The Client's First Impression
Promoting the Human-animal Bond in Veterinary Practice
Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE, Diplomate American College of Healthcare Executives

In the American veterinary practice, we can't accept congestion; we must combat the first impression which is accepted by the community. When people bring their animals to the veterinarian, they are most often stressed. If they are also worrying about the proximity of the near-by animal and the dangers to their pet, the stress is compounded. Clients are worried about their animal's health, and they are worried about the size of the bill when the doctor is done. A stressed person needs reinforcement, they do not want to make choices, they want answers and specific statements of needs by the "experts". They want to feel good about their decision to access your practice, as well as the "correctness" of their decisions after the examination.

What Does the Client See?

When the client selects your practice, a first impression is formed, especially if it was due to a positive word-of-mouth referral. They will be expecting a similar level of service and care. When they look for a parking space, what will they find? Is your practice clearly marked, or does a client have to know how to find you before the small name plate by the door is evident? Does the building look dilapidated or dirty, with poorly kept lawn, weed-ridden flower beds, fecal deposits, or other "negative wellness" signals? Clients often perceive veterinary healthcare in terms of the outward appearances, including weak or dead plants in the reception area.

Other reception area distracters include smell, sight, and sound; hopefully these are well controlled within your practice. In some practices, keeping these sensations from "floating forward" requires a consistent reminder to the staff; in others, automatic door closers have solved the problem without the constant lectures by the boss. The reception area should have recent, animal friendly, reading material, pictures should be framed, and hopefully, there is quality selection of brochures and handouts from which the client can select items to take home and read later.

The floors in a practice are a constant problem, and some practices have hired a janitorial service to clean them during a slow mid-week, mid-day time, rather than always yelling at the staff. The staff still needs to be aware of the cleanliness, especially urine accidents or blood drips which need immediate cleaning; the mop bucket needs to be close to the front and ready to use at all times. Make it easy for them to keep the front client areas clean and shiny.

When the practice slows down during the winter months, the staff also seems to slow down. The practice deteriorates. This is the time to do maintenance chores; who keeps the list in your practice, how can people add things, and how are items prioritized for action? When was the last time the corners got a new coat of paint to cover the leash rubs, or when were the consultation room wall dividers, curtains, or wallpaper changed? When were the ceiling light covers cleaned last, or the cobwebs in the ceiling corners removed? Looking up as well as down is important! If the colors or decor have not been changing every five years or so, the client perception is often that "old and out-of-date" care is provided at this facility.

If we believe Jan Carlzon of the Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), the client experience is a series of small episodes; each is a moment of truth to be managed or ignored. As a practice manages the individual moments of truth, so are the client perceptions and loyalty. They can be nurtured and a positive experience occurs, or they can be overlooked and a negative opinion is carried away. The clients with a positive first experience will probably return and be more likely to accept the services offered for their animal. Managing the first impression is taking the time to train the staff to address all the small things, over one hundred by my last count, which a client encounters in the veterinary examination visit.

You can't do it by yourself; it is a team effort. The veterinary healthcare delivery team is everyone who comes in contact with the animal, the client, or the facility; each has a way of influencing the client. The even coat of paint on the door trim, the smell of the pet's coat when they leave your back room, the tone of voice answering the phone for the practice; each is a moment of truth which requires attention and recurring management emphasis. The client's perception of the difference between practices is usually not the professional skill nor the cost of the equipment, but rather, the practice team's effort toward managing the client encounter and exceeding the individual client's expectation(s).

The veterinary practice staff needs to continually assess the patient's experience through the eyes and feelings of the client. They need to be trusted to make changes, additions and deletions to procedures which further stress or alienate a client. They need to be asked to continuously improve their client service as well as their client image efforts. The pride the staff shows in meeting the client's expectations will generally be perceived as "quality" by the clients. Meeting this need, and conveying this image, may be the only difference needed to make your practice special in your community.

