Mastering the Art of Customer Service

February 12, 2018
Kerry Lengyel

When it comes to treating clients right, veterinary practices might want to follow the lead of these successful businesses.

Excellent customer service can lead to real success for a veterinary practice. Terrible customer service can spell disaster. Everyone wants to be treated with respect and kindness, and the experience your customers perceive in their dealings with your practice is vital to their loyalty, particularly in this age of social media.

At the 2017 International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Symposium in Nashville, Robin Brogdon, MA, president of Blueprints Veterinary Marketing Group and Veterinarian’s Money Digest® Editorial Advisory Board member, discussed how veterinarians can apply models from businesses that have built their reputation on superb customer service.

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One thing all the top companies have in common is a culture of trust, where employees trust the people they work for, enjoy the people they work with and take pride in what they do every day. “Essentially, you need to ask yourself what you can do to increase the level of communication and openness between management and employees in your practice,” Brogdon said. Often, that key ingredient is affording your team members the autonomy to make decisions on their own that affect how clients regard the practice.

Improving management—employee relationships fosters a culture of trust that ultimately generates three key results: increased productivity, employee retention and ease of recruiting. To begin to focus on establishing this trusting relationship, Brogdon advises asking yourself these key questions:

  • How can we increase the communication and respect between management and employees?
  • How can we encourage pride in a job well done?
  • How can we foster employee camaraderie?

“It’s really about you finding your way that speaks to who you are and provides your client with an experience that is extraordinary,” Brodgon said. Veterinary practice owners and managers can learn a lot from The Ritz-Carlton and other businesses. A key takeaway from all these companies is that company culture is built from the top down. Leadership must live the values that are assigned to the company, and the same holds true for veterinary practices.

What They Do Well... Make it Personal.

The Ritz-Carlton chain of luxury hotels and residences operates under a singular motto: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” Employees do not regard their guests as customers or clients, but rather as individuals — always greeting them by name. Every employee who works for the company attends a 15-minute meeting before every shift. At these meetings, managers first applaud one employee’s noteworthy act of service and then describe in detail the guest(s) in one room or meeting. The staff is instructed to go above and beyond in anticipating and fulfulling each guest’s needs.

Apply It!

Personalizing a pet owner’s visit to your clinic is easy and free. It simply takes a bit of mindfulness to communicate in a personalized, rather than a task-oriented, manner. Consider the technician who comes to the waiting room to escort a patient to the exam room. It often goes like this: The technician comes out of the back and calls out “Sparky” while holding the door open with a foot. Mrs. Smith and Sparky come toward the technician, who then says, “Come this way,” puts them in an exam room and shuts the door, leaving the two alone with no information about what will happen to them next.

Now imagine this same scenario taking place at The Ritz-Carlton: The technician emerges from the back room, walks through the lobby and calls for Mrs. Smith and Sparky. She extends her arm to shake Mrs. Smith’s hand and says, “Hello, Mrs. Smith. I’m Betty. I’m a technician here at The Ritz Clinic. I’m glad you brought Sparky in today.” Then she gets down to the animal’s level, let’s Sparky sniff her hand and says, “Hi Sparky! I’m sorry your tummy isn’t feeling well today. Let’s see what we can do for you.”

As she gestures for the Smiths to follow her, Betty explains what is going to happen: “Mrs. Smith, I will be getting you and Sparky settled in an exam room. Then I’ll ask you a few questions about Sparky’s situation. Once we’re caught up, I’ll get Dr. Owens, who will perform an examination. Do you have any questions before we get started?”

The Takeaway

Check the patient’s record to find out why the animal came in to your clinic — don’t ask the pet owner. Use client and pet names and provide your own name, describe your role and how you will help, and then mention the doctor’s name. Help the client feel like his or her situation is the only one that matters. Make sure both pet owner and patient are comfortable before you leave them alone in an exam room.

What They Do Well… Connect.

This online shoe and clothing retailer has its customer service representatives take a very different approach to client calls. The company mandates that employees spend 80 percent of their days with customers, and employees have the go-ahead to make that happen in a variety of unique ways. One employee broke the record for the longest call after spending 10 hours on the phone with a customer.

Apply It!

Most pet owners cannot evaluate the quality of the treatment you provide, but they do know how you made them feel during their time with you. Being empathetic — taking the time to listen, engage, educate, personalize, care and connect — can make all the difference in the overall experience.

The most important thing to a pet owner who has left a fur baby in your care is knowing that the pet is OK. So connect with them on a regular basis:

  • Text a photo of the pet wrapped in a blanket sleeping quietly or taking a walk outside.
  • Reassure the client regularly that things are OK or are being closely monitored.
  • Call or text the client (whatever he or she prefers) once or twice a day to see whether you can answer any questions.
  • Contact the client after the pet is released to see how things are going. Reach out again the following week to make sure things are still going well. The client will be pleasantly shocked that you took the time to do this.

The Takeaway

The higher the communication rate, the higher the satisfaction rate will be. Living in an age where technology is literally at our fingertips all day long makes it almost impossible not to connect with our clients.

What They Do Well... Engage.

In addition to having a live person answer every call to the company’s customer service line, this well-known seller of outdoor apparel and camping gear is extremely active on social media. For its 100th anniversary, the company asked customers to share their outdoor moments on social media, and for every photo received, they pledged to donate $1 to the National Parks Service. Over 1 million people responded, so the company donated $1 million.

Apply It!

Pet owners want to partner with a practice that cares about the welfare of its clients, patients and community as much as or more than the practice itself. To build a large, devoted following, show your interest in your clients’ lives and to your community at large.

