When pet owners ambush you in the Starbucks coffee line ...


You'll see customers when you're out and about. Don't feel like you need to run and hide. Instead, use these tips to streamline these conversations and encourage pet owners to happily schedule appointments during regular business hours.

It happens to all of us. You're standing in the grocery store aisle, trying to figure out which of the 78 varieties of rice you're going to purchase, and you hear it.

"Oh, hello insert your name here! How are you?!"

The ambush

You whip around to see Mrs. Chatsalot, a client at your veterinary practice. She's wearing her dog in a carrier on her back. Part of you-or sometimes all of you-wants to dive into the display of sponges at the end of the aisle, peeking out every so often to see if she's gone. But you really shouldn't, even if Mrs. Chatsalot is among the worst-of-the-worst at your clinic. (Please, don't act like you don't keep a list!)

I've always maintained that if you're anywhere where your customers are, you represent your business, even when you're not at work. Don't agree? Chew on this. You stagger out of the neighborhood bar, only to see Mr. Hastwocats on the sidewalk out front. You blubber something about feline AIDS and fall to the ground, and he heads home. The next time he sees you at your job, it's the first thing that pops into his head. The next thing? "This drunk fool takes care of my pets?!"

Don't blow it

So, what's the best approach to seeing clients at the grocery store? It's simple.

Acknowledge their presence. "Hi there, how have you been?" Then, mention their pet, even if they're not with them. If you can 100 percent accurately remember their pet's name, go for it. "How is Zorro doing?" Trust me, you'll have to pick them up off the floor because they'll be so amazed you remembered their pet's name. Can't get the pet's name right, or don't know it at all? No worries. Use the old, "How's our little buddy doing?" line. Works just fine, every time.

Here's where it gets tricky. They always answer one of two ways:

1. "Zorro's doing great. Thanks for asking!"

2. "I think Zorro is suddenly dying of a rare disease. I looked it up on Google. He doesn't have long. I'm panicking. It's bad. Really bad. I don't know what to do. Help me. Help meeeee!”

Of course, we always hope for the first, because it generally leads to us saying, "Oh, good, have a nice day" and heading to checkout. But when the latter arises, we need to tread lightly. There are a few rules I've settled on over the years.

Rules of engagement

1. Don't discuss any medical issues when you're not at work. It's best to just mention how it would be best to get the pet in for an exam so the doctor can help get to the bottom of the situation. Remember, you work at a physical practice for a reason: It houses the necessary tools and people with the knowledge required to properly provide medical support.

2. Don't give out appointments on the spot. Sometimes, especially with clients we love, we're tempted to say, "Why don't you bring him by tomorrow at 9,” forgetting that there's a process to appointment scheduling.

Now score bonus points with clients

I like to carry a few business cards for my practice in my wallet. When I speak with a customer out of the office, I'll pass them a card and ask them to give us a call to schedule at their earliest convenience. This has a twofold benefit: The customer has a positive interaction with a team member and receives the appropriate number to call so they don't have to look it up when they get home. This works well when they ask you at the store when they can bring in their pet, apparently assuming that you walk around in life with the doctor's schedule in your head.

One thing you could do is call for your customer and speak with a team member at your clinic. Help them by scheduling the first available appointment they can make. This may seem to the client like you're "pulling some strings" for them, which benefits you both.

Remember that seeing your clients out and about is really a good thing because it enhances their opinion of you. You're a part of their community. You shop at the same stores, and you enjoy the same things. Go the extra mile and spark up a conversation at their next visit. "Hello Mrs. Walksalot, isn't Riverfront Park so nice? It was nice seeing you and Major there!"

Brent Dickinson is the practice manager at Dickinson-McNeill Veterinary Clinic in Chesterfield, New Jersey.

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