In this day of a veterinarian on virtually every corner, the average client has two or more veterinary practices within 15 minutes of their home. It is likely that our better clients even drive past one or two practices just to get to “their veterinarian”. It is this type of bond that must be developed as we build a practice, and it starts by the entire staff becoming aware that the human/companion animal bond is the basis of a caring practice philosophy.
WE MUST CARE
The need to convey the reason we entered veterinary medicine is critical to building that client-practice bond. No one entered practice for the short hours, or for the great hourly wage, or for the job security. Most practitioners and staff members have an innate love of animals, a compassion to alleviate suffering, and a caring for the humanity we serve when delivering concerned health care. But to be successful, we must convey these human/companion animal bonding traits to our clients, and they must be conveyed sincerely and consistently.
The process of thanking a client must be specific and timely to an effective bonding technique. The first “thank you for the referral” that a client gets is just that, a tailored letter that reinforces the quality of the practice, the appreciation of the referral, and a hope that you will continue to provide the type of service that they want to refer friends to in the future. The second “thank you” talks about “thank you for sending another client” and adds a premium as a gesture of appreciation. I have found that practice discounts are perceived as self-promoting rather than appreciation. A pair of tickets to a local movie, zoo, or animal park reflect a “no strings attached” appreciation. BUSINESS HINT: a practice discount has no tax savings value, but a premium gift, like tickets, are business gifts and tax deductible. Some practices even send tickets to sporting events or concerts if they know it is a special interest of that client. But that means you must spend the extra moments to record these factors on the client data page of the medical record, and that is another issue.
TECHNIQUES THAT ENHANCE
The environment of the reception room is a mood setter. Are there bonding pictures of people caring about animals, or are there hunting pictures reflecting non-bonding activities? Does the practice keep Better Homes and Gardens, People, or Time magazines in the reception area so they can be bought as tax deductions, or are there client bond builders like the Delta Society (Pet Partners) Journal, Pet Health News and Latham Letter? Does the practice keep a scrapbook in the waiting area with the pictures that have been sent by clients of YOUR patients? Has someone taken the effort to label the scrapbook pictures with a little information about the pet, client, and the location/situation where the picture was taken? Is there a pictorial available concerning the activities that occur in “the back room”? Our clients wonder about that mysterious place that they never go, and a collage or scrapbook, or even individually framed pictures help take the mystery out and bond the client to your concern about their pet. Does the client relations specialist, nurse technician, and other staff address the client and patient by name at every opportunity?
When we discuss the needs of the companion animal does the staff address them as an advocate of the animal’s well-being, or is the practice philosophy one where we try to keep a superior or professional position? Does the outpatient nurse or veterinarian tell the client what the pet “needs” for proper health maintenance, or what the practice “needs” to do for comprehensive health care; do we allow the client to “waive” these services rather than make the decision for them? You’ll find the pet advocate gets much more support and cooperation in the healthcare process, not to mention a larger per patient transaction fee. Does the veterinarian take time with new clients to explain the “philosophy of practice” or does the practice cop-out with cold “clinic policies”?
Does the practice “reach out and touch someone” by mail or in person? How many follow-ups, recalls, or reminders are done by mail versus using the telephone. When following up a surgery case or an extended medication treatment plan (e.g., 21-day cystitis therapy), it isn’t hard to teach the client relations specialist (receptionist) or nurse technician to say “Mrs. ____, this is Judi from the ____Veterinary Hospital, we know you are due back in about a week, but the doctor and I just wanted to ensure you haven’t had any questions arise now that you’ve been home for a couple of days.” When calling a new client, something like, “…we know you’re coming back for the next puppy shots in three weeks but wanted to say we enjoyed your first visit and just wanted to be sure there aren’t any new questions” can close the “doctor and I” telephone introduction.
