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Veterinary Forum February 2008 (Vol 25, No 2)

Business Skills: Say what you mean

by Wendy Myers

    Editor's Note: In this column, the newest member of our consultant team discusses communication in the veterinary practice, not only between doctors and staff members but also with clients. — Stephen Fisher, DVM, Column Editor

    A technician called Mrs. Jones to check on Max's food allergy trial. The 3-year-old boxer has been suffering from itchy skin, hair loss and hot spots. Three days ago, the doctor diagnosed possible food allergy and started Max on a hypoallergenic diet. The technician was following up to ensure that the food transition had been successful.

    "Well, at first Max wouldn't eat the food," the owner replied, "but the kids have been squirting Vita Gravy over the top of it, and now Max loves the new food."

    As a veterinary professional, you know that a dog undergoing a food allergy trial cannot eat anything except the prescribed diet. Where did communication break down?

    To be successful communicators, your staff needs crystal clear discussions that incorporate the right words, body language, written information and visual aids. Almost 80% of pet owners want instructions verbally and in writing, according to the 2003 AAHA study, "The Path to High-Quality Care: Practical Tips for Improving Compliance."

    When talking with clients, we don't always realize the messages we might be sending. The wrong words can deliver negative impressions to trusting clients and harm the perception of value for your medical services. As a veterinary consultant, I often coach doctors and staff to get the right message across. Following are some techniques to help you become a successful communicator.

    Don't say "in the back"

    When collecting blood, urine or fecal samples for diagnostic testing, we often tell clients, "I'm going to take your pet in the back." The phrase "in the back" tells clients we are taking their beloved family member to a secret place where they sometimes hear cries from nervous patients or other strange noises. Instead, communicate the professionalism you intended and say, "I'm going to take your pet to the treatment area where we will collect the needed samples."

    Don't call it a "dental"

    Too often, the term "professional dental cleaning" is shortened to "dental." Don't tell a client, "Your dog needs a dental." Communicate the comprehensiveness of this service by saying, "Your dog's teeth need professional dental cleaning."

    In some communities, groomers advertise that they do "dentals," which is essentially brushing the pooch's teeth — a very different service than your professional dental cleaning with the pet under anesthesia. How can you expect clients to pay hundreds for a medical procedure when you've made it sound so casual — and cheap?

    Avoid the term "estimate"

    Because doctors recommend surgery or procedures based on medical need, call the estimate a "treatment plan." The word "estimate" focuses on money, not on the care the patient needs. Always have staff — not doctors — present treatment plans.

    When discussing treatment and finances with clients, don't stand behind the exam table and talk across it to the client. This face-to-face posture might be perceived as confrontational. Instead, stand at the end of the exam table, forming an "L" shape between you and the client. Even better: Stand on the same side of the exam table, shoulder-to-shoulder with the client. This body language is collaborative. The technician should say, "I want to go over the treatment plan the doctor recommends for your pet." Standing across the table can be awkward because you have to read the information you're presenting upside down.

    Explain each item, pointing to the left column that lists medical services. Don't point to the right column — it has prices. If you focus on money, the client will too. If the client has questions about fees, he or she will ask.

    Offer solutions

    Using your computer, create picture books or slide shows about common procedures, such as dental cleanings, spays and neuters. Put photos in the same order as your treatment plan template, showing images as you describe each service. While explaining preanesthetic testing, flip to a photo of a technician in your in-clinic lab. When describing monitoring for surgical patients, point to a picture of a pulse oximeter and ECG unit. Images help clients understand your standard of care. An educated client is more likely to comply with the doctor's recommendation.

    When the technician has finished presenting the treatment plan, he or she should ask, "Is this the level of care you'd like for your pet?"

    If the client responds, "Yes," the technician should then say, "To get your permission to schedule and proceed with treatment, I need your signature on the treatment plan." Keep the signed treatment plan in the medical record, and give a copy to the client.

    If the client cannot afford that level of care, the technician should offer, "Let me get the doctor so he (or she) can recommend options for a treatment plan that fits your budget."

    Offer solutions to clients' economic limitations with third-party financing, such as CareCredit. During a recent consultation, I shadowed a wellness exam with a client and her four cats. Each cat needed a professional dental cleaning, averaging $300 per procedure for a total of $1,200. When the technician presented the cats' treatment plans, she provided a CareCredit brochure. The client was approved and scheduled her cats' dental cleanings the following week. Financing the care was a win"win solution for both the client and practice.

    To polish your communication skills, print a treatment plan template from your veterinary software. Practice conversations with staff, asking for feedback on your body language and phrases. With training, you'll become a confident communicator and can provide more patients with the care they need.

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