Overcome 4 common client excuses


You've heard flimsy explanations for why pet owners can't comply. Climb above these "weak" reasons by getting down to the legitimate concerns.

You face it daily:

A constant flow of client excuses for noncompliance. After a while, you could be tempted to tune out the chatter. But be careful. What might sound like a put-off could really be the sign of a much deeper issue—one you can overcome with insight and careful communication. Rather than being disheartened by the next line a pet owner feeds you, strive to get to the heart of the matter. In the process, you'll build better client relations and provide better care for pets.

"I can't afford it."

What clients mean: "I choose not to afford this." "I can't afford it."

The undercurrent: "Affordability is extremely relative," says Pam Stevenson, CVPM, director of Veterinary Results Management Inc. in Durham, N.C. "There are times when people honestly can't afford a treatment. Other times, the problem is an allocation of resources. And sometimes, this excuse really isn't true; it's a cover because clients don't want to talk about why they're refusing veterinary advice."

How to overcome it: Resist the urge to X-ray clients' pocketbooks in an attempt to determine whether they can pay for treatment. Instead, work to ensure that clients understand their pets' needs and the options available. Stevenson relates the example of a construction worker who found a kitten on a job site. One of the kitten's eyes was out of its socket. "Even doing the required procedures at cost would have been hundreds of dollars," Stevenson says. "The Good Samaritan said he had no money at all, but no one thought to offer him ideas." (In the end, the construction worker opted for the minimal humane treatment. The kitten is now doing fine and the construction worker has adopted him.) When clients truly can't pay, try to help them by providing a handout on fundraising ideas, such as asking for donations from team members or people in the community. Consider submitting their case to the AAHA Helping Pets Fund. Also, veterinary clinics need to offer and clearly explain options such as third-party payment plans, loans, and pet health insurance, Stevenson says.

While you'll meet indigent clients, you'll also encounter those who possess the means but choose to use their funds for purposes other than pet care. Getting through to these clients requires smart conversation, says Louise Dunn, owner of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting in Greensboro, N.C. "If team members hear, 'I can't afford it,' they need to say, 'This is a treatment plan your pet needs and deserves. I can appreciate that you weren't planning on this expense, but there are options.'" After this, it's once again time to talk about pet insurance and third-party payment plans. Don't be pushy, Dunn says, but clearly communicate just how important the treatment is and that there are financial options. After all, if you tell a client that the payments would break down to $20 a month, that makes a large sum seem much more affordable.

Don't forget to drive home just how costly treatments can become if a pet's condition worsens, says Dr. Dennis Cloud, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member, Medical Director of VCA Cloud Animal Hospital in O'Fallon, Mo., and owner of Rock Road Animal Hospital in St. Louis.

"We saw this situation just the other day with a dog that was showing signs of diabetes," he says. "The owner was debating whether to have the dog admitted and started on fluids. I told the owner, 'If we wait, the dog may have to be hospitalized for eight to 10 days. Reacting now could save your dog, as well as quite a bit of money.' Faced with an option of an expense now versus a much larger expense down the line, most clients will usually choose the former."

"Let me talk to my spouse."

What clients mean: "I can't make this decision on my own." "I don't want to talk about this."

The undercurrent: Clients might be feeling pressure from other family members. "Owners may be hearing dissenters who question the clients' concern over the pet and criticize them for doing so much for the pet," says Shawn McVey, MA, MSW, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and CEO of Innovative Veterinary Management Solutions in Phoenix. "It takes a special bond to treat animals, and it's hard when that bond is being undermined by other family members."

Dr. Cloud finds this line akin to treading water. "Sometimes this is an excuse for another excuse," he says. "The clients may not want to spend the money, but they feel uncomfortable discussing financial matters." This excuse buys them time.

How to overcome it: If a client blames indecision or inactivity on a conveniently absent spouse, it's time to call on your communication capabilities. Dunn says your conversation should sound something like this: "I understand this is a family decision. However, we need to begin treatment. Would you like me to contact your husband? We could call him together, and I'd be happy to address any questions he may have." Why volunteer to personally talk to the spouse? "Relying on a client to pass on information almost ensures that something will get lost in translation," Dunn says. "Team members need to turn hesitancy into action and bridge the communication gap so there's no question of what needs to be done for the pet's wellbeing."

A different unspoken fear could be the key to clients' uncertainty, and your offer to contact the spouse might be just the thing to open the floodgates. After talking with you, they may be ready to deal with their true concerns. And you'll be there to help.

"I don't think my pet needs this."

What clients mean: "My pet can't be that sick." "You didn't say why the treatment is necessary." "I'm scared."

The undercurrent: This excuse usually presents itself for one of three reasons.

1. Clients are in denial. If a pet faces a serious illness, some clients may be struggling to come to terms with what you've just told them. In the midst of the shock, they cling to unrealistic notions. "A lot of people would like to believe that because it's an animal, it will be different and the pet can get by without treatment," McVey says. "They tend to minimize the concern because it's an animal." On the other hand, some owners will be worried about their pets' quality of life and length of treatment, he says.

