Veterinary receptionist isn’t bringing her ‘A’ game

Find out what to do if one of your staff members is performing up to standards

A practice owner writes:

I own a small clinic with a relatively low turnover of staff. I purchased the practice 8 years ago, and inherited a (mostly) great team who have been with me since.

The previous owner employed the receptionist, more than 18 years ago. She is a veterinary technician, but has not been nursing for about 5 years. She prefers customer service and reception duties, and this has always worked really well for everyone. Because she has been at the practice so long, she knows all the clients and they all know her.

About 12 months ago, she went through a rough time at home and ultimately divorced her husband. Needless to say, this was a difficult time for her, so I expected her work to be affected to an extent. However, it’s having a huge toll on her ability to deliver exceptional customer service.

She can be short and snappy at times, both with other team members and with customers. She doesn’t hide her emotions at all, and I have heard staff commenting that it’s best to just stay out of her way when she “gets into one of her moods.” She looks really stressed out all the time, often rushing, huffing and puffing when there is no need to all!

This is all new behavior that I have started witnessing in the last six months or so. Like I said, I understand she has been going through a tough time, but a number of clients have now complained to me about how abrasive she can be, so I feel I need to act.

How do I approach this without hurting her feelings? I was thinking of removing her off reception and putting her on nursing duties again.

You can’t simply MOVE a problem and hope that it will magically resolve on its own.

Also, you can’t walk on eggshells around an employee in fear of hurting her feelings, when your business is in jeopardy here. Every client she interacts with who leaves dissatisfied is in the dog park telling 10 other pet owners in your local area about your veterinary clinic’s poor customer service. Every team member she snaps at who goes home dissatisfied with their work environment is one step closer to finding a position with one of your competitors.

Absolutely, I understand that she has been with you for a long time, and I sympathize with her personal situation. There IS a way to handle this that is fair on her, your clients and other team members.

You owe it to the rest of your team to address this performance issue the same way you would any other performance issue. One of the things employees value most in their managers and leaders is consistency and predictability. The message that you are sending needs to be “I care about you, but I will hold everyone to the same standards and not make excuses for poor performance.”

Arrange a time to speak with her, and do it somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted. Allow yourself at least 45 minutes. Begin by asking her how she is and be prepared to listen to her personal problems. Ask if there is anything you can do to help. Ask how she is coping with the workload and if there are any specific challenges she is having. At this point, just let her speak — don’t try to fix things yet.

Next, explain that you have noticed a change in her behavior and that you understand this is to be expected considering what she has been through. However, it is impacting her ability to perform her job to the required standards. Highlight that something needs to change, and your goal is to work with her to come up with a solution. Ask her, “What can I do to help you get back to the level of performance I expect of all employees?”

This is where you can show you care and don’t want to ‘hurt her feelings’, as you say. For example, she may suggest a schedule change, or to go back to nursing duties, or to start bringing her dog to work or to have lunch with you — I don’t know, I’m making things up. It could be anything. I would agree to it under one condition — that it does not impact your operational requirements. You don’t need to tell her this, but think about it: If a schedule change would make a big difference to her and it is fairly easy to orchestrate, why not? If having her dog sit under the reception desk all day makes her feel better and it doesn’t impact anyone else in the practice (patients, clients, other team members), why not allow it?

Typically in a performance management conversion, you would give examples of poor performance. Considering that you are concerned about her feelings and she is having personal problems, there is no need to go into details of client complaints against her or that other team members have noticed a change in her behavior — it will just make her feel worse.

Your goal is twofold: Ensure she knows she is underperforming and needs to improve to meet minimal required standards; ensure she knows you care about her and want to help her get there.

Just don’t ignore the problem, address it as soon as possible, before your clients and staff start walking away.

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