The key to veterinary clients' hearts (and bosses' too!)


Unlock your potential in the veterinary practice with communication that elevates the service you offer-and makes heartfelt connections with the clients you serve.

Shortly after purchasing my own practice, I heard from one of my colleagues who'd been helping me with the purchase: "Whoever is manning the front desk, go ahead and give her two weeks' notice. I have a great receptionist coming back from leave, and I don't have a place for her."

So, despite meeting Donna, the receptionist at my new practice, and liking her a lot, I gave her notice. But then something happened. Over the next week I watched her as she owned the office, welcoming virtually everyone who came through the door by their first name, including their pets.

If clients came in upset, they left in a better frame of mind after spending time with Donna. It didn't take an idiot to see I was about to make a big mistake. So about a week later, I called her back to my office.

"Remember what I said the other day about not needing you any longer?" I asked. She nodded. "Will you please forget every word of it and stay with me?" She nodded again, this time with a big smile on her face. When I sold the practice about a decade later, Donna was still my receptionist, and along the way I learned so much from her about how to treat clients like real people.

After all, even the most stressed-out or difficult client has a heart ... somewhere. And what if finding ways to effectively deal with such clients is key to your next promotion or salary bump? It just might be. When you can win over even the most challenging clients, you become a more valuable asset, because high-quality customer service is a key component to a productive, profitable practice. It's not often emphasized by our educational system, but it's something that you can develop on the job. It starts by realizing the way to another person's heart is through your own heart.

Empathy and intuition

Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of another. And it often starts by realizing we share more in common with people than we have differences. This is especially true in veterinary clinics. We act as a magnet, attracting people who love and care for animals. Keeping this in mind, we can develop our intuitive skills and empathy.

We all get upset, and more often than not we're not really upset about what it appears we're upset about. I call this the "kick the cat" syndrome, from the story I once heard about the irate husband who arrived home one evening after a hard day at work. As he walked into the house, the family cat rubbed against his leg but received a swipe with the man's foot.

The wife noticed this unusual behavior as she walked over to greet her husband, then she walked back into the kitchen to fix him a drink. She knew how much he loved their cat. And if he was taking a swipe at it, he must have had a hard day. She used her intuition and empathy to give him space to calm down.

Donna would often do the same thing when clients walked in as an "upset waiting to happen." Realizing their feelings were likely not about her, she wouldn't take their behavior personally. Instead, she treated them as she'd want to be treated—with respect and dignity.

The magical powers of deep listening

One of Donna's greatest gifts was her ability to listen deeply, not only to what clients said but to what they didn't say—what was in the background that has so much to do with the context and meaning of their words. Deep listening and empathy often go hand-in-hand. Donna was masterful at listening, which often led clients to share what was really going on that contributed to their bad mood. Because she listened without judgment, by the time the irate client made it to the exam room, a transformation had often taken place. The angry client had turned into a peaceful pussycat.

Such deep listening is a skill you can develop that involves empathy, compassion, and a nonjudgmental disposition. This allows you to be an open vessel, not needing to agree, disagree, or defend any point of view. Really being heard in this way is a gift we can give to others that allows them to simply be who they are in the moment. It also often leads to quicker dissipation of the upset.

Communicate to connect

Donna was a master at connecting with clients. Her ability to connect started with a humility that came so naturally to her that it was easy for people to take it for granted. But humility is also a way of being you can develop. I know because I finally learned some humility from Donna. When I started my practice, I often came across as cocky or arrogant. I slowly learned that clients didn't care how much I knew. They first needed to know how much I cared.

I learned this from listening to Donna speak with people who called in, often worried about their beloved pets. She'd listen to their complaints, being fully present with the person on the other end of the phone. When they were finished, she'd calmly assure them that they'd done the right thing by calling us, then make sure she understood the situation as they'd expressed it. She never talked down to them or made them feel inferior. Instead she treated them as equals.

The other gift that Donna seemed to naturally possess that we all can develop is the ability to find something nice to say to the other person. If clients called with a question, she would acknowledge them for making the call and provide detailed information. On busy days she might be called to take the history in the exam rooms while our technicians caught up in the back. Again, she'd listen keenly to clients describing the problem, occasionally asking questions to gain specific information. Then she'd thank the client. Donna's approach worked because her appreciation was authentic.

But nowhere was Donna more valuable than when talking with clients who were upset over a financial matter. First, she'd remind herself not to take the matter personally. Then she'd listen carefully to everything clients said, making sure they felt fully heard. She didn't become defensive or upset. Instead, she'd find something positive to share about what clients said, often validating how they felt. Then she would explore a solution that worked for everyone. Invariably, she and the client would come to terms.

Donna may not have been as perfect a receptionist as my memory serves me now. But I learned so much from her on how to deal effectively with irate clients. One of my smartest moves in practice was keeping her on staff so I could learn from her.

Dr. Brad Swift is founder of the Life on Purpose Institute and helps professionals through writing, speaking, and coaching. Send comments to

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