  • Leverage the power of social media to engage in conversations with your followers. Have themed photo contests, post a photo of a bizarre X-ray and ask for submissions on what the animal swallowed, share a touching story about how a client said goodbye to his or her pet and ask for more stories, or run a naming contest for the new hospital cat. Ask your clients to engage, and respond to their posts so they know you are listening.
  • Proudly display your support for community organizations in the lobby of your practice with photos of your participation. Include animal and human groups, such as shelters and local youth sports teams.
  • Have a (locked) suggestion box in your waiting room or exam rooms. Publish the suggestions you’ve implemented on Facebook if and when appropriate.
  • Invite local schools to tour your facility. Take photos of each student posing in scrubs. Invite the media to tour with you. Ask the students to write a note back to you about what they learned.

The Takeaway

Get out there. Engage. Participate. Ask your clients for feedback. Show the community that your practice is interested, listening and cares.

What They Do Well... Stay True to Their Core Values.

This major U.S. airline flat-out refuses to hire anyone who is not friendly. The company took this value of friendliness to a whole new level when one passenger posted a picture of his ruined luggage after a flight. Southwest replaced the luggage and apologized publicly on its social media channels for all to see.

Apply It!

When a mistake is made, the fastest and most efficient way to turn a negative situation into something positive (or, at least, less negative) is to acknowledge it. Own up, be accountable and take the opportunity to correct the error. And, when possible and appropriate, have a sense of humor about it. For example:

  • If the appointment desk failed to keep a client’s appointment timely or simply failed to put it on the books and the client has a reminder card in her hand, send a bouquet of forget-me-nots.
  • If Fido’s favorite Miss Piggy toy was lost, then deliver a new Miss Piggy (or something close) and a pet store gift card to your client’s home. Include a group “we’re sorry” photo with your card.
  • If there is a social media post about how awful your lobby smelled, then post a response of your team in scrubs, gloves and masks with mops committed to clean up! Remember that especially with social media, responses are not just for the person who posted the negative review — they’re for everyone else who sees your page. So how you respond to your followers matters. Don’t wait for the client to call the clinic.

The Takeaway

Own it, quickly and professionally, and know that doing so doesn’t have to mean boring or stuffy. To err is human. Be proud that your practice’s core values include accountability.

What They Do Well... Respect and Make Customers Feel Special.

This toy company gears its customer service toward kids and delivers beyond expectations. A boy who had been saving up for two years to buy a certain Lego toy found out that the toy had been discontinued. After he wrote to Lego to express his disappointment, the company delivered the discontinued toy to his house in time for his birthday.

Apply It!

Nurturing relationships with your clients is a critical part of building a successful practice. In this age of automation, caring for your clients as well as their pets has never been more important. In an instant, an unhappy client can share his or her opinion with the masses through social media and negatively affect your practice. That is why it’s more important than ever to create an excellent relationship with every single pet owner. Here are a few examples of things you can do to make clients feel special:

  • Everyone likes free stuff, so give each client a small branded gift such as a ball, bandana or snack at sign-in or discharge.
  • Provide a warm and welcoming lobby. Have fresh coffee and water available all day.
  • Offer coloring books for kids. The American Veterinary Medical Association offers a free downloadable booklet. Add your logo and hand out copies with a small box of crayons.
  • Have a birthday board on display each month to acknowledge your patients’ birthdays!
  • Host a Client Appreciation Week. Pass out thank-you gifts to every client who comes in, and send a card to every client. Go above and beyond to show your clients that they matter.

The Takeaway

Walt Disney said it best: “Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.” Creating a positive bond between your practice and your clients can help spread positive word of mouth — and that’s absolutely priceless.

What They Do Well... Empower Employees to Make Their Own Decisions and Deliver on Their Brand Promise

If you’re familiar with this luxury department store chain, then you probably know about its famous return policy. Customers can return items without receipts, even years after they were purchased. When one man showed up to a store attempting to return a set of tires he bought from the tire shop that used to be open in that same location, the tires were accepted without question and the man was given a refund — even though Nordstrom has never sold tires

Apply It!

Exceptional customer service needs to be exemplified at all levels of your practice. Each employee plays an important role in shaping the perception of the business, and everyone in the practice needs to feel confident in doing so. This includes providing staff with the authority to make some decisions without seeking approval from superiors.

Consider this situation: Your receptionist is on the phone with a client who has a laundry list of complaints. Placing the client on a long hold until someone is available who has the power to fix the problem will likely exacerbate the situation. To appease the client quickly and avoid further repercussions, put the power to fix the problem in your receptionist’s hands.

To effectively use this type of authority, employees first need to be trained on how to problem-solve and understand the recourses available to them. Create parameters that everyone on staff is familiar and comfortable with:

  • Cap the dollar amount that can be offered as a discount.
  • Provide a small pool of product samples that can be given away.
  • Limit how often employees can offer discounts or samples without consulting the practice manager or owner.
  • Instruct employees on how to record discounts or offers they’ve given.

Furthermore, empower employees to take on the role of brand ambassador. Create a blog for your practice’s website and encourage staff members to contribute their expertise through articles and videos. This reiterates to employees that they are vital to the overall success of the company and sends a message to clients that your practice is overflowing with experts.

The Takeaway

Empowering employees with the confidence and resources they need to solve problems quickly helps to retain clients. This reiterates to employees that they are vital to the overall success of the practice and creates the impression for clients that your hospital is overflowing with experts.