Live from CVC San Diego: Say this, not that in the veterinary exam room


Study the dos and don'ts of veterinary client communication.

The more clients understand, the more likely they are to comply, say Drs. Mike Paul and Ruth MacPete in the session “Your 20-minute chance to change a pet’s life” at CVC San Diego.

Through a series of role playing scenarios, the two doctors revealed the best—and worst—ways to communicate with clients in the exam room. Study the five scenarios below and break your “bad doctor” habits today.

Scenario No. 1: You’ve kept the client waiting 20 minutes. When you finally enter the room you say…

Bad doctor: “We’re running behind schedule so let’s hurry up and get this exam over with.”

Good doctor: “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting, Mrs. Jones. We had an emergency with a vomiting dog that I had to attend to in the back.”

Dr. Paul says that clients are more willing to wait when you explain the situation. Once you clue them in on the craziness happening behind the scenes, they’ll see how you adjust your schedule in emergency situations. Now they know you’ll do the same for their sick dog or cat, he says. If you don’t acknowledge the wait time, you’re telling clients you don’t respect their time or business.

Scenario No. 2: Time for the physical exam. You tell the client…

Bad doctor: “Everything looks good. We’ll give Scarlett her vaccines and see her next year.”

Good doctor: “Scarlett’s here for vaccines but I’m going to do a physical exam to see if she’s healthy. I’m looking in her eyes and they’re very clear. At home if you notice any discharge or squinting be sure to call me because those might be signs of a serious problem…”

“It doesn’t matter how good you are at the physical exam. What matters is how good you are at conveying that exam to the client,” Dr. Paul says. “Otherwise, the client doesn’t know what you’re doing.” Dr. MacPete points out that often the exam happens so quickly that clients don’t even realize you did one at all. Both doctors say you should narrate every bit of the exam (e.g., explain why you’re squeezing the dog’s belly, pumping his legs, and so on).

Scenario No. 3: The patient needs a dental. You tell the client…

Bad doctor: “Scarlett needs to have her teeth cleaned. We can do that if you want to.”

Good doctor: “Scarlett has periodontal disease—do you know what that is? It’s much more than bad breath. If left untreated it can lead to pain, tooth loss, and bacteria in the bloodstream that could affect Scarlett’s kidneys and heart. We recommend a dental—first we’ll scale off the tartar and then we’ll clean her teeth.”

“If clients think a dental is just for bad breath, they’re not going to do the dental,” Dr. MacPete says. She says you’re recommendations will fall on deaf ears if you don’t explain that the patient is in pain. Explain that the dental isn’t a luxury for the patient—it’s vital to her health and well-being.

Scenario No. 4: Scarlett needs thoracic radiography. You tell the client…

Bad doctor: “Scarlett needs thoracic radiography.”

Good doctor: “Scarlett needs an X-ray.”

“Clients aren’t impressed when you use big words—they’re impressed when they understand what you’re saying,” Dr. Paul says. Dr. MacPete agrees. She says it’s hard because you’re in the habit of using that language while communicating with your veterinary team. However, she says it’s vital to switch to layman’s terms when talking to the client to ensure your message is getting through.

Scenario No. 5: You finished the exam and you’re nearing the end of the appointment. You tell the client…

Bad doctor: [With your hand already on the exam room doorknob] “You didn’t have any other questions, did you?”

Good doctor: “Did you have any other concerns about Scarlett? What other questions do you have?”

Dr. Paul says the more comfortable clients are with you, the more likely they are to schedule additional appointments at your clinic. As for the clients who ask you a hundred questions—Dr. Paul says to plan ahead and schedule longer appointments with them. “Oftentimes the high-maintenance ones are your best clients,” he says. “You have to book time to spend with them and keep everybody happy.”

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