Why clients leave


"The waiting area smelled of urine and pet odors." "The surroundings were dirty and depressing." Don't let these comments be from your clients.

"The waiting area smelled of urine and pet odors."

"The surroundings were dirty and depressing."

"I received poor service from the receptionists who answered the phones and scheduled appointments."

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Laurent Renault

"When I picked up my cat, his white underbelly looked gray with dirt."

These are just a few of the responses we received when Veterinary Economics surveyed pet owners across the United States to ask why they left their veterinary practices.

Now, you may be thinking, "None of those things could happen in our clinic." But don't be too sure, says Dr. Karen Felsted, CPA, CVPM. Scenarios like these take place in practices every day, so keep an open mind and learn from these clients in crisis. Then use Dr. Felsted's advice, along with tips from Sheila Grosdidier, RVT, and Sharon DeNayer (see "Our Experts"), to head off serious client service gaffes.

Our experts

Client complaint

They forgot their compassion

One morning I sat next to a couple and their dog in the waiting room. They were called into an exam room, then emerged several minutes later crying and carrying the euthanized dog in a black garbage bag. It was extremely disturbing to me and the other two people who were in the reception area.

How you can do it better

"Sending a pet home in a garbage bag sets a negative tone for the practice," Grosdidier says. "Clients notice it, team members notice it, and it ultimately affects the care you give. Remember, respect is what you do more than what you say."

A tasteful box or shroud demonstrates a higher level of professionalism, Dr. Felsted adds. Consider these tips to demonstrate you care:

Be discreet. For example, if Mrs. Johnson arrives at the end of the day to euthanize her pet, the receptionist might tell the technician, "Mrs. J is here for the procedure listed in the appointment book." This keeps private information from traveling around the reception area.

Review your euthanasia protocol. If you don't have one, create one. This document outlines details of the process, such as what time of day you schedule appointments, the preparations, and how much time to plan for the event. It also explains how to handle the client's experience compassionately and discreetly, like planning a different exit from the practice so clients don't have to walk back through your reception area where other clients may be waiting—and watching.

Click herefor a sample euthanasia protocol.

Client complaint

The practice pets rule the roost

I left my veterinary practice because the last time we went, the relief veterinarian's two large dogs were running around the treatment area. My cat hates going to the doctor under the best circumstances, and she wigged out when the two large dogs got close. They started barking, my cat went into hyperdrive, and the team members all started yelling. After we got home, my cat hid under the bed for three days. We now go to a cats-only clinic.

How you can do it better

"Focus all your energy and resources on the pets coming in the door," Grosdidier says. "You want clients to feel comfortable, you want their pets to feel comfortable, and you want to offer a safe, secure environment for your patients." Here's how to make that happen:

Keep anxious pets and clients separate. Many cats who don't live with canine companions haven't been exposed to dogs—ever. Take these patients straight to an exam room to wait in private.

Don't let clinic pets roam. When cats and dogs wander, your liability skyrockets. Clinic pets can trip your clients, taunt your nervous patients, and even be at risk themselves. What would you do if Mr. Anderson's rottweiler decided Sadie, the clinic cat, looked like a tasty treat?

If practice pets are important to your team's work culture, consider restricting the areas where they roam by placing baby gates or screening the door to the doctor's office. This also reduces your risk of spreading diseases.

Schedule smart. Whenever possible, try to group your feline appointments together, then block another time for dogs so these clients and pets aren't forced to mingle.

Bench chaotic canines. Invest in a few nice benches or a picnic table for your practice lawn. Then offer to call or send a text message to clients who want to take Benji and Rambo for a walk or enjoy your outside reception seating while they wait.

Click herefor a sample policy on pets in the workplace.

Client complaint

They were too busy for us

The doctors at the practice we left were excellent, but the front office staff members were overworked and rude. The practice was so successful it was difficult to get an appointment. And when we had an emergency, the front office team was uncooperative.

The decision to change practices was difficult, but we were able to find a veterinarian who worked well with our pets and had kinder, more supportive team members. The staff worked us in so the doctor saw our dog the same day she developed a breathing problem. At the previous clinic, the receptionist would've said, "The next available appointment is in two weeks—do you want it or not?"

How you can do it better

As your practice grows, you may need to develop ways to maintain the homey feel that helped you achieve success, Grosdidier says. Consider these strategies:

Hire a greeter. Greeters don't answer phones or sit behind the reception desk. They focus on hospitality, whether it's offering drinks or talking to clients about their pets, grandkids, and softball teams. (See "An Oasis of Tranquility"in the January 2008 issue to learn how one hospital uses a concierge in its entry area.)

Use names. Every team member should greet clients and pets by name and thank them for taking the time to visit the practice. Here's a trick that will help: Tell clients you want the pet's photo for the medical record, and snap a quick pic. When clients walk in the door, the receptionist will have the chart out, complete with picture, so she can call the pet by name. This is a great tool for new team members, too—no matter who's at your front desk, your clients will receive the same warm greeting, and it will become a trademark of your practice.

