most likely refer more clients just like them. Understand that once this pattern or "style" is established it can be changed, but it may not be easy. Early on, when a practice is young, new clients come to your hospital because of location, marketing tools you have chosen to implement (yellow pages, direct mailers, print advertising, ancillary pet business associations, etc.), and some word of mouth. This immature, growing client base will most likely be extremely eclectic and very "moldable." I recommend you work closely with your hospital's team and office or practice manager to carefully evaluate and determine which of the many different types of client personalities you want to see more of in the practice, and start pouring on the charm to these clients. Find out exactly what they want--and give it to them!! Now, I'm not implying that you should offer inferior service to anyone, but do try to concentrate your efforts and "go the extra mile" on the clients and relationships you choose to cultivate.
Veterinary clients, like anyone else, want to be treated well. They want to know that their pets, their four-legged or winged "children," are as important to you as they are to them. They want you to care for them and their pets, to respect them, and to cater to them. If you do this well, willingly, and truly enjoy it, your clients, for the most part (there are always fickle ones everywhere), will remain very loyal and will be a great source of new referrals. Let's face it, if your clients are miserable then they will make you miserable and you'll be destined for an early burn-out. But, if you work hard as a team to attract the clients you want, practice will continue to be fun and productive!