It takes four Cs to be completely competent

Veterinarians are like diamonds and their worth is defined by the four Cs

What would you do if you could design the perfect, well-rounded, multitalented veterinarian?

Which traits would be required? What skills would be indispensable?

Our Dutch colleague Roeland Wessels, DVM, has found the ideal recipe.* “Veterinarians (and their team members) are like diamonds. Their worth is defined by the four Cs. Those Cs don’t stand for carat, cut, color, and clarity, but for clinical, communication, cooperation, and commercial skills.” Let’s go over each set of skills.

1) Clinical skills

You are trained to provide excellent, evidence-based, state-of-the-art medicine. You are capable of diagnosing and treating patients—or accomplishing whatever your mission is at a veterinary practice. You have vast amounts
of knowledge.

Regardless of your education, you still need to improve or refine your clinical skills by reading journals and attending continuing education meetings.

“Yet, veterinarians usually overestimate how important clinical competence is in the eyes of a pet owner. They expect you to be great, or they wouldn’t even be in your exam room,”
Dr. Wessels explains.

Ironically, some clients will brag more about the fact their pet has a 20-cm long incision with 23 skin staples than they will gloat about a tiny spay incision with no skin sutures. Pet owners have no clue how great a job you did in their pet’s abdomen. They only see the incision.

Clients value other things over clinical skills, which differentiate you from your colleagues.

By the same token, veterinarians are trained in pathology and diseases much more than in wellness. Yet, clients care primarily about their pets’ wellness.

2) Communication skills

“Communication is a science, not something you make up as you go,” Wessels says. “Ironically, the species veterinarians need to learn the most about is the human being.”

It certainly is not an exact science. We tend to learn by trial and error… mostly error. Incidentally, we are taught to provide answers, yet we should learn to ask far more questions, preferably open-ended ones.

Our colleague makes an interesting observation. In the old days, until the 1950s, the message to clients was, “Trust me.” Veterinarians were the holders of the information, and clients were the ones trusting their animals would be cured.

Until the 1980s, the message became, “Tell me.” Hearing what you had to say was good enough.

Then until the turn of the century, clients asked, “Show me.” That spurred veterinarians to show Demodex under the microscope, X-rays on a view box, or bladder stones in a jar.

In the 21st century, clients now say, “Involve me.” Clients ask far more questions about pain control. They enjoy texted pictures of Fluffy recovering from surgery. They share links displaying their pets on your clinic’s Facebook page. They want to be involved in the decision-making, thanks in part to the stunning wisdom of Dr. Google.

3) Cooperation skills

We are often trained to work alone. Asking for help may be perceived as a sign of weakness. This explains why it can be so difficult to work as a harmonious team.

Team building requires leadership, a healthy culture, communication skills, and giving feedback and constructive input.

When hiring is as difficult as it is in today’s market, the tendency is to hire anybody with a pulse rather than choosing the right person with the right personality. Leaders and managers tend to hire people who are like them. It’s human nature, but it is not ideal to create a well-rounded team.

A harmonious team requires a diversity of complementary skills, meaning “starters” and “finishers;” big-picture and detail-oriented people; and veterinarians who like dermatology while others who enjoy surgery.

Cooperation skills apply to interactions with receptionists, veterinarians, nurses, kennel staff, clients, specialists, and sometimes universities and technician schools.

Grow your strengths and be humble enough to work on your weaknesses.

4) Commercial skills

Selling is often considered a dirty word, but no pet care can be delivered without it. Like it or not, veterinary medicine is a business. If it is unprofitable, it will not be possible to hire (and ideally pay) qualified people to purchase equipment or to keep the lights on.

If you are an associate, don’t make the mistake of counting on your employer to do the selling and the marketing for you. Nobody but you is in charge of explaining to a client your treatment recommendations. Your demeanor, the way you speak, and how you dress are all part of marketing yourself to customers.

So what should you do with this information? Should you dedicate 25 percent of your time and efforts to each C? Wessels suggests striving for 20 percent in each aspect. The remaining 20 percent can be dedicated to your favorite category. For example, if you want to be an expert communicator, focus 40 percent of your time and resources on honing your communication skills.

Whichever category you choose, you will be a well-balanced veterinarian who will strive in practice… and in life. In turn, this will help you avoid compassion fatigue and burnout, and fall in love with our profession.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and author. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his websites at and

* Roeland Wessels, DVM, is author of Handbook of Veterinary Communication Skills and Cookbook for Clienthusiasm: 30 recipes for the Veterinary Clinic 3.0, the latter of which is currently available only in Dutch. Dr. Wessels co-owns a small animal practice with his wife in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. He also teaches communication at the Utrecht school of veterinary medicine, from which he graduated in 1995. To hear more from Wessels, check out “Blunt Dissection,” a podcast with Dr. Dave Nichol at

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