The struggle is real: Navigating client communication

December 14, 2018
Eva Evans, DVM, MBA, CVMA

Eva Evans, DVM, MBA, CVMA, is the owner of a small animal practice in Nashville, Tennessee, focusing on combining gold standard medicine with five star client experience.

Recent veterinary school grads may find talking to human clients tougher than treating their animals.

StockPhotoPro/stock.adobe.comGetting into vet school is hard. Getting through vet school is harder. What they don't tell you at graduation is that it gets even harder outside the walls of structured academia.

I remember being fresh out of school at my first job in private practice; I was excited to learn and do and make my way in the world. I assumed that vet school had prepared me well with the mantra, “You don't have to know everything, you just have to know where to find the answer.” What I didn't realize is that the real world does expect you to know everything, and it also expects you to navigate toxic work environments, use mindreading skills, foresee the future and prevent all bad things from happening-all while making a profit for the practice and serving up every client interaction with a smile. No wonder veterinarians struggle with stress, anxiety, feelings of doubt and personal inadequacy, not to mention high rates of suicide!

I'm here to tell you that being a recent graduate is tough, and I'm also here to share some hope, inspiration and a few pieces of great advice to help.

Talk is cheap, but small talk is priceless

Learning the nuances of subtle intrapersonal communication is tough (especially for us introverts who hate small talk), but it's a skill we need to succeed in private practice and business. We have only a few seconds to make a good impression and only a few minutes to gain the trust of a complete stranger. No pressure, right?

During my many communication failures early in my career, I had a patient with a very peculiar name and I curiously asked, “How did your pet get her name?” My client's eyes lit up and a smile spread across her face as she eagerly told me the backstory, laughing the whole time. That was the moment I realized the power of small talk to build trust and connection. These days, I ask my new clients where they're from, about their favorite sports team and upcoming holiday plans, and what life is like with their pet. When they tell me about themselves, I can almost always find a similarity in my own life. Those few moments of shared experience can set the whole tone for the exam going forward.

Don't be afraid to connect with your clients over hobbies, common experiences or even the fact that it's Friday and you're both ready for the weekend

Your job is to make people happy …

Oh, you're a private practitioner? Welcome to the service industry! In school, we're trained as data-driven scientists, but our ability to provide excellent customer service and make our clients feel good is just as important as being able to diagnose Addison's disease. My first job was full of doctors appalled that they had to discuss information such as basic nutrition, normal behaviors, grooming and *gasp* the use of coconut oil.

Your clients don't care if you graduated in the top of your class if you can't have a conversation with them free of judgment and shame. If you can't address and resolve their concerns (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant), they won't be back. Doesn't sound so bad, right? Until you read the Google and Yelp reviews …

Veterinarians charge money to provide a service, and what we are not taught in school is the scope of that service. Yes, some clients just want a diagnosis and treatment, but many also want reassurance, education, additional information and a two-way conversation on their options. They want to know that you can put your money where your mouth is in terms of diagnostic and treatment recommendations. They want value.

I've found that most of my clients who come in wanting to discuss using coconut oil as a flea medication will nearly always leave my practice with an isoxazoline and the understanding that coconut oil provides medium-chain triglycerides that can help brain function in older pets but isn't going to be effective for their flea infestation. It's never our job to judge or shame our clients and remembering that owners truly want what's best for their pet can help you connect with them. Once clients feel comfortable, appreciated, heard and understood, they often value our recommendations.

We want to help pets, and we can only do that if we're on the same page as our clients. An unhappy client will never come back, but a happy client will return for their pet's care even if they decline your recommendations the first time. Practice revenue aside, making people happy is beneficial to personal and professional fulfillment.

… but you can't make everyone happy

A wise friend once told me, “You can be the juiciest peach in the world, and there's still going to be someone who doesn't like peaches.” This simple phrase reset my professional mindset. Instead of being worried, sad or angry when a client was upset despite me doing everything right, I learned to let go. People have bad days. Sometimes clients are angry and mad. When clients are difficult, I do my quick check: Did I smile and welcome them to the practice? Did I efficiently get into the room or apologize if I was late? Have I shown them kindness and respect? If I messed up, did I own up to my mistake? If yes, then I don't take their negativity personally.

We can't please everyone, and a bit of grace and forgiveness goes a long way in these situations. If they truly are nightmare clients, chances are no one can make them happy and they won't be back no matter what. If you've done your best, don't take someone else's negativity personally.

Know when to cut your losses

It's important to know the difference between an anxious, stressed, difficult client having a bad day and an abusive client. My first job handled abusive clients by giving them “Gold Star Status” and catering to their every threat. I always stress to my staff that professionalism is always expected of us no matter what. However, in order to keep my staff safe, I have a zero-tolerance policy for abusive clients here.

Clients who engage in threats, yelling, cursing or any unwanted advances are grounds for termination from our practice. Those clients will make you miserable and suck the life out of you and your staff. Don't be afraid to fire an abusive client! Do your best, know your worth and focus your energy on bonding with clients who want a connection with their veterinarian. Not all pet owners want that bond, but building relationships with clients who do will bring professional fulfillment beyond measure!

Dr. Eva Evans, DVM, MBA, CVMA, is the owner of a small animal practice in Nashville, Tennessee, focusing on combining gold standard medicine with five star client experience.