2. You didn't educate the clients. "You just haven't sold your recommendation," Dunn says. "It's up to team members to express why this service needs to be done."

Real-life excuses you will hardly believe

3. The past makes clients wary. On occasion, clients might claim pets don't need certain services because they've had a bad experience with them. "I've spoken to owners of dogs with heartworms who were reluctant to treat because a previous dog died from the treatment," Stevenson says. "They don't realize the technology and drugs have changed, so they understandably refuse."

How to overcome it: Start by doing some detective work. When you notice that clients are uncomfortable, ask them questions to try to unearth the reasons behind their decisions, McVey says. Usually you'll discover that clients don't understand their pets' needs. "Often, the client doesn't get what is going on or is struggling to grasp the circumstances," he says. "Team members need to set the tone and communicate how serious the situation is by leaning in, looking the client in the eye, and saying, 'I have something serious to tell you, and I want you to focus on what I'm saying.'"

During the conversation, start every sentence with I. For example, say, "I have some concerns about your pet's health." As long as you start with I, clients won't feel like they're being attacked. "If you start statements with you, as in 'You must not have understood,' it backs clients into a hole," McVey says. "They'll get defensive and shut you out."

McVey recommends outlining your concerns about the pet's health with facts—lab results, radiographs, specific behaviors—so you're informing the clients, not throwing guilt at them. "Say, 'I want to make sure you understand the consequences of not following the treatment.' Then make it known at the end of your conversation that, if not treated appropriately, the issue could snowball into something much more costly and serious."

This is all part of expressing a service's value. Add a real-life example and you'll be even more effective in your efforts to show clients how valuable a service is to their pets' health. Anytime owners say they don't want their pets tested for heartworms because they're on preventives, Dr. Cloud's technicians tell them about his daughter's dog. They explain that his daughter thought her mother was giving the heartworm preventive, and his wife thought her daughter was supplying it. Turns out, neither was providing it, so the poor dog came down with a rampant case of worms. The treatment was lengthy and somewhat embarrassing for Dr. Cloud, but the chance to improve client compliance is a silver lining.

This straight talk might sound a bit scary to clients. Some of that fear is valid, while some is based on outdated beliefs. One such archaic fear: anesthesia. Stevenson says she often hears of clients who say they don't want their senior dogs' teeth cleaned because they're afraid of what the anesthesia will do. "The anesthetics we use now are safer," she says. "The pre-anesthetic checks help alert us to problems ahead of time, and the monitoring we have is so much better. But clients need to know this." And if you don't tell them, they won't.

"I don't have time."

What clients mean: "I don't want to." "I'm afraid to leave my pet." "The treatment is too hard to administer."

The undercurrent: This explanation also presents a three-tiered possibility. Most often, the line is purely an excuse, especially when it's uttered in response to the recommendation for a simple blood draw, Dunn says. "People make time for what's important," she says.

Even though some clients are just in a hurry, Dr. Cloud cautions that some truly fear being separated from their pets.

Sometimes clients will make an excuse to cover up the real deal, which is that the pet won't cooperate. "Cats are notorious for this," McVey says. "It may be too hard for clients to treat the animal as prescribed."

How to overcome it: How do you find out if a client really is just trying to avoid a treatment? Make it so easy they can't refuse. Free pet owners from responsibility and stress by saying, "You know what, why don't you leave Fluffy here with me for a few hours, and I'll take care of everything that needs to be done? When you come back, all the treatments will be finished."

If you offer this option but clients still balk, they honestly may be nervous about leaving their pets. If this is the case, make owners feel better by telling them you'll personally watch over the pet and be available if they'd like to check in. "Giving clients someone to call will set many a mind at ease," Dr. Cloud says. "As an example, when I first entered practice a million years ago, I told an owner her dog would need to be admitted. The client looked at me and said, 'I would rather you take Joe.' When I asked, 'Who's Joe?' she responded, 'My husband.' This shocked me, but I've since found it's a common occurrence. When family members enter the hospital, you can call them to see how they're doing. You can't call a pet."

If the problem is difficulty complying at home, the solution can be trickier. McVey finds three main reasons clients miss important schedules for pet care:

1. They didn't know what they were supposed to do—the instructions were misread or unclear.

2. Providing the care was too difficult.

3. They simply didn't do it.

"It's important for the healthcare team to ask questions to dispel the first two reasons," McVey says. "They need to treat the situation seriously and say, 'This is not a good thing. We need to make sure someone is in charge of the pet's care who can be compliant with the instructions given.'" This should encourage clients to explain the real trouble they're having. When they do, offer tried-and-true solutions to help.

Katherine Bontrager is a freelance writer living in Leawood, Kan., who admits to feeding her veterinarian excuses. Her biggest bluff: "My husband must have done that. I didn't know." Please send questions and comments to firstline@advanstar.com.

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