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Veterinarian Technician February 2007 (Vol 28, No 2) Focus: Dentistry

Management Matters: "The Other End of the Leash"

by Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR

    Author's Note

    When I started in veterinary medicine, I worked in a one-veterinarian practice. The few staff members covered all the shifts and every position. We would bathe a dog while answering the phone, assist in surgery while greeting clients, and take radiographs while filling out reminder cards. Years later, as a veterinary technician — proud of my knowledge, my skills, and my education — I was offered a client services position in a larger hospital. I told the veterinarian who gave me my first taste of veterinary practice about my new position and how much I enjoyed it. She said that this was no surprise to her — I was the best "front person" she ever had. Her reply caught me off guard because I had thought I was in this profession for the pets. This month's Management Matters gives practice managers pointers on how to define and refine client services in the veterinary practice by identifying the practice's "front people" and getting them out where it matters most: in direct contact with clients.

    Typically, we veterinary technicians choose our profession because we love animals or want to become advocates for our furry friends and save lives. In companion animal medicine, however, the pet comes with another living entity at the other end of the leash. So if we are all tending to the animal, who is taking care of the owner?

    It is easy to say that all of us should be taking care of the client. Indeed, every individual on the veterinary health care team needs to know the basics of excellent client service. Yet if we have trained veterinary technicians managing the needs of the pet, why not establish trained client service personnel to manage the needs of the pet owner? This concept is gaining ground, and these staff members are becoming more common in the practice of veterinary medicine.

    Consultant Thomas Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE, calls client service specialists "outpatient nurse technicians." Dr. Catanzaro is one of the founders of the largest diplomate-led consulting team exclusively serving the veterinary profession in the United States. According to his experience and recommendation, the outpatient nurse technician helps to increase the doctor's productivity by providing another team member for clients to talk to, both in the clinic and on the telephone.1 In essence, this client service position encompasses all the direct client interaction that happens beyond the reception desk, thereby allowing everyone else to focus on other specialized tasks.

    The Concept

    This person could actually hold any one of a number of descriptive titles: client service representative, client care coordinator, client advocate, client service technician, examination room technician, and so on. This article uses the general term client service person, or CSP. The CSP functions as the glue that holds the practice's daily routine together. At times, the CSP may seem to be the master of ceremonies at a three-ring circus! Yet no matter how crazy it is in "the back," the CSP provides the client with a consistent experience, regardless of whether the client is standing in the clinic or calling from home. The CSP can be assigned to one specific doctor or to a group of doctors, depending on the size of the staff and the workload. The goal is to give clients a familiar person to see and talk to when they interact with your practice. This CSP will get to know not only each pet with its individual personality and health issues but also each client with his or her own needs and expectations.

    The Duties

    Take a look at your practice. Who is currently performing client-related tasks, and how else could they be spending their time if the CSP concept was integrated into the daily practice routine?

    For example, are technicians loading examination rooms? Throughout the day, the CSP can escort clients and pets into examination rooms and obtain initial vital signs and history or simply begin the conversation so that a technician can follow up. This enables technicians to spend a little more time in the back with the pa­tients. Are receptionists inputting financial data into the computer software system? After the examination by the doctor, the CSP can generate and discuss the financial estimate or final invoice, enabling the receptionist to instead greet more incoming clients at the desk or answer the phone. Are doctors taking many phone calls from clients? Direct these calls to the doctor's CSP, and you have freed up the doctor to spend more time diagnosing and treating patients. The CSP can find out the client's concerns, relay those concerns to the doctor, and return to the client with information or answers. If your practice does not have a CSP, this relay race may involve technicians or receptionists. A CSP can enable those staff members to stay at work in their defined areas of interest or knowledge.

    The CSP can also help your practice handle hospitalized and referred patients. When a pet must stay at the clinic, the CSP can review the daily medical notes from the doctor and relay health updates to the client (as well as a financial update after entering the daily charges). If a client comes to visit a hospitalized pet, the CSP can handle all aspects of the visit. When the pet finally goes home, the CSP can review the discharge instructions with the client and, if necessary, provide information and demonstration. In a referral practice, the CSP can also communicate with the referring veterinarian by faxing or calling with daily updates, patient status, and discharge information when the patient is released.