Use emergency and buffer appointments. Plan several 10- or 15-minute emergency slots in your appointment book every day. Even if you don't use the openings for emergencies, they're a great way to catch up when you get behind—which means everyone's more likely to go home on time.

Encourage drop-offs. Let clients know they can leave their pets for a doctor to examine when he or she has time. A team member then calls when the pet's ready to go home.

Make sure you're staffed appropriately. Does your practice need more doctors or technicians—or just better delegation? If your next available appointment is two weeks away, decide whether you want to grow to accommodate more clients or close your practice to new patients.

Click herefor more true client stories in a discussion guide with role-playing scenarios.

Client complaint

They made decisions for me

When my cat, which I'd had more than 15 years (longer than I'd known my husband), became ill, team members told me I probably should put her to sleep. I said I needed to think about it and told them I'd call back later in the morning when the veterinarian was there. When I called back to give the go-ahead, I told them I wanted to be there, but they said they'd already euthanized my cat. I was devastated because I didn't want her to be alone when it happened. The experience made me feel much worse. I could never go back to that practice again.

How you can do it better

DeNayer recommends that when a client gives permission for euthanasia, ask him or her to sign a consent form with a witness present and place it in the pet's medical record. If the client gives permission over the phone, ask another team member to listen on an extension. Then note the consent in the record. Don't ever proceed until you've obtained this documented consent.

Dr. Felsted agrees. "Euthanasia is a terrible experience, so you must be exceptionally careful and handle it well," she says. Use these guidelines when your clients are considering euthanasia:

Know your role. Your responsibilities are to educate clients, speak for pets, persuade pet owners to offer the care your team recommends, and be nonjudgmental. Don't make decisions for clients or judge their choices.

Empathize. The decision to euthanize is one of the most difficult clients face. It's an emotional experience—and the care you offer matters now more than ever.

Click herefor a sample euthanasia consent form.

Client complaint

They were too rigid

About the same time my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, she acquired Maggie, a stray rottweiler-lab mix. A year or two later, Maggie cut her paw badly.

I wasn't sure of her veterinarian's name, and Mom couldn't tell me, so I made an educated guess. The receptionist who took my call that Saturday morning was friendly, and she said, "Of course the veterinarian can see Maggie." Then she asked if Maggie was already a patient. I told her I wasn't sure and explained the situation. The young woman said that if I couldn't tell her whether the dog was a patient, the doctor couldn't see Maggie on a Saturday. She made no effort to look up the record, despite my suggestion that she do so.

Then I called a hospital in the next town. That doctor made room for Maggie. A couple of weeks later, after the silly dog dug up a yellowjacket nest and was badly stung, I called the hospital to ask whether I could give her an antihistamine. Even though he didn't remember my name or the dog, the veterinarian called me back within five minutes.

He has since become a trusted ally as I manage my mom's illness and Maggie, who is the only creature keeping my mother focused. The team members are wonderfully sympathetic and kind—I'm not leaving them.

How you can do it better

"Tell clients what you can do," Grosdidier says. "Don't explain what you can't. Perhaps you can use an open emergency slot or refer the client to the local emergency clinic. This pet needs care, so help the client now and sort out the details, like whether she's an existing client, later." These steps will help you put clients' needs first:

Know which rules to bend. Some rules are written in stone. For example, boarded pets must be vaccinated to protect the pets in your care. Some rules and guidelines are written in pencil. Review your practice's rules and talk about which ones are flexible so you can respond appropriately to emergencies.

Discuss your practice's standards of service. These are your values and your creed. For example, "Our goal is to provide high-quality service and care for clients and patients." Write these standards down on an index card and keep it in your pocket. When you face tough decisions, use your own unique practice principles card to guide your way.

Click herefor a sample practice principles card.

Don't stop here

Perhaps you can think of a few cases in your practice where you made a mistake and lost a client. This is the perfect opportunity to learn from the experience and talk about how you'll prevent problems in the future. "You need to look at these kinds of client complaints and ask yourself, 'What could we do better next time?'" Dr. Felsted says.

When you face tough client satisfaction situations, ask yourself these four questions:

  • Why was the client unhappy?

  • What would have made the client happy in the situation?

  • Is this something we could have done for the client? Why or why not?

  • If not, how could we have communicated better or helped the client find what he or she needed elsewhere?

If clients are leaving your practice, you need to know why—and whether the reasons are within your control. Consider sending a letter to ask why they left or a special offer to entice them back, such as an invitation to your open house or a free bag of food. You may see a ton of new clients, but it only pays if you wind up seeing more than you lose. "If you don't meet people's needs, they vote with their feet and leave," Grosdidier says. "I'd want to know why."

Click herefor a sample inactive client letter.

Portia Stewart is editor of Firstline, Veterinary Economics' sister magazine for team members. Send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com

Related Videos
dvm360 Live! with Dr. Adam Christman
dvm360 Live! with Dr. Adam Christman
dvm360 Live! with Dr. Adam Christman
dvm360 Live! with Dr. Adam Christman
dvm360 Live! with Dr. Adam Christman
© 2023 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.