Courtesy A Client Contact Must

"Always let your client keep their dignity, then appeal to their sense of
doing what is fair and right."
Dr. T. Catanzaro


Recently, I stood in line at an airport in the northeast and learned firsthand how not to treat a client. When I reached the front of the airline "roped off" cattle chute system for passengers waiting to see a ticket agent, which was a 30-minute ordeal already, the agent reached up and pulled down a sign reading, "This Line Is Closed." Without a word of apology or explanation, she went on her "break" (an assumption by a fellow "line waiter" who was a bit more vocal than I). I was infuriated also, but had just made a mental note to change my travel profile with my agent so I will never access that airline again. I don't begrudge any staff member the needed break, but in any service industry, whether it be airlines, veterinary medicine, or even a sales clerk, courtesy is critical at all times.

How often have you had a similar experience --perhaps a bank, in a restaurant, or with a supplier? When you arrived at a restaurant and they said "a 30-minute wait" for a table, yet you can see over half the tables were empty, you knew it was a wait-staff issue, not a table issue, so why did they lie? What did you feel like after the encounter? How often do you review the telephone techniques of the staff, the client relations script on what is expected by clients, or other "rules" developed for clients? Why do we develop rules for clients rather than access options? Is it a logic sequence gone astray, or is it a bad habit we learned in the past and have never assessed the impact of it on our own clients? The main lesson is this: Persons in contact with the public must be courteous all the time!

Courtesy has been called many things -- hospitality, tact, pleasantness, politeness, good cheer, thoughtfulness, charm, smile training, or like mom used to say, just a good set of "company manners." Simply put, courtesy just means being nice to people -- being the kind of person who gets along with everyone. Being nice often means listening to their frustrations, their worries, or their concerns. In business, courtesy is a must!

But let's face it, being courteous is not always easy, especially for client relation specialists (receptionists). There are times when being courteous can be a pain in the neck; these are the days when being courteous can ruin your day. For example:

 When you take a late-afternoon phone call from a well-known chronic complainer. She is a good client and has many pets, but always seems to call at the discharge rush hour with petty complaints. No matter what has been done, there seems to be a problem with each practice encounter.

 You are face to face with a client who thinks they know a lot more about veterinary medical advances than the doctor or staff of your practice. This client may suggest impossible procedures, expensive diagnostics they want for free, ask irrelevant questions, or make unreasonable demands of your time or the practice's resources.

 And then there are the times you are required to calm the angry client. Despite your best efforts, this person remains unsatisfied and is likely becoming downright rude.

It is impossible to avoid such experiences. Every practice has them. They are part of each practice day. The majority of them can be defused with simple questions, such as, "What can we do to make it right for you?" or a simple statement such as, "That is an interesting viewpoint I hadn't considered; let me pass that on to the doctor and have him/her call you later." Not everyone has a doctor who can tactfully defuse a situation, but there should be staff members skilled in client negotiations who are authorized to "make it right."

Clients also respond to "pedestal words," those brief words or phrases which raise the client to a level above the ordinary. It is a real "plus" in courtesy training when the team learns to make clients feel they have been put onto a pedestal. Here are ten examples to try as a starting point:

 May I? Asking permission implies authority.

 As you of course know. Implies vast knowledge.

 I'd like your advice. Suggests superior wisdom.

 I'd sure appreciate it if. There is an implication here that he/she has the power to refuse or grant a favor.

 You are so right. A pat on the back.

 Spare time from your busy life. Implies he/she is a busy and therefore important person.

 Because of your knowledge. Implies an understanding and professional skill.

 A person of your standing. No one knows just what standing means but everyone believes -- or hopes -- he/she has it.

 I'd like your considered opinion. Clients on pedestals are supposed to have opinions, so if an opinion is asked, the client must be up there somewhere, and becomes part of the solution.

 Please. A great lubricator in human relations.

Whether you use a caring approach, pedestal words, or a combination of techniques, your practice popularity will grow. The practice achieves a real victory when staff can deal with unhappy clients or disagreeable situations in a positive way, by being pleasantly and efficiently courteous. It is a victory that makes everyone a winner -- the practice, the staff, and the client. Courtesy is an absolute essential in every client contact. You can never let down your guard. The practices, and the clients, are depending on you.

Speaker Information
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Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE, Diplomate American College of Healthcare Executives