Imagine your dog was just diagnosed with cancer. The news has numbed you. On your drive home, you rehearse how you’ll break the news to your children, and you prepare for tears and tough questions.
Before reaching home, you call the specialty hospital to make an appointment with the oncologist. A monotone receptionist quotes a price for the initial consult and offers three consultation choices. The conversation leaves you feeling cold—like just another number—and you wonder whether this is the right veterinary hospital to guide your family through the journey of cancer treatment.
Regardless of whether receptionists are talking with pet owners about ailments ranging from vomiting to cancer, every pet owner deserves to hear your compassion and eagerness to help. Receptionists are the first touch point for potential and existing clients.
Here are ways your front-desk team can connect with callers and go beyond being phone operators:
1) Dump the auto attendant.
Callers don’t want to navigate menus. Pet owners want to hear friendly, familiar voices. You operate a small business, which values personal relationships. If Discover Card, the fourth-largest credit card provider, can have live service representatives answer its calls, so can your small business.
Your hospital may get calls from clients experiencing medical emergencies with their pets. Prompt greetings could help save lives. Business phones also feature caller ID, so you could begin looking up electronic medical records as you deliver your greeting.
2) Express empathy when callers have sick pets.
Don’t slip into spiel mode. Empathy is the emotional connection that lets callers know you care. When a pet owner calls about a sick pet, say, “I’m sorry to hear that <pet name> has been vomiting and had diarrhea overnight. Let’s schedule an urgent care exam today so <pet name> can get the care he/she needs. We could see <pet’s name> at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. Which choice fits your schedule?”
3) Use caller and pet names three times during conversations.
Ask for names at the beginning of calls. Determine whether you’re speaking with an existing client or a prospective one. Repeating names communicates that you’re listening and shows that you value relationships.
A new client will need more information, such as driving directions, what to bring to the first exam and which payment methods you accept. When a price shopper asks, “How much are shots for a new puppy?” respond with, “I’m happy to answer your questions. May I ask your name and your new pet’s name?” Once the caller shares names, immediately repeat them. Say, “Congratulations on your new baby, Laurie. Let me ask you questions about Charlotte so I can give you the information you will need.”
When talking with a current client, view the patient’s record in your practice-management software so you can personalize the call experience. The caller explains that she just received her dog’s annual exam reminder. Reply with, “I’d be happy to schedule your dog’s checkup. May I ask your name and your dog’s name so I can access the medical record?” Having both names will help you locate the correct record in your software.
For example, my last name is Myers, and your hospital likely has more than one client with my same last name.
Let’s say my dog’s name is Max, which is one of the most popular dog names. You need to locate the right Wendy Myers and Max to see which services and products are due.
4) Ask questions to determine patients’ needs and to choose appointment lengths.
Evaluate urgency to determine how quickly the patient needs to be seen. Sick pets should be seen the same day. Strive to book preventive checkups within one week. If the caller doesn’t indicate the reason for the visit, ask, “What will we be seeing <pet name> for?”
When scheduling a preventive checkup, ask the client, “Does <pet name> have any health or behavior concerns that you want to discuss with the doctor?” The caller shares that her dog occasionally limps and is taking shorter morning walks. Limping becomes the chief complaint, which the veterinarian will address before delivering preventive care. A 30-minute sick-patient exam will allow time for X-rays.
5) Set expectations during scheduling calls.
Let a new client know while booking an exam which payment methods you accept.
When I moved from Kansas City, Mo., to Denver 16 years ago, I had to find a new veterinarian. Our 10-year-old greyhound, Kash, was due for her senior checkup. She received an exam, vaccines, senior blood work, heartworm test, an intestinal parasite screen and 12 months of preventives. When I went to the front desk to pay, I handed the receptionist my American Express card. She replied, “I’m sorry, we don’t take that card.”
My face turned scarlet as I rummaged through my wallet and found only $40 in cash. I apologized and then asked if I needed to leave my dog for collateral while I rushed home to get the checkbook.
Sharing payment choices during the scheduling call would have prevented an awkward conversation and eliminated my 40-minute round trip.
At the end of scheduling calls, tell new clients, “To help you prepare for your first visit, we accept cash, checks, all major credit cards and <third-party financing>.” This professionally, yet subtly, shares that payment is expected when services are provided.
During calls with new clients, offer to email driving directions and hospital information. Say, “Let me email you a link to our website, where you can find driving directions, meet our team and get an online tour. Which is the best email to reach you?” Set up email templates that let you efficiently complete this daily task while creating great first impressions.
When scheduling follow-up exams for patients with chronic health conditions, provide fasting or medication instructions if diagnostics will be performed.
When first visiting a referral center, clients will be anxious about their pets’ diagnoses, will have questions about the cost of care and may be experiencing specialty care for the first time. Let them know the length of the initial consultation as well as what to bring.
For example, say, “Your initial consultation with our internal medicine specialist will last 45 minutes. Dr. <Specialist Name> will review information from your referring veterinarian, discuss your pet’s symptoms and let you know which diagnostic tests or treatments are needed. During your initial consultation we will provide a treatment plan that explains our services and fees. Who is your primary care veterinarian?”
Acknowledging the referring veterinarian lets you transfer trust to the specialist. Continue with, “We will ask your veterinarian to send us your pet’s medical records before your consultation. Let me also give you a checklist of items that the specialist will need for the first visit. Please bring images such as X-rays or ultrasound, blood tests or other lab results, and all medications that your pet is currently taking, because our specialist will need to know the exact doses.”
Similar items may be needed when your general practice sees second opinions.
Whether contacting your veterinary hospital for preventive care, emergencies or sick-patient visits, pet owners need to feel personal connections with your receptionists. Caller engagement enhances the call experience.
Remember: The next time the phone rings, it’s your opportunity to help more pets.
Originally published in the October 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today!