How to communicate with your veterinary clients: Straight talk pays off


You can scream and shout, but until you work out your communication muscles, you'll never get through to your veterinary clients. It's time to do better.

I recently paid a visit to one of my healthcare practitioners to get some advice on how to improve my health through diet. He’s a young, competent practitioner I’ve been going to for about a year to treat an old back injury that flares up from time to time. He does an excellent job reducing the pain and getting me back to my normally active life.

During a recent visit I’d completed a questionnaire to help determine what I could do nutritionally to stay as healthy as possible. The follow-up consultation showed me that he’d done a thorough job evaluating the questionnaire and knew plenty about nutrition.

However, I walked out of his office without taking any action.

Why? Because like many health practitioners, Dr. Fred has never learned how to communicate with his clients in a way that invites compliance. I recognized this problem because I spent several years in my own veterinary practice being at least as ineffective as Dr. Fred.

When it came to straight talk that prompted action and compliance, instead of being a strong communicator, I was a 97-pound weakling. Like Dr. Fred I knew my stuff. I could conduct a thorough history and physical and was a competent diagnostician, but when it came to making recommendations that would serve both my patients and clients, I often fell flat. It sounded something like this:

“Well, Ms. Kapp, I’ve noticed a few things on Tobie’s physical exam that you might want to know about, like his teeth.”

“What about his teeth?”

“Well, uh, they could stand to be cleaned.”

“Really? Is that where that awful smell is coming from?”

“Yes, it could be. So, sometime you might want to, you know, drop him by so we can take care of them.”

“Sure thing, doctor.”

Of course, Ms. Kapp, being busy like everyone else, never got around to dropping Tobie off.

Luckily, when I finally hired a business coach, we worked extensively on my communication skills. Learning to be a more effective communicator was a major factor in the 40 percent growth we experienced in that first year after I hired her. It took work, but over time I went from a 97-pound weakling to a powerful heavyweight communicator. So can you. Ready to get to work?

Let’s start with the foundation of relationship-building.

Relationships: The foundation of communication

You have a relationship with every client who comes through your door, whether it's someone who's been coming to you for 10 years or a pet owner who just heard about you from her next-door neighbor. While the relationship starts with the fact that you both love animals, it’s important to build on the relationship during every visit.

My tendency in the early days of my practice was to focus all my attention on the pet and pretty much ignore the client. That doesn’t work. Our clients appreciate being recognized and acknowledged—as we all do.

To start building these relationships, ask yourself what interests, values, and commitments you share with your clients. These become the links that forge a bond. Remember this each time you begin a conversation with a client. (This works equally well during conversations with your team members.)

Building a strong relationship doesn’t have to take a long time, either. With a well-established client, it may take no more than a simple, “Good morning, Ms. Walker, it’s good to see you again. Do you realize you’ve been bringing Maxwell to me for almost 10 years—ever since he was eight weeks old? You’ve been an outstanding pet owner."

Building this bond with a new client might take a bit longer, but consider the time spent as a wise investment for the future. Try something like, “Ms. Booker, welcome to our clinic. I understand from Donna that Ms. Ellis, one of our most loyal clients, recommended us to you. I really appreciate you giving us the opportunity to care for your new kitten. I hope this is the start of a long and happy relationship like we’ve had with Ms. Ellis."

These exact words may sound unnatural to you because they aren’t your words. So adapt the concept of relationship-building to your own style and vocabulary. Just don’t neglect it. It’s the foundation upon which to build effective communication.

Plug in and listen

Have you ever stood face-to-face with a client discussing some complicated issue, like repairing a torn cruciate ligament, and suddenly noticed a blank stare come over his face? You may have continued with your discussion only to later find that the client didn't understand a word of what you were saying.

It's not that he wasn’t listening. He just wasn’t listening to you. He may have been having a conversation with himself. It’s easy for anyone to become so involved in an this inner dialogue that the message you’re trying to communicate doesn’t get through. This is especially true if what you’re saying is confusing. Ignore this tendency and you’ll remain a communication weakling, but staying aware of it is a big step forward in becoming a communication commando. Here’s why.

When you realize that everyone you talk to is already engaged in a conversation with himself, you can begin to influence the internal conversation as well as the external one. You can try to understand what the other person is saying to himself that blocks the effectiveness of your conversation and become more aware of body language that signals a communication misfire.

For example, let’s say you’re in the midst of a conversation with a loyal client who's had some issues in the past paying her bill on time. You’re discussing an involved procedure that could be costly but is necessary. As you begin to estimate the cost, you notice her eyes start to glaze over or that she begins to study the posters on the wall.

What do you imagine her internal conversation is like at that point? If you guessed it would involve her concern with paying the bill, you’re probably right. So you might say something like this:

“Now, Mrs. Poisey, I know how much Sophie means to you. At the same time, I also realize you have to manage your finances like the rest of us. I want you to know that I’d be happy to have you talk with Donna about setting up a payment schedule. Would that be helpful?”

Don’t be surprised to hear a sigh of relief.

There’s another effective communication skill that can help you become a better practitioner. It’s the simple yet often underutilized process of checking in.

Check in before clients check out

Have you ever listened to one of those long drawn-out jokes and missed one of the key points in the beginning of the story? Perhaps you were listening to your own internal dialogue at the time. For the rest of the joke, you’re trying to figure out the story only to find at the end that you’ve completely missed the punch line.

We do this to our clients all the time—and it’s usually not funny. For example, imagine that you walk into the exam room after getting the results of the heartworm and fecal exam:

“Mr. Webster, I have some bad news. Butch has heartworms and hookworms. Now, what we need to do is have him come in for some blood work and X-rays to see if we can treat him for the heartworms. While he’s here, we’ll go ahead and treat him for the hookworms too."

You might wonder at the end of the discussion why Mr. Webster seems so confused. He's never seemed that dense before. The reason might be that you left him at the starting gate when you said “bad news.” Or if he was quick enough to get beyond that, you lost him as he tried to figure out why you needed to do X-rays to treat Butch for hookworms. Ever notice how much "hookworms" and "heartworms" sound alike when someone is talking fast and you’re worried about the bad news?

Checking in with clients periodically throughout the conversation can help alleviate this problem. First, it gives the client time to catch up with what you’ve said by allowing him to participate in the conversation. It also helps keep him out of his own internal conversation and in the one you’re holding with him by letting him clarify any confusing points so the rest of the discussion will make more sense.

Communication is one of our most effective yet underutilized tools in practice. The good news is that the more we practice these communication skills, the stronger we become. It’s never too late to decide to quit being a 97-pound communication weakling and start working out to become a powerful communication powerhouse. So start sweating—figuratively speaking, of course.

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