How our profession went viral: COVID-related changes in client behavior

Keeping up with demands might seem like client-coddling, but it behooves us to maintain our compassion

Last March, when COVID-19 initiated its first round of shutdowns, most of us wrung our hands and wondered whether our profession could weather this. Some of us didn’t, of course. Many smaller practices—especially new clinics and those owned by single practitioners near retirement—shut down in this first wave. They were convinced they couldn’t stay afloat amid the coronavirus-induced chaos of the moment.

The rest of us flailed like fish in a tide pool. We got serious about telehealth and adopted apps, looking to technology for a way out. We went curbside—often messily. We added phone lines and leaned on text-based methods of communication. We learned to deflect client abuse and altered our tactics accordingly. Despite pandemic pandemonium, we’ve been flexible… no, we’ve been downright elastic. And we should be proud of it!

Little did we know during those first months what was in store for us. And, as usual, it was client demand that led us by the nose, which we should have predicted. After all, ours has always been a consumer-first profession.

Indeed, every major trend in veterinary medicine has been driven by the dollars our clients are willing to spend. Here again, it was clients who helped us out of what could have been a deep economic hole. Yet, many of us remain back-footed (myself included) when managing their evolving expectations.

Keeping up with their demands might seem like client-coddling to some, but given our reliance on their continued patronage—not to mention their compliance—it behooves us to approach their behavior with a measure of compassion. Those of us who can do so—and even anticipate their rapidly evolving needs—stand to gain more than mere customer satisfaction. Happy clients make our lives easier, too, right?

Here’s how our clients have changed since COVID started reshaping our lives. Hopefully this assessment (based on my practice’s experience, along with a Zoom-based client focus group I convened) will help us all understand our clients’ point of view and provide better service in spite of the raging pandemic.

1) Denial and anger

One of the most unpleasant issues we’ve encountered since the start of COVID has been a marked increase in client anger. A significant percentage of my clients have approached this disease as a minor inconvenience unworthy of the safety protocols we’ve implemented, which includes not allowing them into the clinic.

“This is bullshit,” they say. And I get it. It sucks to be offered a service fraught with inconvenient new hurdles and a lack of transparency to boot. Almost all our clients view the service we now offer as inferior to what they’re used to. It may not seem reasonable, but a large number even believe that, without direct supervision, veterinary professionals will treat patients with less care.

It’s important to acknowledge this feeling, whether a client is forthcoming or not in expressing it. Letting them know we understand COVID sucks helps them recognize the inconvenience goes both ways. Making them aware we see things from their point of view and agree with their assessment is both validating and illuminating. Directly addressing their fears (i.e. that a patient might be more stressed or less cared for) is always helpful, too. Explaining we take extra care to make pets even more comfortable now that they’re not with their people can be soothing. Taking pictures or videos of the experience (especially for new clients and patients) communicates you’re truly going the extra mile.

2) Acceptance and nesting

After a tumultuous year, American life has finally settled into an uneasy new normal. Clients are more experienced with COVID protocols and more understanding overall. While many are still seething in their self-justified anger, they’ve had a chance to test the boundaries of their bad behavior and learn its limitations.

Pet owners have also settled into their home-based, socially distanced nesting behavior. For many, that’s meant a deeper bond with pets. This strengthened emotional tie, coupled with closer observation, has led to an increase in veterinary visits overall. For others, it’s meant new pet ownership. After all, that starter yeast culture for a new bread-baking hobby isn’t as warm, fuzzy, and emotionally rewarding as a furry COVID companion.

In retrospect, we probably should’ve predicted it. Instead, we were caught flat-footed when so many new clients were making appointments. “What’s that all about?” At first we thought it was all the local clinic closures (we had many in our area). But it was only after my mother found herself unable to find a medium-sized dog in any of the nearby shelters that it became clear: It’s not just the diverted clientele. If shelters are empty, we’re definitely experiencing a rising tide of first-timers and re-uppers.

3) The role of social media

In case it wasn’t already obvious, COVID has taught us to never underestimate the power of social media. Between Zoom meetings and remote working/learning, the internet is begging to be mined by those in need of creature comforts. This is how baby boomer Facebook feeds got clogged with new puppy pics, rescue pets became gen Z’s TikTok stars, and millennials collectively swiped right on Frenchies and doodles.

Social media is also feeding a surge in Dr. Google-ing. My clients are asking for “Cushing’s testing” and routine geriatric ultrasounds like never before. They’re also asking for vaccine titers and recipes for home-cooked diets.

4) Contact time

Overall engagement in pet health care is higher than ever. Commonplace human-to-human contact time is lower than ever. Superimposing these two trends explains a bemusing paradigm shift in veterinarian-to-client contact time.

Talkative clients expect longer, more detailed explanations. Handwritten lists precede longer, more detailed conversations, team members get pushback from clients demanding to speak directly to doctors, and telephone usage overall has exploded. Given increasingly time-sucking callback sessions, it’s getting harder and harder to meet client expectations and still stay sane.

5) The spawning of a generation

While more pronounced in central metro areas and diminishing toward its far-flung exurbs, COVID has reshaped American life across the board. Many have had a chance to contemplate life choices, reshuffle priorities, and look within to find what truly matters to us, while quarantining with pets, of course. Perhaps this explains the 19 percent spike in veterinary school applications.

I’d like to think thoughtful contemplation in the presence of animals drives this sudden interest in animal medicine. In truth, however, it is very likely several factors are involved. Nevertheless, the single most dramatic common denominator is the current coronavirus crisis.

Given all the changes in client engagement and the apparent explanation of pet ownership, it only makes sense that COVID would spawn a new generation of veterinarians, which is kind of ironic seeing as COVID has been so wickedly difficult for us.

Still, it’s pretty cool to know our way of life is so immensely covetable, and that others will eventually take our place when we get old and exhausted, which, as it happens, is right… about… now.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

Post a Comment