    Your practice's current routine and division of tasks will determine its specific needs. Yet any task that involves the client can potentially be handled by the CSP. This concept works no matter how small or large your practice is; the size will determine only how many doctors and clients the CSP will be assigned to take care of on a daily basis.

    The Person

    Each position in veterinary practice requires specific skills, knowledge, and personality, and the CSP is no exception. It takes a certain kind of person to make a great CSP. Although it can be an advantage if a CSP has previous veterinary medicine background or knowledge, the most important quality for a CSP to have is people skills. An outgoing person with a confident disposition who can learn the basic concepts of veterinary medicine is better suited than a medical expert who cannot explain pet health care to the client. The CSP also must be able to juggle the numerous tasks that occur simultaneously during the day — with a smile. Attitude is everything, and the CSP must radiate positive energy. A CSP must also be able to address the client's needs for emotional attachment, walking between one examination room where empathy must be expressed for an ill pet or grieving family and the next room where excitement over a new puppy is required.

    So where do you find a great CSP candidate, and how do you identify him or her? CSPs can come from a variety of places and backgrounds. The CSP may be a person who was previously involved in a highly customer service"focused position outside of veterinary medicine. Or he or she may be a veterinary technician or receptionist who is looking for a career change — a technician may get weary of his or her heavily task-oriented position, or a receptionist may want to learn more about the medical aspect of the practice and have more interaction with the patients.

    When interviewing any candidate, notice the way he or she interacts with the current team as you tour the facility. Ask about situations he or she has dealt with in the past and talk about scenarios that are common in your practice. Be aware not only of the answers but also the communication skills the candidate uses to relay them, including facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and word choice. Probably the best way to find a great CSP is to keep your eyes open as you manage your team. By promoting an employee from within the practice, you gain a CSP who knows your practice routine and philosophy, has veterinary experience, and possesses client skills that you have identified through your own observation.

    The Fit

    When managing CSPs, it is important to remember that what makes them special is their people skills. So as a practice manager, you need to develop your own people skills to be just as strong to help keep these team members motivated, productive, and feeling appreciated. Interaction with other individuals is what recharges these employees' batteries, so make time to talk with them. This includes one-on-one meetings, group meetings (if you have multiple CSPs), and acknowledging that conversation between team members will be essential to their happiness on the job and ultimately their effectiveness. It is also important to realize the particular stress of this position and the need for occasional "venting" or letting go of emotions that often must be contained in front of a client, whether those feelings are sorrow, anger, or just emotional exhaustion. The CSP will need companionship within the veterinary team as well as enough personal space to handle the roller-coaster ride of emotions he or she must manage from moment to moment.

    The people skills of an excellent CSP must also extend to relationships with other staff members. The CSP occupies a central position in the practice, and as a result, he or she must interact with every other person for the benefit of the client, patient, and practice. Therefore, a CSP must have the communication skills and finesse to request that the receptionist hurry with the paperwork on that late appointment, request that the technician draw the blood while the client waits in the lobby, and request that the doctor talk to a client who is upset and needs attention beyond the scope of the CSP's expertise or authority. A great CSP knows that the most important word in his or her daily vocabulary is "please," followed closely by "thank you."

    A great CSP can be a positive guiding force in a practice, helping everyone get more satisfaction out of his or her position on the team and ultimately fulfilling the clients' need for a bonding relationship with the community of health care providers with­in your building.

     
    * * *

    Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, is the regular contributor to 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. 

    1. Catanzaro TE: Medical records, in Catanzaro TE: Building the Successful Veterinary Practice Vol. 2 — Programs and Procedures. Ames, Iowa State University Press, 1998, pp. 67-100.

    References »

    NEXT: On the Cover: "A Talk with Dana Call, RVT, VTS (ECC)

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