Veterinary Confessions: I had no idea what my employees were telling clients

by Veterinary Practice News Editors | December 13, 2016 9:28 am

Because veterinarians go from one patient to the next, few understand the quality of service that their front-line team provides to clients[1].

During my conference call with a veterinarian and his reception team to review the results of five mystery-shopper calls, I explained why one receptionist earned a low ranking of only one star out of five.

After coaching the receptionist on how to turn a spay caller into a new client, I asked the team: “How many of you have watched a surgical or dental procedure from start to finish?” Four out of five employees had never witnessed procedures that they describe daily to callers.

My question was a light-bulb moment for the doctor and his support staff. The solution was easy: The doctor is scheduling each receptionist to watch a surgery within the next two weeks, and then they will use my phone scripts.

Here are confessions that veterinarians have shared with me during our consulting relationship:

“My receptionist apologized for our prices.”

Veterinary medicine is one of the best bargains in health care. Be proud of your fees. If a caller questions why your fees are higher than another local clinic’s, explain:

“Our hospital offers affordable fees. Our surgical fee may be higher than another hospital’s because we have the latest monitoring equipment, include preanesthetic testing and pain-relief drugs with the surgery, and have an experienced staff with ongoing continuing education. I am confident that you will see value in the care that our hospital provides. When would you like to schedule your pet’s pre-surgical exam? We could see you today at 3 p.m. or tomorrow at 9 a.m. Which fits your schedule?”

“That’s not our protocol—and my certified veterinary technician knows better!”

I dialed a veterinary clinic at 5:04 p.m. on a Friday to ask what services a 16-week-old puppy would need. The puppy was due for an exam and vaccines for distemper/Parvo, rabies and leptospirosis. Because the dog tested positive for whipworms at the shelter and was given medication, the puppy needed another fecal test.

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When talking with the veterinarian about the phone call, I learned that the employee was a technician filling in for a receptionist who had left at 5 p.m. The technician didn’t mention a leptospirosis vaccination, fecal testing or starting the puppy on flea/tick and heartworm preventives. Missed medical services could have serious health consequences.

Create a quick-reference guide of your standards of care for puppies and kittens at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age, and for adult and senior pets. Whether discussing protocols during phone calls or exams, the bulleted lists let employees have confident, accurate conversations. After all, protocols would differ significantly for a 12-week-old puppy compared with a 12-year-old dog.

Cross-train your entire team in telephone skills. Juggling lunch breaks, days off, vacations and illnesses may require assistants and technicians to occasionally cover phones. You want existing clients and prospective ones to experience consistent five-star service no matter what day or time they call.

“I can’t believe my receptionist just turned away a new client.”

I called a clinic on a Saturday. Posing as a new client with an 8-week-old kitten, I asked, “Do you have any appointments available next week?” The receptionist simply replied, “No.” A typical caller would respond, “OK, I will call another hospital.”

Never tell a client what you can’t do. Instead say, “Let’s see when our next exams are available.” Guide the caller to make an appointment with the two-yes-options technique. Say, “We could see your kitten at 10 a.m. next Tuesday, Nov. 1 or at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2. Which choice fits your schedule?” Block urgent care slots in your schedule so you can see new clients and sick patients promptly. (See my April 2015 article, “How to avoid scheduling mistakes every clinic makes[2].”)

“My receptionist said puppies don’t need to start heartworm prevention until age 1.”

When I called a California hospital about a new puppy, the receptionist accurately explained the need for a comprehensive physical exam, vaccines, intestinal parasite screen, deworming and flea control. When I asked what age to start heartworm prevention[3], she replied, “At 1 year of age we will do the first heartworm test, and then you’ll start him on heartworm medication.”

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The American Heartworm Society advises starting puppies and kittens on heartworm preventives as early as the product label allows, and no later than 8 weeks of age.

Parasite prevention needs to be part of new-employee orientation, with refresher training twice a year for all staff. Invite pharmaceutical representatives of brands you sell to host in-clinic training every six months. Test employees’ retention with a quiz and reward perfect scores with prizes.

“We just had a staff meeting. Why aren’t my employees doing what we learned?”

After emailing a veterinarian his receptionist’s recorded call and a scorecard of two out of five stars, he replied to my request to schedule a conference call—and shared his frustrations. “This call made my blood pressure boil! I need to discuss solutions and corrections immediately,” he replied.

After attending a seminar or watching a webinar, employees need to create an implementation plan. Have them choose three ideas they learned, and then create action steps and a timeline to reach those goals[4]. Set checkpoints and measurement tools.

Let’s say your team wants to increase the number of dental procedures. Determine how many dental treatments you performed last month and add 20 percent. Post next month’s goal on an employee bulletin board or in the treatment area. Each day, the technician supervisor would update the number of procedures completed so the team sees the progress toward the goal. Revisit the goal during staff meetings for ongoing monitoring, which helps prevent the team from slipping into old habits.

To better observe employee interactions with clients, record phone calls and get expert coaching. Consider placing video cameras with audio capabilities in the lobby and exam rooms. Cameras provide employee safety, training opportunities and let managers see when a line is forming at the front desk. Your hospital manager might occasionally work a Saturday shift to see if clients experience the same level of service on a day when there is typically a smaller staff and double-booked appointments.

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Working elbow to elbow with your team lets you see where coaching is needed, and your employees will appreciate the extra help. Most veterinary hospitals practice great medicine. Service differentiates your clinic from the competition.

Wendy S. Myers owns Communication Solutions for Veterinarians in Castle Pines, Colo. She is a certified veterinary journalist and the author of “101 Communication Skills for Veterinary Teams.” You may reach her at  or 

Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today![5] 

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