Critical techniques for effective client communication
Dr. Sawyer is a regional veterinary consultant for GuardianVets Teletriage and Telemedicine Services.
Accessing the client-patient circle of trust requires transparency, effective dialogue, and patience on both ends—and ensures trust and loyalty to your clinic.
Do you remember the movie Meet the Parents, in which Robert DeNiro’s character obsesses over whether his daughter’s boyfriend deserves to be in the family’s “circle of trust?” As poor Ben Stiller struggles to earn DeNiro’s approval despite a series of humorous mishaps, we are reminded that we must work daily to earn a place in our own clients’ circle of trust—and that is no laughing matter.
By definition, the human-animal bond is an exclusive club. If a client perceives that you are inside the bond, your advice is gold. But if you lose your place within the circle—or never make it inside at all—you change from an ally to a threat and become utterly ineffective.
How do you enter and stay inside the circle of trust? We have all heard of the common techniques used for building trust and rapport with clients:
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Paraphrase what the client has said to ensure you understood them correctly.
- Mirror language used by clients instead of talking over their heads.
- Express empathy and authentic kindness.
- Share your own experiences to normalize a client’s reaction.
These strategies are all excellent strategies, of course. However, as I observe more client interactions, I have come to identify 3 lesser known but crucial techniques for ensuring your place inside the circle.
Follow the yellow brick road
Have you noticed how GPS has improved over the years? What was once a low-resolution, 2-dimensional map with a robotic voice telling us vaguely where to turn is now a 3-dimensional map with a seemingly human guide offering several verbal prompts, with landmarks, as we approach each turn. As someone who relies on the GPS when driving, I have noticed a change in myself too. I am no longer a hypersensitive driver easily flustered by the navigator; I am calm and collected, relying on the navigation system with the utmost confidence.
The same rule holds for our clients: The unknown induces fear. Under the influence of fear, the brain switches from higher cognitive function to primal survival instincts, hindering the client’s ability to comprehend diagnostic and treatment options. Because we are aware of this anxiety, it’s up to us to remove all of the other unknowns clients face when interacting with our practice.
For example, consider the logistics of a visit like to your practice during COVID-19. Be sure to tell clients where to park, what number to call when they arrive, and which phone tree option to choose. Establish a timeframe from check-in to when a staff member will retrieve their pet. Have the technician who retrieves the pet explain how client-doctor interactions will work, how and when payment will be collected, and precisely what the client needs to do when picking the patient up.
The day your practice returns to in-person examinations, make it a policy (if it’s not already) to describe to the owner what you are doing during your exam. Before scooping up the patient to head to the treatment area, explain how diagnostic tests will run, how long they will take, and where the client should wait. Discuss any necessary medications and their common adverse effects. Point the client to the checkout area and establish expectations for medication refills and follow-up visits.
While these things may seem self-evident, we seldom do them enough or at all. In my position as a quality assurance reviewer for a veterinary triage service, I see how smoothly calls go, how much calmer clients are, and how quickly rapport is established when the triage personnel explain next steps and then follow through. Promise and deliver. Lay the proverbial yellow brick road for your clients to earn their trust.
Look for the black swan in the room
The coronavirus pandemic has given all of us a working knowledge of a black swan event—a rare, unforeseen event with a widespread, often negative impact. In storytelling terms, it’s the plot twist that changes the entire story in a single stroke. In business or hostage negotiations,1 it is the single piece of information that transforms a stalemate into a new and completely different discussion.
In veterinary practice, a black swan usually has a telltale sign: the client’s body language. The client may appear constrained or resistant to what you are saying. They may verbally dodge every attempt you make to explain your position further. You might encounter crossed arms, physical distance, or lack of eye contact. You know intuitively that these clients are no longer hearing you. They disconnect from the relationship, and you find yourself incapable of moving in a positive direction.
Those are the hallmark of a black swan. How to deal with one is both the simplest and hardest part of the phenomenon. You must tighten your belt, square your shoulders, and draw enough courage to say, “I sense that you are uncomfortable with what I’m saying. What is it you are feeling right now? Why?”
The black swan may appear in the guise of a 70-year-old grandmother who is vehemently against dental extractions for her periodontally ravaged Schnauzer. You think this is because she does not understand the evils of periodontal disease or does not have the finances for the procedure. But unless you ask, you will never find out that her resistance arises from the fact a previous pet died during a dental procedure 30 years ago. The problem then is not disease or finances, but anesthetic safety and monitoring. To root out the black swan, you must both feel it lurking in the shadows and call it out into the open.
Fast is slow: 2 kinds of listening
We are pressed for time from the moment we walk through the clinic’s doors to the moment we leave. It is no wonder that as soon as we recognize which direction a conversation with a client is going, we begin formulating a response. Efficiency is key, and the shorter the conversation, the faster we think we can go.
But the Navy SEALs have a saying made famous by its battle-tested utility. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. The SEALs achieve efficiency not through brute strength or speed (although they certainly are strong and fast), but through flawless coordination. You can apply the slow-is-fast principle to conversations with clients. We achieve efficient dialogue with clients through the silken coordination of information, thoughtful analysis, and tailored responses, not by speed-talking or making baseless assumptions.
We must, therefore, battle our natural impulse and slow down. As you talk with clients, recognize that there are 2 styles of listening: receive-listening and do-listening.2 Conversations in which you interrupt the client or formulate your response while the client is still talking (do-listening) can take longer, as clients often must repeat themselves. (Or worse, the client feels steamrolled, leaves dissatisfied, and never returns.) We sabotage ourselves by our own good intentions. Ultimately, fast is slow.
One technique to ensure that you are receive-listening is simply to take a breath before it is your turn to speak. Knowing you will give yourself this time to gather your thoughts helps you listen better from the start. Your pause tells the client you are processing their words, and you know you are supporting the “muscle fibers” of rapport between you and the client. Slow breathing relaxes your body through increased vagal tone and smooths the cadence of the exchange to convey a tone of mutual respect rather than impatient authority.
The mark of a master
As with most skills, the difference between the amateur and the pro is often a matter of meters, not miles. You need only make the unknown predictable, root out the cause of resistance with a single question, and silence your mind to slip into the natural current of conversation, thus establishing your earned place within the sacred circle of trust.
Holly Sawyer, DVM, Human-Animal Bond Certified, is a Veterinary Regional Director for GuardianVets, the only veterinary client communication technology company endorsed by AAHA. Through innovative services like after-hours triage, curbside video chat, and call overflow support, GuardianVets acts as a virtual extension of your veterinary team to streamline access to patient care, strengthen customer service, and alleviate professional burnout. For more information, go to www.guardianvets.com.
- Voss C. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It. Harper Collins; 2016.
- Human-Animal Bond Certification. Module 3: Communication. VetFolio. 2018. www.vetfolio.com