How I empowered receptionists

December 4, 2019
Meg Oliver

Meg Oliver is practice manager at Cicero Animal Clinic in Brewerton, New York.

The veterinary receptionists did their jobs, but things were a little curt, a little unfriendly, a little negative. So this 2019 dvm360/VHMA Practice Manager of the Year finalist took herself (mostly) out of the equation when it came to meetings and let them come up with positive change themselves.

Frank would try to answer the phones, but he found his lack of opposable thumb made front-desk work difficult. (aspen rock / stock.adobe.com)

In my time at our veterinary hospital, the reception team had, by far, experienced the most struggles. Years ago, I'd demoted a team leader who was kind but not truly fit for leadership. Later, she moved on and left our clinic. There was also an extremely toxic employee who had caused a good deal of damage before she was let go (a lesson learned in itself). While those changes helped, the team had clearly been broken.

I told them that since I almost never do front-desk work, I shouldn't be leading their meetings. Instead, they were going to take turns leading while I supervised and was available for questions.

There is a good deal of variety in the reception team when it comes to personality, age, common interests and skill sets. This is, of course, true of any team, but when things get to a certain level of damage, differences drive people apart rather than help them recognize each other's unique qualities. While the team was performing the basic job functions, things had gotten a bit petty and spiteful. Receptionist team members were more likely to notice that someone did something wrong than someone did something above and beyond. I decided empowerment was the solution. I told them that since I almost never do front-desk work, I shouldn't be leading their meetings. Instead, they were going to take turns leading while I supervised and was available for questions. What I was really doing was forcing them to communicate with each other.

Each employee mentions a positive thing that happened since the last meeting. Sometimes it's a comment about a positive client interaction, but frequently it's a positive comment about a teammate. This was a hard pill for them to swallow at first and no one was happy. The communication was curt between them at first, but over time when they got to know each other better, it improved. They met twice a month initially and as their communication skills with each other grew, I backed it down to once a month.

Managers manage communication

Meg Oliver is one of 10 finalists for 2019 dvm360/VHMA Practice Manager of the Year. Learn more about the contest and read more stories from other entrants, finalists and winners here.

Today, the reception team is capable of solving most of their problems under my supervision. They're proactive and productive, empowered and motivated. Sometimes I feel like they don't even need me! The experiment worked so well that I did the same thing with our veterinary assistant and veterinary technician teams.

I strongly believe that the root of 95% of all problems is failed communication. Re-learning and developing communication skills within your teams is critical, but it takes time and is not easy. It takes a lot of steering.

Meg Oliver is practice manager at Cicero Animal Clinic in Brewerton, New York, and a 2019 finalist for dvm360/VHMA Practice Manager of the Year.