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Do Your Clients Have Your Number?

I always tell myself that I’d rather be available for the ones who don’t abuse the veterinarian’s phone number and risk the random calls.

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Let’s say you’ve got this really good client. You trust and respect her and vice versa. So now that it’s Saturday and her pet’s got an issue you’d prefer to keep close tabs on rather than refer her out to the ER on a Sunday…do you give her your digits?

How about the really, really good client who brings you tons of patients and even more referrals?

When do you break down and offer them your contact points? Should you ever?

Some of us play fast and loose with our phone numbers. I happen to work with two docs who do and (perhaps as a consequence) I’m wont to do the same. Which can be problematic, of course.

Calls at 3 a.m., anyone? Anger when you don’t return calls or texts in a timely fashion? The stress of landing at a faraway destination only to face five frantic missives? Those are the pitfalls of the modern hyper-connectivity we’ve come to know and sometimes love—but mostly fear.

Maybe it’s the certain knowledge that stress will happen if I give out my phone number(s) or email address that makes me think I should be more like those among us who are super-stingy with their phone numbers. I was attached to one of this sort for many years, and it’s not uncommon for me to think he has the right idea.

Stand Your Ground

Those among you who take this tack typically tell your clients you have a policy. You stick to your guns on it and, consequently, you can enjoy the luxury of turning off your work life at the end of the day.

How do you do it?

Whenever I cave and grace my clients with my phone number or email address, it’s typically by way of offering only my very best clients a chance to reach me in the event of a serious emergency.

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Let’s face it—for most of our clients, the solution is obvious: See the pet emergency room. After all, animal ERs exist for a reason and the vast majority of us practice in suburbia, where these services enjoy ubiquity.

And because they are designed to attend to the needs of even our most demanding clients, they’re a godsend to those of us who value our free time and family lives.

Indeed, they’re there because most of us absolutely cannot provide an equivalent quality of service—not without an overnight staff and a few sleepless nights every week.

But you know how it is. No veterinarian wants to send her clients to the emergency room—least of all her very best clients—if she’s potentially available to talk them through it, meet them after hours or converse with the emergency clinician to smooth the way for excellent care elsewhere.

Guilt Factor

In fact, after surgery or ongoing treatment, for example, I would always prefer to have all my clients call me before having to run to the ER for a complication—not just my best.

That’s why I always feel guilty when I don’t write my phone number on the back of a business card before handing it over.

I know I’m a pushover, but at least I have rules. Whenever I hand over my business card with my digits inked on the back, I try to forcefully convey that this is a privilege not to be abused. I also inform the clients explicitly of my frequent inability to return phone calls on this number. I always tell them that if I don’t return their call it’s because I can’t…and to please take that as a sign to proceed directly to the 24-hour facility in the event of an emergency.

This keeps me noncommittally in the loop. Which mostly works out.

But not every client is 100 percent compliant in these cases. In fact, it’s not rare for me to field after-hours calls from clients who deal in routine questions that should have waited for normal working hours. And it earns them less consideration for future “emergencies.”

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Or I’ll be on a business trip and reach the far end of my flight with five progressively angrier messages from a client whose pet ingested a baker’s bar of chocolate overnight.

Sheesh! Do these people not understand the meaning of the words “emergency,” “vacation” or “You really should have the common sense to call the ER if I didn’t return your call the first time”?

Every time something like this happens, I resolve to never, ever give out my phone number again. But is that wholly fair?

Yes, people can be mean, obnoxious and unthinking, but most clients are not like that. In the end, I always tell myself that I’d rather be available for the ones who don’t abuse the veterinarian’s phone number and risk the random calls. Because, in the end, it’s all about my patients—not their people.

Yet listening to my colleagues either rant about abusive clients as I sometimes do or laugh at my spinelessness and control-freaky professional behavior, I can’t help thinking we rapidly approach a day when our culture’s communications permissiveness, lack of etiquette and/or common sense means I won’t have to worry about taking phone calls after hours any longer. That kind of personal attention will be going the way of the dodo soon enough anyway. 

Dr. Khuly is a mixed-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at Vetstreet.com.

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