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Veterinarian Technician June 2007 (Vol 28, No 6) Focus: Endocrine Disorders

Management Matters: "Never 'Just' A Receptionist"

by Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR

    Author's Note

    As part of a management team, I read a lot of management-related books and journals and attend many continuing education seminars on veterinary practice management topics. Everyone talks about the importance of a good reception staff. However, not many authors or lecturers explain how to make receptionists feel as important as they are. The phrase "I'm just a receptionist" saddens me. I heard it just the other day, when I called another veterinary practice and the woman who answered the phone couldn't answer my question. It was okay that she couldn't — no one has the information to answer all questions. But the deeper issue was that she felt unimportant enough to utter those four words. My first urge was to stay on the line and counsel her; my second was to jump through the phone, sit her manager down, and say, "How can you allow your receptionist to feel this way?" Later that night, I realized that although managers are told that their front office staff is important, no one teaches them how to make the receptionists believe it. The solution is deeper than saying words of appreciation and gratitude and involves the "big picture" of the receptionist's role in the practice.

    We all know how important great receptionists are to a veterinary practice. They are the gatekeepers, the client greeters, and the situation diffusers, and they leave a lasting impression as each client walks out the door. Technicians often admit wholeheartedly that they couldn't perform the job; in fact, not many even want to try. Managers deal with frequent turnover at the front desk because the position is so demanding and stressful. However, successful receptionists do their job day in and day out, often with a smile and without complaint. They put themselves in the line of fire every time they answer the phone or greet a client, yet they come back day after day to be a strong, graceful presence in the practice. They are asked to answer the phone on the first ring, find every chart, and keep every piece of paper organized, but they often feel like they exist on the fringes of the practice culture. How do you ensure that receptionists know how important they are to you and your practice? It takes more than words; it takes action.

    Involvement

    Let me ask: During a routine staff meeting in your practice, how many topics directly affect the reception staff? Are most of the topics medical or related to the technical staff? If the answer to the second question is "Yes," then take a step back — this could be one reason your reception staff does not feel that the job they do is important in the overall picture. Start correcting this impression now by making a conscious effort to limit all-staff meeting discussions to topics that involve the entire practice, and try to save most of the more specific topics for departmental meetings or memos. If all-staff meetings are the best way for your whole team to communicate, at least ask the receptionists what topics they want or need to discuss.

    Inclusion

    The same concept applies to including the receptionists in the policies and protocol of the practice. For example, if your practice is developing a topic for a staff continuing education seminar, be sure that the topic includes information related to the receptionist's role. If the topic is how to triage an emergent patient on arrival, the discussion should start with the receptionist's role when the client walks through the door. If it seems that a topic is purely technical, think it through. Even a seminar on how to place a catheter could benefit your client service staff. When clients at the front desk ask questions (e.g., "Where will the catheter be placed?" "How long should the bandage be worn?" "Why is a catheter necessary?"), the reception staff will have the information they need to inform and comfort the client. If the practice is considering a new protocol, such as an additional form to track and record charges for invoicing, be sure feedback is obtained from the receptionists who will need to prepare, process, and file these new forms. Include receptionists in every aspect of the practice, and they will realize that they are part of the team.

    Education

    Front-office staff training often focuses on daily tasks, such as an­swering the phone, entering data into the computer, and filing papers and charts. Yet the reception staff need, and typically want, continuing education on a wider variety of topics so that they can communicate with clients and support the medical care delivered by the practice. Outside seminars on communication tactics, such as how to deal with difficult people or how to improve confidence when communicating, are one resource. Sometimes these seminars are specific to the veterinary profession, but they often are general to the business world. In-house education might focus on more technical topics, such as medical terminology; medication names, uses, and side effects; general disease information, such as illnesses that pets are commonly vaccinated against; and, of course, information on all products sold in the practice. Empower your reception staff with knowledge so that they do not have to always rely on a technician to answer clients' questions. Clients will be impressed by a knowledgeable front-office staff, and you will be one step closer to having receptionists who command respect.

    Empathy

    At some level, everyone must appreciate the job that each person does in the practice. There is a common feeling among receptionists that technicians do not understand or appreciate the difficult job they do. At the same time, technicians are often too busy to answer a receptionist's page or respond immediately to a client request in the front office. Cross-training or observation periods can be helpful in building empathy on both sides. Assign technicians to spend a day in the front office to see the practice from a different perspective, and require the reception staff to spend some time in the back. This way, both sides can gain an appreciation of the big picture and learn to not take tense moments personally or as a battle between "the back" and "the front."

    Staff meetings can also be opportunities to open a discussion about or role-play specific situations that have created tension between the groups. Use common, day-to-day moments that lead to stress on both sides (e.g., a client is pacing at the front desk waiting for his or her pet while a technician in the back is quickly grooming the pet because it just soiled itself in the cage). By discussing their perspectives on a hypothetical scene, technicians and reception staff can gain a better understanding of what creates tension and how to help resolve it in the future. Lack of communication is a common cause of stress. Sometimes, a simple call from the technician to the front desk to explain the reason for a delay is all that is necessary to calm a situation.

    Respect

    It is common for the front-office staff to feel unsure about their importance in the practice, which perpetuates the feeling that they are not respected. The management team and the entire practice culture must create an environment in which the receptionists can earn this respect. This is achieved by helping the front-office staff become more knowledgeable, involved, and confident in their role. Receptionists have the first and last words with the client, and the importance of their role should be realized by everyone in the practice.

    * * *

    Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, is the regular author of Management Matters. Katherine is the founder of the Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Practice Association (www.vespa-home.org), which is dedicated to helping emergency and specialty practice managers and other veterinary professionals manage their clinics more effectively. 

    NEXT: On the Cover: "A Talk with Rene Scalf, CVT, VTS (ECC)"

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