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How to Talk to Your Clients: Veterinary Receptionist Edition

How to “be in the know.”


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Welcome to the “How to Talk to Your Clients: Veterinary Receptionist Edition” series! This series is not just for your clients, but for you as well.

A survey was conducted in the veterinary profession some years ago. Veterinary professionals in the variety of positions on the team — veterinarians, veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, receptionists and office managers took it. They were asked to report their biggest source of satisfaction at work, and the things that made them want to come to work. Then they were to report their biggest source of stress, also known as the things that made them want to pull the covers up over their heads and stay at home.

Not surprisingly, “difficult and noncompliant clients” made the top of the stress list for EVERY position on the team! Conversely, “thankful clients” made it into the top three sources of satisfaction for everyone on the team.

Based on these findings, it seems that the better we are at communicating with clients, and turning difficult ones into thankful ones, the more we will love our jobs. 

This series on client communication is not just designed to help you create a more successful practice — that will happen all by itself when you improve your own job satisfaction. Instead, consider this a gift, a way to make you love your work, all wrapped up with a bow on top. After all, you deserve it!

Why You Need to “Be in The Know”

We start with this idea of “being in the know” at the beginning of the client’s interaction with you and your veterinary practice. The more you know about your clients and patients and why they are calling, visiting or otherwise busting into your day, the more you will anticipate their needs, fulfill their desires and set the tone for the rest of the interaction. The stronger your bond will grow to them as well, and that is where the source of job satisfaction can most often be found. 

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How to Talk to Clients: On The Phone

It rings incessantly and there is hardly a time that it isn’t interrupting something else you are doing, but the phone is probably the most important piece of equipment you will ever operate.  Most new clients come to your practice as a result of a good experience on the first phone call.  If they feel your concern, they will largely assume everyone else in the practice is also concerned about their needs. 

This is why we say that the receptionists are the first impression for clients.  So, in the middle of ten other things going on, the phone rings, here’s what you should do:

(And while this seems elementary, it is very important to do this EVERY time!)

  • Take a deep breath, quieting yourself, pausing your current task.
  • Put a smile on your face — yes, your clients can HEAR if you are not smiling!
  • Deliver the usual line, whatever it is for your practice, SLOWLY, including your name.

Now, the client on the other end will launch into whatever they need from you.  The “being in the know” part of this task involves the next steps:

  • Write down or ask the client’s name.
  • Write down or ask the patient’s name.
  • Ask for the basic signalment of the pet, including breed, age, and gender.
  • Finally, make sure you know and understand what they want or need from you.

It may just sound like you are collecting information for the database, but this is not your most important purposes. Find out these things so you can: use the client’s name at least once or twice on the phone call, use the patient’s name as necessary, and use the proper pronouns for the pet’s gender.  The breed and age of the pet actually helps you to connect with what the client needs and their state of mind.  A new Labrador puppy client has different needs than a geriatric Persian client, and the signalment of the pet will sometimes even dictate the client’s mood and personality! The object is to personalize the call as much as possible. This shows attentiveness, concern and connection, and starts off the relationship right.

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Enter The Appointment

If your practice has an appointment schedule, and most do, there is absolutely no reason for you to NOT know why the client and pet show up at your front counter.  KNOW who is coming next, and be prepared, if possible, to greet them by name. 

Usually, it’s pretty easy to match people to the pet that they come with, so you can be pretty sure that the woman who walks through the door with the Bulldog is Buster’s mom, Ms. Smith. It is preferable to stand up to greet a client approaching the desk, again to facilitate that horizontal “connection.” Smile, even offer a handshake if appropriate, and follow up with some type of comment letting them know that YOU know why they have arrived.  Something like, “Hi, Mr. Smith, right?  I knew that must be Buster!  We’re so glad you brought him in today to recheck those ears.”

If the appointment was previously arranged, there should never be a reason for you to ask the client, “why are you here?”  There should also be a way to determine if you have personally met this family before, either from spotting your handwriting in the written chart, or your code in the software, so you can introduce yourself again by saying something such as “I’ve met Buster before, and I believe it was you that I met with him last time?”  Even though we see hundreds of clients in a year’s time, our clients will likely remember US even if it was a year ago, so be as familiar as possible even if you have to use a bit of investigation to be able to fake it.

Enter The Walk-In

No doubt you will know nothing about the client who just walks in with no warning, so your ability to quickly assess the situation will be paramount. Glance at the pet if possible (if in view, i.e. not hidden in a carrier) and get a quick read on whether or not the patient is in crisis.  Next, study the client’s face, because regardless of the pet’s condition, the CLIENT might be in crisis!  Respond appropriately, with a level of urgency matching the client’s disposition.  If they are worried, you should be worried too.  Begin with finding out just the most pertinent information so you can address the client, just like on the telephone, with client’s name, pet’s name and species/breed.  Then as you explain what is going to happen next, use the names to personalize the discussion.

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Even though we focus on the types of words to use, more than half of what you communicate is through body languages such as facial expression, eye contact and body posture. In every situation, match your body language to the mood of the interaction. The client “hears” more with their eyes than their ears! 

Next time we’ll look at how to “Be In The Know” with the end of the appointment, including discharges, and clients visiting their hospitalized pet or attending euthanasia of their beloved furry family member.


  1. Figley, C.R., Roop, R.G.  Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community.  The Humane Society of the United States, 2006.
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