When an appointment is missed, wouldn’t it be a nice touch to show concern for the pet and client rather than the appointment log? Teach the client relations specialist (not just a ‘receptionist’) to pick up the phone and say something like, “Mrs. Jones, this is Suzie at XYZ Veterinary Hospital, we noticed that we didn’t see you as expected yesterday and the DOCTOR AND I just wanted to call and see if everything was okay at your house?” Do not continue talking after this opening statement; the first person to talk now will have to “explain.” Just let the client talk and listen carefully; if they want to reschedule, they will say so, if they are ducking the appointment, a caring, “That’s fine, we just wanted to make sure your family and Fluffy were healthy and didn’t need any assistance…” will get a better bond established than trying to force the making of another appointment. These “scripts” must be practiced before they are used. The words must seem real. If you are not willing to take the time and sit together as a team to rehearse the practice narratives, then do not expect someone on staff to take the time and listen to clients.
There are many communication techniques that convey the caring and concern of a practice but a preprinted postcard is not usually one of them. The first reminder by postcard was great 20 years ago but the savvy practice now asks, “Would you like us to contact you by e-mail or text message.” The goal is to ensure the practice concern shows through with any follow-up or outreach. A letter or a phone call will usually result in greater bonding results than that second postcard. A possible exception to the telephone call follow-up is when communities are saturated with telemarketing programs that keep the family phone ringing off the hook from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. In this case, the text message or e-mail that appears personally written will be the best follow-up to make that client feel like a member of your “practice family”.
Then there is the FEAR FREE emphasis, initially introduced by Dr. Marty Becker, now appearing from many corners of our profession. AAHA and Feline Practitioners have certification programs. The challenge is to learn about the techniques, share them with staff, and hopefully, identify a couple staff members to be the practice coaches on Fear Free activities and programs.
The times of stress require a special giving that is not taught in most veterinary schools. The stress is there with any major illness or injury and is often seen with even the most minor problem. The client is not trained to differentiate major from minor concerning a loved pet. Any client-perceived emergency or crisis is just that, and your compassion and concern starts the bereavement counseling process. The real challenge occurs in the consult room, when the stress of a pet problem makes the clients share their other life stresses with you, since grief and stress are cumulative. There are many great children books about pet loss (Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Viorst), Mister Rogers on Pet Loss, and I’ll Always Love You (Wilhelm)); Amazon is probably cheaper than any local bookstore. I personally have kept a couple of each available for loan (many never come back, and that is also OKAY!). It is not in lieu of caring, compassion, and concern, it is additional to those consult room shared feelings. The individual techniques vary with the practice but most successful practices utilize quality time in the consultation room or office, a follow-up sympathy card, many utilize donations in memory of the animal (as to the Morris Animal Foundation, Cornell Feline Center, a local wildlife park or zoo). When there are young children, I find that using a local zoo or animal park allows the parent to say that “these animals are kept well by our veterinarian in memory of Fluffy’s love.” A few even send a plaster footprint and card following a tragic experience by good clients; the technique must fit the practice’s usual image and approach to caring or it will seem to be a hollow gesture. The bottom line is simple; it is okay to care. It is fine to feel sad, and if you cry with a client no one will think less of you.
The techniques to apply the human/companion animal bond to daily practice as discussed here are not all-inclusive, nor are techniques fail-safe methods to build a client-practice bond. The sincere sharing of feelings will be accepted by the majority of our clients and, most often when exhibited appropriately and sincerely, will cause a client to keep a bond with the practice even after a pet’s untimely death. Put yourself in the client’s position and give the compassion that the stressing situation requires. Understand that awareness of the human/companion animal bond belongs in practice as well as nursing homes or other pet facilitated therapy programs.
There is a FREE text with 26 “plug-n-play” appendices in the VIN Library that should be downloaded and multiple copies should be kept available for your practice staff:
PROMOTING THE HUMAN-ANIMAL BOND IN VETERINARY PRACTICE
BONDING THE CLIENT TO YOUR PRACTICE FOR FUN AND PROFIT (SECOND EDITION)