In veterinary practices, we deal with a multitude of situations in which the client is stressed. How we deal with this anxious client up front often determines whether the overall experience for both the client and the pet is a happy one. In the October 2015 Harvard Business Review article, When The Customer Is Stressed, authors Leonard L. Berry, Scott W. Davis, and Jody Wilmet, use the example of the human oncology patient as their subject in looking at this situation. They explain that in dealing with “high-emotion services” — those services related to major life events like birth, death, health care issues, airline travel, etc — intense feelings are elicited for a variety of reasons. In the veterinary practice, those reasons include a lack of familiarity with our services, a lack of control over how those services are delivered, major consequences if the services are performed incorrectly, the complexity of the service, and sometimes in cases of chronic illness, the long duration of the services to be performed.
How we deal with the stressed veterinary client will ultimately govern the outcome of our patient’s care and well-being. According to the authors, the first step is to identify emotional triggers. In veterinary practice, this could be the discussion of finances in the exam room, the point where the pet is taken to the back and left at the practice for work-up procedures, or even when the pet is sent home with vague instructions on what to do next. The important point here is to ask your clients about their worst fears and worst experiences in a veterinary hospital.
The second step is to prepare the client for what will happen before these emotional triggers occur. Before you take the pet out of the exam room for diagnostics, explain to the client what you will be doing. For long term conditions like skin allergies, go over with the client what to expect in the future. Is your treatment a cure or is it maintenance treatment for allergies? Go over long term treatment plans. Prior to the dental or surgery procedure, go over with the client all the steps that will occur. Even better, show them where it will happen. Tell them that you will go over finances before committing them to any services.
And communicate with care. Most of our communication as human beings is through primarily what our body language is showing, followed by our tonality and lastly by our actual word content. Make sure your body language and voice tone are nurturing, compassionate and unhurried. Monitor the client for those unexpected emotional or anxiety triggers by asking them if things are going ok. Don’t assume that all is well, ask.
Step three is to enhance the veterinary client’s control. Involve the client in any and all decision-making about their pet. When the pet is discharged, the client should not feel abandoned by their veterinary team. Discharge instructions must be very clear on what to do if complications arise or if things do not go as expected. Would it really hurt to give out your cell phone number? Call clients with results from diagnostics as soon as possible; and do not ever over-promise and under-deliver. As the gap increases between when you said you were going to call and when you actually call about results, anxiety will rise exponentially.
And finally, hire the right people and teach them well. You need empathetic, non-domineering, nurturing individuals who can communicate well. Teach your veterinary team how to listen, how to make a client feel in control, how to hold a client’s hand through the process of diagnosing and treating their ill pet. The Cleveland Clinic has two videos about empathy: Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care and Patients: Afraid and Vulnerable. Model the behavior you expect from your team. Show them what you expect. Meet regularly. Go over client complaints as a group. Complaints are a well of anxiety or emotional triggers gone awry. Ask how could we have done better and not who is responsible for this fiasco.