Communicating effectively over the phone is just as important as in person. Here's how to make sure your veterinary team does it right.
Veterinary team members have more contact with clients over the phone than they do in person. Yet practice owners and managers give them very little oversight on how to communicate with clients over the phone. While you're occupied elsewhere in the hospital, your busy or poorly trained receptionists often don't realize the mistakes they're making. How do you know if your team is handling phone calls properly and what impressions are you leaving with pet owners on the other end of the line?
Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM
In my career, I've had the opportunity to make secret shopper calls, listen to audiotapes, and read transcripts and reports of calls between pet owners and staff members. Over time, a clear pattern emerged, revealing five common mistakes that even those veterinary practices with well-intentioned, well-trained staff members make. Here's a list of the five mistakes observed through our secret shopper calls. Hopefully, these mistakes will provide ideas for additional training and coaching to improve this critical communications area.
1. Sending the wrong message
Have you ever called a veterinary practice and heard a disinterested voice answer, "Hello. X-Y-Z Veterinary Hospital, Jane speaking. How can I help you?" Even though the words were right, the tone was wrong. The real message the caller receives is: "I'm mindlessly answering the phone, and I have other things I'd rather be doing than talking to you." It's hardly the warm, welcoming, interested-in-you spirit most practices want to convey. Most veterinary practices rely on scripts to get the job done. While scripts are helpful, staff members need to understand not only what they're talking about, but also that the way they deliver their words matters.
Phone communication is challenging. When people are talking on the phone, communication is limited to words, tone, energy, and warmth of the voice. There are no visual clues like body language, facial expressions, and eye contact to help deliver the message. On the phone, words comprise only 20 percent of what we communicate. The rest of the message is delivered through other audio components (tone, warmth) and these are the messaging tools practice owners most overlook in training.
Practice owners can create a true competitive advantage by training beyond the words and teaching team members to engage with callers. How would they act and sound if a good friend was on the other end of the line? Would they rush through the conversation or treat the caller indifferently? Pet owners who call are friends of the practice. They're trying to give you business by entrusting their pets to your care. Team member training includes helping them understand that callers should feel like welcomed friends when they call.
2. Offering no solution
Clients call the practice every day looking for help. They're letting you know that their pets have a problem that you can help them solve. By calling, these pet owners are also telling you that they're willing to spend money to solve their pets' problems, and yet most receptionists seldom offer solutions for their issues.
When they call, the most important thing is for team members to try to understand the caller's problem and offer a solution. If it's something simple, like a request for a prescription refill, they should work with the caller to find a convenient time for him or her to pick up the prescription, or sign the client up for your prescription home delivery plan.
Make sure team members listen intently so they can offer a customized solution that fits the caller's situation. Even seemingly simple requests like filling a prescription can backfire if your team does not handle it well. Clients don't understand why they can't come in at closing time and expect to get a prescription at the last minute, or why the prescription requires the veterinarian's approval or a lab test before you can fill it. Training prepares team members to address different scenarios like this with empathy and skill.
The worst failure to solve clients' problems occurs when callers ask for advice about pets that are just "not themselves." In all cases, the best answer is to invite clients to bring the pets in to see a veterinarian. This offers the pet owner peace of mind—if he or she was concerned enough to make a call, the pet owner has a problem that he or she needs someone to solve. It's amazing how many team members fail to offer this simple solution, often out of the misguided notion that they will appear pushy when in fact it's the best solution for pets and clients.
3. Focusing on money
Price shoppers are not necessarily bargain hunters. But we turn them into one by responding to their questions about prices with little else beyond the information they've requested. Simply giving callers a price is the wrong approach. It makes the conversation about money and not about their pets. In today's economy, almost everyone is worried about costs. There is a real probability that these callers may be responsible pet owners who just want to see if they can afford the visit. Another possibility is that they believe preventive veterinary care, such as vaccinations, is a commodity and the only difference is the price.
