Service calls: 5 strategies to inspect and improve customer service


Inspect your customer service and then fix it with these 5 strategies to build yourself a strong foundation of clients.

If your practice's client service moments aren't perfectly polished and you figure your customer service techniques might have a screw loose, you've hit the nail on the head. Customer service is making a comeback in the retail sector-and your veterinary clinic needs to pay attention.

Case in point: I recently visited a Home Depot, and as I shopped, no fewer than four people came up to me and asked if I needed help. A few months ago, I was at the same store and couldn't find a single person to help me. On a recent stay at a Marriott hotel, I checked in and the clerk came around the desk, handed me my room key, and escorted me to the elevator.

Businesses are learning that if they want to survive the recession, they must stand out from the crowd. And many are choosing to do that by ramping up their customer service. You can, too.

The key is to provide service that customers value. But first, you need a solid understanding of what clients experience at your hospital. To find out, you'll need to look for leaks and cracks in your team training foundation. It's time for a customer service audit through a phone shopper review and a mystery shopper visit.


A phone shopper review is fairly simple, and you can do it yourself or hire a company to do it for you. Have someone call the practice as a normal pet owner would and ask questions about one of your services, such as a spay or neuter. After the call, have your phone shopper answer these questions:

> How friendly did team members come across on the phone?

> Did they ask the pet's name and the owner's name?

> Did they show a genuine interest in the caller and the pet?

> Did they ask at the end of the call whether the caller would like to make an appointment?

You can also conduct ongoing evaluations of your team's phone etiquette by using a voice-activated recorder on your phone lines, as many other businesses do. You've likely called a customer service number and heard, "This conversation may be recorded for quality control purposes." Inform your team that you're doing this, and place that message on your hold system so clients are aware, too. Team members should treat every call as if it were being recorded and evaluated.


Using a mystery shopper is a little more complicated but just as important. Once again, you can do this yourself or hire an agency that provides mystery shopper services. If you do it yourself, have someone-maybe a friend or relative who's not known by the practice-come in for an annual pet wellness visit or a dental cleaning, for example. After the visit, the mystery shopper should evaluate:

> the initial telephone call

> the receptionist's greeting when he or she entered the practice

> the physical environment of the practice

> how the exam room assistant and the doctor treated the mystery shopper and his or her pet.

Provide your shopper with a form to fill out regarding the experience and discuss it at the next team meeting. (To download a form you can use in your practice, click here.) Again, your team won't know exactly when a mystery shopper will walk in the door, but let them know one could come at any time.



Once you've diagnosed your customer service problem areas, the next step is to see what you can do to improve. First, hold a team meeting and solicit your team members' input-you'll be surprised how many good ideas they have. Next, research CE events that focus on customer service and send all your team members to these events. Finally, consider these strategies:

1. Adopt a client greeter. The job description is simple: This person greets the client and pet by name and welcomes them to the practice. The greeter introduces clients to the receptionist and offers them coffee or water. He or she also makes sure clients don't wait too long or get forgotten. The greeter can sit down to help new clients fill out first-time visit forms and offer a tour of your hospital to display the quality and excellence of your practice. Think of this person as the client's advocate.

2. Designate a telephone operator. Take the telephones away from the receptionists. Yes, you read that right. (Can you hear the applause?) Instead of the front desk, place phones in a separate room near the reception area where an operator is stationed. The telephone operator is responsible for answering all calls, scheduling appointments, and directing phone calls to other departments within the practice.

The operator might be one of your receptionists, or you might rotate receptionists through the position. You could even hire a person specifically for this job. What's amazing about this concept is that you typically don't have to add a staff position; it's just a division of responsibility. But the result is a significant improvement in your customer service. Clients who arrive get the undivided attention of the receptionist at the front desk, while clients on the phone get the same level of attention from the phone operator. In smaller practices, you might not have an operator scheduled all day long; rather, consider scheduling one in the mornings and evenings when the need is greatest.

3. Schedule discharges. Does your practice suffer from "5 to 6 p.m. all heck breaks loose" syndrome? You know what I'm talking about. The afternoon was fine, maybe a little busy, but then 5 p.m. comes and the floodgates open. People and pets pile in. The phones ring nonstop. Scheduled appointments arrive, clients pick up pets they left for the day, surgery and dental patients are discharged, and clients come in to pick up medications and food. (Hint: This is a good time to schedule a telephone operator.)

It's chaos. But it doesn't have to be that way. Consider scheduling some of these discharges to take place at specific times. Many practices that have started scheduling their discharges have been successful in spreading out the evening rush and bringing order to the disorder. Sure, some clients will show up half an hour late to pick up their pet, but they're the exception to the rule.

So what happens during these discharge appointments? That brings us to the next point.

4. Give the doctor the last word. Consider the last (and lasting) impression a client receives when arriving at your practice to pick up a pet. Is it chaos-a long line of people waiting at the reception desk, the receptionist going over discharge orders while answering the phone and dealing with other clients, and the pet being handed to the client by someone he or she has never seen before?

Instead of this madness, have the greeter welcome the client and pet by name and escort them to an exam room to meet with the pet's doctor. After all, if you were picking up your own pet after surgery, who would you want to speak to? This doesn't have to be a long process; three to five minutes is fine. The doctor just needs to make an appearance, inform the client that everything went fine (if this is true), review the discharge orders, and return the client to the receptionist.

On occasion when there are extensive discharge orders, the doctor can enter the room, inform the client that the patient is fine, and introduce the client to a technician who goes over the instructions. But the doctor's appearance is key, so make sure to schedule him or her for a five-minute appointment. After the discharge consultation, the doctor or technician escorts the client back to the reception desk to review an itemized statement. After the client pays, a team member involved with the case brings the pet out and helps client and pet to the car.

Not only does this strategy leave a fantastic final impression, it adds value in the client's eyes and boosts his or her perception of your customer service. As a bonus, it may cut back on many of the follow-up calls clients make when they don't get their questions answered. Which brings us to our last-and most important-strategy.

5. Make medical recalls. In my opinion, the No. 1 thing a practice can do to enhance its perception of value is to make medical recalls, or phone calls to the client after the pet has been seen at your practice. I recommend calling clients after any medical or surgical case that's been discharged from your hospital. Timing is important here: Studies have found that clients most appreciate recalls the night of discharge. This is when they're staying home and monitoring their pets. You'll likely want to wait two to three hours after discharge, but if that's not possible, call the next day.

In addition, I recommend calling clients who come in for outpatient medical visits involving problems such as eye, skin, or ear disorders. Call three to four days after you've seen the patient, even if you're going to see the pet again in five to 10 days for a medical progress exam. It's better customer service for you to call and find out how the pet is doing than to have the client call you. Also, consider what one study found: Each client who receives a phone call will discuss it with at least five other people, spreading the word about your great service.


Don't feel like you have to make all these changes at once. Sample one or two strategies at a time and find out which ones will help you most enhance clients' experience at your practice. And remember this: When it comes to customer service, all you really have to do is love your clients so much and care for their pets so well that they don't want to leave your practice for fear of a harsher world outside your door.

Mark Opperman, CVPM, is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and owner of VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. Send comments to

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