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Veterinarian Technician April 2013 (Vol 34, No 4)

Management Matters: Management 101 for New Supervisors: Client Service

by Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR

    In veterinary medicine, we can’t help the patient unless we gain the trust of the pet owner. Those of us who joined the profession because we like animals more than people have to take a good, hard look at the other end of the leash, at the two-legged keeper of the credit card! You may be nodding your head in agreement and thinking, Of course—I know that. After working in the profession for a while, we think we know how to deliver client service. However, staff members can become complacent, sloppy, or lazy in their client communication. When this happens, it’s time to reintroduce staff members to the reason they chose veterinary medicine.

    For most technicians, the reason is simple … it’s the patients. Most technicians sought a career in which they could care for animals in need. However, technicians need to be reminded often that the only way to the patient is through the client. Therefore, if technicians want to fulfill their “calling,” they must continue to learn about client communication. Better client communication can lead to greater client satisfaction. In a survey by Robert G. Roop, PhD, identifying stressors and satisfiers in veterinary work, thankful clients were shown to be an important part of job satisfaction.1 Likewise, front office team members have greater job satisfaction if they deal with more thankful clients and fewer unsatisfied clients. This same survey showed that front office team members, like technicians, often choose their jobs because they want contact with animals and to be a part of the helping and healing process.1

    A manager’s duty is to give each employee the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). The WIIFM may differ according to the individual or the position, but managers have to identify the source(s) of each employee’s motivation to make improvements. Because most team members are motivated by their connection to patients, the importance of client service and communication can be emphasized to team members by demonstrating how mistakes or poor client service can result in less care for patients. For example, if we aren’t aware of our negative body language at the front desk, we may scare off potential new clients who stop in to see the hospital. Or if we don’t fully support the prices for our services, we may not demonstrate the value of our services when presenting treatment plans to clients. This can result in clients declining important services that their pets need. In addition, if the front office team doesn’t show its appreciation to clients, they may decide not to return. Connecting the problem (weak client service) with the effect (animals that go without medical care) can frame client communication in a whole new way.

    Mistakes or even seemingly harmless events may negatively affect client service. When we have our weaker moments, it’s time to dissect and study them so that we can learn and move forward by providing proactive client service. A proactive approach shows that we learned from our mistake and will not make it again. Let’s examine some seemingly harmless occurrences that can have a negative effect. For example, when discharged from a veterinary hospital, most dogs stop to urinate after walking out the door. You know this is normal, but your clients may not. A client may think that the veterinary staff didn’t walk the dog and, therefore, does not provide good care. Another example is that hospitalized cats often use their litterboxes as beds. We know that cats don’t like unfamiliar litterboxes, but our clients may not know this. A client may think that because her cat went immediately to the litterbox when it got home, your hospital must not have provided a litterbox.

    As soon as a client’s trust is broken for any reason, we have a skeptical client on our hands. So what should we do? We should become proactive in our client service! For example, when we discharge hospitalized dogs, we can lightheartedly tell clients that their dog will likely stop and “mark” the exit. When we discharge hospitalized cats, we can tell clients that their cat’s first stop at home will likely be the litterbox because cats prefer a familiar place. In these scenarios, we predicted the owner’s viewpoint and figured out a way to keep the owner’s perception “clean.” This approach is often learned by getting complaints from clients who weren’t told what to expect.

    Obstacles to good client service can also be associated with a patient’s medical care. Let’s look at some scenarios to see, again, how thinking one step ahead of clients can serve us well.

    Example 1: A catheter is placed in Socks—a feline patient. The placement wasn’t very clean, so there’s blood on the bandage around the leg. How will the client react to this when she visits at the end of the day? To avoid upsetting the client, apply a cover bandage around Socks’ blood-covered bandage.

    Example 2: Oscar—a canine patient—is admitted for gastrointestinal issues, including vomiting and diarrhea. Oscar’s family will be visiting, but Oscar has fecal matter on his hind end. The family probably won’t be pleased even if you explain that Oscar has had five butt baths while in the hospital. To prepare the family members for seeing Oscar, let them know that Oscar is a little messy “back there” but that you didn’t want to stress him out with a bath. This is thinking ahead!

    These are good lessons. The staff has to be attuned to the status of each case and patient. Therefore, an assistant who doesn’t know about Oscar’s hygiene issue or Socks’ bloody bandage shouldn’t escort the owners to their pets when they visit. Ideally, the entire staff should know the important details of every case and patient. One staff member might know a case backward and forward, but this isn’t helpful if he or she is off duty and the pet owner comes to pick up or visit the pet. Informing the staff about the important details of each case requires consistent communication with the entire team. Perhaps case details could be shared with everyone during rounds at a certain time every day. Or team members could be required to review a communication notebook at the beginning of every shift. Alternatively, case updates could be posted on the front of cages and runs to alert the next staff member. Brainstorm ideas with your team.

    The above examples show how to think one step ahead of clients, predict what might go wrong, prepare for client questions, and predict the outcome of a situation. Many staff members have learned these lessons by making mistakes or managing disappointed clients. However, it’s not necessary for every employee to learn the hard way. Team communication is a much better approach. Therefore, you must have a system for reporting client service problems so that team members can brainstorm solutions together and learn from a single situation. This requires time for the team to meet specifically about improving client service and communication. This isn’t a topic that can wait to be addressed “when there’s time” or “when it’s slow.” Client service is too important to the success of a practice and the job satisfaction of team members.

    Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR, is the founder and owner of interFace Veterinary HR Systems, LLC (www.KatherineDobbs.com)—a human resources consulting business. She discloses that she has received financial benefits from CareCredit, Bayer Animal Health, Virbac Animal Health, ImproMed, Veterinary Practice News, AAHA Press, VCA, and AdvanStar. She has also served on the Bayer Technician Advisory Council and the Virbac Compassionate Care Council Advisory Board.

    1. Roop RG. Compassion Satisfaction and Fatigue Survey. Humane Society of the United States; 2004.

    References »

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