Challenge your team members to see price shoppers differently and change the conversation they have with them. Make the conversation about the pet. Team members should give the caller a taste of what he or she can expect to experience at your practice. They should ask what the pet's name is and use it in the conversation. They should also ask if the pet owner has any special problems or concerns, and then they should address those concerns as they provide the fee range for the services that he or she has inquired about. Finally, your team should give the caller a reason to believe that making an appointment with your hospital is the best choice for the caller and his or her pet. Always try to include a point of differentiation that fits your branding to help callers see why bringing their pets to you would be a good choice: "Our clients always tells us how much their pets like coming here. I'm sure that Max will like it, too!" or, "Your kitty will love watching the birds at the feeder outside our cat exam room!"
The simple steps above will help callers understand that you're about the pets and not about the money—don't forget to remind your team to solve the caller's problem by inviting him or her to make an appointment.
4. Training inadequately
Sometimes the desire to please clients can get in the way of taking care of pets. Inexperienced or poorly trained receptionists don't always realize that the best way they can help clients make good decisions for their pets is by providing accurate information that is consistent with a hospital's protocols. For instance, when a client asks how important it is to have a pet's teeth cleaned, an inexperienced receptionist might say, "Oh, don't worry about it. It's expensive and it can usually wait." That's bad information and is most likely a training issue. Does your training program include information on the benefits of different procedures? Or, why the veterinarians at your practice believe in the protocols? Why they feel that they're the best for pets? Do you train your team on how to make the value proposition with clients? If your current training doesn't address these things, more conversations like the one above are bound to occur.
Another serious mistake comes from more experienced receptionists who have been with the practice for awhile. They think they know what the doctors would say and because the doctors are often busy, they try to help clients by giving them a quick answer. For instance, callers might ask what to do if their dogs or cats have been vomiting. In situations like this, it's not unusual for seasoned receptionists to say, "Why don't you just withhold food until tonight and see how they do?"
By responding like this, receptionists think they're helping clients and sparing their veterinarians. In reality, it's never a good idea for a receptionist to assume he or she knows what the doctor would say or do—it could cause harm to pets and a result in a malpractice suit against the hospital. Remember, if it's important enough to the client to call, it's important enough to respond with accurate information. Team members should check with the doctor or make an appointment for the pet. If the doctor is not immediately available, they should check with him or her later on, and call the client back to explain what the doctor said.
5. Staying on the phone too long
Sometimes, in an effort to be nice and bond with callers or because the callers keep extending the conversation, receptionists end up spending too much time on the phone. This can compromise client care in other areas because it interferes with their work and the attention they could be giving clients who are in the office.
Team members who spend time on the phone with callers can usually benefit from training on how to tactfully take control and end calls with overly chatty clients. It helps if staff members understand that part of their job is to put themselves in charge of the calls. They need to assess the true nature of the call and identify an outcome that will satisfy the client and get him or her off the phone. They also need to demonstrate interest and empathy so they don't appear abrupt or uncaring.
Learning how to spot the difference between open and closed questions as a tool for managing conversations is a good start, but it's not enough. It's also important to set empathy checkpoints: Did they use the clients' and pets' names? Did they ask questions to understand the problem? This can help ensure that management of the call doesn't turn into a task of just getting the clients off the line.
Telephone mistakes like these happen every single day. They can waste time, alienate callers, impact appointments, and some mistakes can even put pets and the practice at risk. These mistakes should give you a better idea of the common mishaps that training can address to help staff members excel when they're on the phone.
Special thanks to Marsha Heinke, DVM, EA, CPA, CVPM, and her team at Marsha L. Heinke, CPA, Inc., and to Denise Tumblin, CPA, and her team at Wuitchett, Tumblin and Associates for information from their secret shopper work.
Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM, is a veterinary business consultant and nationally known writer and speaker.She says her job is to help practices "go and grow" with training, marketing and new ideas. She is a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager, an adjunct instructor for AAHA, and a founding member of VetPartners (formerly the Association of Veterinary Practice Management Consultants and Advisors).