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Veterinary Forum April 2007 (Vol 24, No 4)

Business Skills: What we've got here is failure to communicate

by Peter Weinstein

    Editor's Note: In this article, one of our most valued consultants, Dr. Peter Weinstein, discusses the best ways to communicate with your clients. As he suggests, one key to creating "raving fan" clients is to implement proper communication protocols. So read, enjoy and learn some lessons on ways to effectively develop interpersonal communication skills.—Stephen Fisher, DVM, Column Editor

    "What we've got here is failure to communicate.
    Some men you just can't reach, so you get what we had here last week which is the way he wants it.
    Well, he gets it.
    And I don't like it any more than you men."
    Strother Martin, "Cool Hand Luke," 1967

    A few weeks ago, I took my daughter, who is 12 years old and has some mild acne, to the dermatologist for a reevaluation visit. No surprises at first: The appointment was for 3 pm, we arrived at 2:55 pm, and the waiting room was packed, with not a single seat available. We approached the sliding glass window expecting to be greeted. Nope — so we signed in on the clipboard and found a corner where we could stand without getting in anybody's way.

    About 45 minutes later, a nurse called my daughter's name and instructed us to go to the "second door on the left." After we entered the room, the nurse asked, "What are you here for today?" I explained it was a follow-up visit. The nurse entered something into the computer and left. Five minutes later, the dermatologist rushed in and asked, "So how are things going?" We were out of the examination room within 3 minutes with some new medication and a recommendation to return in 3 months. I am not going back.

    The title of this month's column, possibly one of the most famous movie taglines, could easily be describing a veterinary hospital on a minute-by-minute basis. The success of interpersonal communication among all team members frequently determines the workplace atmosphere and the ultimate success of a practice. The communication between the hospital team and the clients, however, also determines whether you have "raving fans" or "raving lunatics."

    Because clients are concerned about the health and well-being of their four-legged family members, the entire veterinary staff needs to collectively serve as a team of problem-solvers, with the eventual goal being clients who leave the practice or hang up the phone with complete peace of mind and all questions answered. Of course, no two client experiences are the same, but if a few simple concepts are followed, the consistency that clients seek in their experience with the veterinary team is more likely to be realized.

    Keys to effective communication

    The most important skill in verbal communication, without a doubt, is learning how to listen, but this also can be the weakest component in effective communication. This is often reflected in the need for clients to repeat themselves when explaining a pet's problem as well as the need for the veterinary staff to be repetitive or even missing key treatment information when talking to clients.

    Effective listening is best accomplished in a quiet environment with minimal distractions, which is seemingly the antithesis of the average veterinary hospital reception area; reception areas are fine for receiving or greeting clients but are not always the best area for listening to them. Thus, it is advisable to use examination or consultation rooms — or another quiet area where active listening can be enforced — when gathering patient information or otherwise communicating with clients.

    What is active listening? It is listening attentively to client input and repeating or rewording information accordingly. Active listening can accomplish two things: It lets clients know you are truly listening to what they are saying, and it helps you understand their communications. Active listening skills can be practiced by role playing client visits during a staff meeting. It is amazing how much more information can be gathered and interpreted correctly, including what may seem insignificant, such as pronouncing the pet's or client's name correctly or confirming the pet's breed and sex.

    A second critical component of effective communication is asking the client pertinent questions about the medical problems or concerns that prompted the current visit. Questions that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" are not nearly as effective as open-ended questions that encourage more detailed responses. For example, "Is Fluffy eating?" can be answered with yes or no, but "How is Fluffy's appetite?" cannot be. Therefore, staff members need to understand the importance of asking open-ended questions when seeking information about a pet's health.

    Another key to successful client communication is documentation — that is, maintaining accurate medical records (which also is a legal requirement in all states). When speaking to a client, each staff member needs to use his or her own words in summarizing information relayed by the client. The client should be informed as to the reason the staff member is taking notes (i.e., to accurately document information in the patient's medical record).

    Keeping an accurate record involves gathering the facts without editorializing or interpreting the information. For example, recording that the dog is "scooting," as described by the owner, is not the same as recording that the anal glands need to be checked, which is an interpretation of what the owner described.

    In addition to developing sound verbal communication skills, written communication (e.g., discharge instructions, disease summary) is important. All written instructions or prepared information should appear on the practice's stationery, be free of typographical or grammatical errors and be neatly copied or professionally printed.

    Another nonverbal form of communication is body language. When a client arrives, the receptionist needs to make immediate eye contact, which exudes confidence and sincere interest, and cordially welcome the client and pet with a genuine smile. Reception rooms can be high-stress areas, but clients should not have to make excuses for improper greetings. As the old cliché gently reminds us, "You don't have a second chance to make a first impression."

    Telephone etiquette likewise is crucial, as the message presented over the telephone can positively or negatively influence clients' expectations before they even arrive. The message presented over the phone needs to complement the physical image of the facility: A modern-looking facility with lots of technology can be "warmed up" by a caring telephone receptionist, but a practice with a hometown appearance can be "cooled off" by a callous or uncaring phone conversation.

    The numbers speak loudly

    By applying these communication skills, clients can become active participants in your marketing strategy. The numbers vary, but dissatisfied veterinary clients tell 10 to 20 potential clients about their dissatisfaction, while satisfied clients relay their satisfaction to 5 to 7 potential clients. It makes good business sense to focus on retaining clients by providing top-level medical care. The art of communication can make the difference between a successful practice and a run-of-the-mill practice — between your practice and your colleague's location down the street.

    From the first contact through the patient visit and even after the pet has returned home, you can build a practice with a reputation of communicating in a clear, concise, caring way that reflects happy clients, healthy pets and a satisfied veterinary health care team.

    NEXT: Clinical Report: "Fecal Centrifugation"


    Did you know... Pet ownership has increased 17% in the past 10 years, according to the November 2009 issue of Money magazine.Read More

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