Veterinary medicine is facing a long-term DVM shortage. While it’s hard for an individual to impact this macroeconomic trend, there are still things that both practices and current veterinarians can do to influence future vets. That can’t happen without practices that have a good work-life balance and DVMs that are excited about their career.
Last month, we addressed a few ways to make your practice more efficient, freeing up time for DVMs and improving your practice as a whole, taking the first steps into creating that work-life balance. The next aspect of the practice we’d like to look at is the pet parent or customer-facing aspect of the practice.
While veterinarians are most engaged while treating patients, we believe that most vets are just as engaged when working with pet parents. We know that working with customers can be a double-edged sword, especially in this post-pandemic world.
How can we work with customers to minimize agitation and concern and increase satisfaction? The more we can prepare a pet parent before talking with the vet, the more productive and positive that precious time will be. Pet parents will be more open to hearing what the vet has to say.
Managing Phones in a Veterinary Practice
Let’s start from the most common first touchpoint – a phone call. Most customers will call you with their pet’s health issue. And while many customers will want a magic cure over the phone, they will mostly understand that they have to bring in their animal for an examination.
We’ve all had experiences with bad customer service over the phone. Some potential issues that can put a customer in a bad mood include:
- Long wait times for an answer
- Getting an answering machine instead of a person
- Working through a phone tree
- Getting put on hold
Receptionists Protect Doctors From Stress
It should be clear that DVMs should not be manning the phones. That’s not to say that a veterinarian will never call a customer, but incoming calls should be handled by a receptionist or assistant. There are financial reasons, as discussed in our previous post. Having a trained phone-friendly staff can provide both a better customer experience as well as a better job experience for the DVM.
Because these calls can and do come from everywhere, we want to avoid DVMs from having to answer mundane questions like hours of operation or appointment availability. We also want to protect DVMs from rants from dissatisfied customers or from being pressured into a virtual diagnosis. A great receptionist will be able to diffuse agitated customers as well as lead customers through the proper paths to an appointment.
Consider Hybrid or Virtual Phone Support
Some practices are starting to adopt virtual telephone support. This is the confluence of the maturity of cloud-based phone systems like RingCentral or Google Voice and the preference of workers for remote, home-based positions. While you’ll always want at least one in-person receptionist at your clinic, heavy call volume can be handled by workers at home.
This can be a perk for your receptionist staff. A hybrid working model may allow you to retain or increase job satisfaction of experienced employees that work well with your team. Alternatively, you can create a separate virtual worker/team, allowing you to offer different pay models for virtual-only employees.
Now that you’ve got your phone staff sorted, you’ll also want to think about how to handle general types of customers. Your phone staff should fully understand any late arrival or cancellation policies as well as refund protocols, if available. Clear policies will make conversations with difficult customers easier. If you’re seeing an increase in angry or impatient customers, a training course in dealing with these types of customers, both on the phone and in person, may be beneficial. The faster that a receptionist can resolve an angry customer’s issue, the better for everyone.
Smart Scheduling Minimizes Customer Friction
The next step after a phone call is the in-person appointment. Minimizing the time that a customer has to wait before handing their pet over for treatment will improve that customer’s satisfaction as well as reduce the chance for negative interactions and escalation of aggravated behavior. Yet practice managers don’t want too much downtime between appointments. Together, doctors and schedulers should find a happy medium of minimal wait times and doctor productivity.
However, if wait times grow too long, or incidences of customer aggression increase, extending the time between appointments isn’t time wasted. In these breaks between appointments, doctors can finish note-taking, prep for their next patient, or do basic self-care, like bathroom breaks, snacks, or a minute to sit and relax. These small breaks are helpful in preventing doctors from being overwhelmed.
Additionally, the fewer pets in the waiting room, the more exclusive your practice feels. Customers feel like their pet will get the best care because they feel like they’re the only ones being taken care of.
Even with the best scheduling in place, waiting rooms will often have a variety of pets in one place, and conflicts can occur. Policies on leashes/carriers and admittance will help keep the waiting room calm. A good receptionist will be able to motivate pet parents to take their animals outside when necessary.
Flexible Intake Procedures For Efficiency
You may want to consider giving receptionists the power to adjust appointment prioritization, possibly in conjunction with a vet tech or the DVM, and/or cancel appointments for pet parents that increase aggression to unacceptable levels. Receptionists should also give a heads up to vet techs for customers that are still tense going into initial exams.
Drop-Off Only Appointments Trending
Some clinics have eliminated initial exams with the owner present, switching to a drop off only situation. This is an interesting idea for routine items, like vaccines or spay/neuter, or even where an item was swallowed, if the item is known.
A drop-off only reception lowers the amount of time that a customer spends at the clinic, and it also reduces the amount of time a vet tech takes during intake, as they don’t have to have a conversation with the pet parent.
However, it may also lead to missed opportunities for information discovery, as the customer isn’t present for questions. It may also lead to slightly lower customer satisfaction, as pet parents may want to re-tell all the information they already shared over the phone just to be sure that all the information was relayed correctly. And some pet parents expect personal, white glove service whether it’s necessary or not.
If you choose to do intake exams with pet parents in the room, invest in quality veterinary technicians. In this case, your vet techs will be a buffer between a potentially highly emotional customer and your DVMs, who need to be able to focus on the most demanding parts of treatment. A vet tech can answer questions about possible procedures comprehensively, alleviating a lot of a customer’s concerns.
Whatever intake process you choose, be clear with your customers while they are making their appointment. Reinforce what pet parents are to do (drop off vs stay with their pet, keep pets leashed/in carrier at all times) at least twice during the appointment-setting call.
Post-Appointment Handoff Communication
The most common time for the DVM to talk directly with the patient is after the appointment is complete. Some appointments, like routine vaccines, should not require a doctor’s presence – a vet tech should be able to debrief the pet parent on routine procedures and any aftercare required.
Do budget time for your doctor to have a post-procedure consultation with pet parents for more complicated issues, including any surgery. Not only does this allow for the best flow of information to the customer for follow-up care, but it also makes the customer feel special, and that their pet is getting the highest level of care.
Some pet parents may draw out this conversation, especially when it comes to costs. If at all possible, try to separate out the cost conversation from the care conversation. Either a receptionist or a practice manager can discuss costs, and a doctor or a vet tech can cover care. It may be helpful to set up a script for when customers start to take up too much time or haggle about price.
We find that setting a boundary can help diffuse these types of situations, or at least get doctors out of an escalating conversation. Doctors may want to practice saying, “I’m sorry, my next appointment is in 10 minutes. Let’s get through this necessary information,” or similar phrasing. And then stick to it – after 10 minutes, “I’m sorry, we can’t resolve the budget issue in my office. Our practice manager will meet you in the waiting room to find a solution for you.”
Less Stress = More Satisfaction for Customers and Doctors
Both doctors and clients want a low-stress visit. You can achieve both by thoroughly thinking through your phone and intake processes and staffing appropriately. Consider new trends in veterinary management, like remote phone support or broader drop-off intake options, to reduce waiting time for customers. Use receptionists and phone staffers as well as veterinary technicians to run through routine questions, giving your DVMs the most pertinent information for the care of the patient. Allowing DVMs to focus on their patients means that they can also give the best care instructions to pet parents after challenging procedures.
Between your improvements both with efficiency and with customer management, you can relieve a little stress on your DVMs, leading to happier teams and even better outcomes. And potentially an option to give back to the profession that we’re all so passionate about.